“Took my bags, Illinois,” wrote singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens. “Dreamt the lake, took my boy. Man of Steel, Man of Heart. Turn your ear to my part.”
That single stanza, more than anything else to be heard on Stevens’ 2005 album “Illinois,” seems to have driven the gorgeous new theatrical experience at The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Therein, Justin Peck, indisputably of the best young choreographers working in America today and an inveterate seeker of narrative and emotional truth, meditates for 90 minutes on this widely acclaimed composition by a master of electronica, or chamber pop, or however you want to describe Stevens’ esoteric yet famously lush sound. Stevens and Peck’s work is manifest through a company of a dozen superb dancer-actors, a trio of hipster vocalists and 14 live musicians under the direction of Nathan Koci, and all looking every bit as indie cool as they sound.
The resulting “Illinoise,” it should be immediately understood, is not definitional of the Prairie State in a way that will be immediately recognizable to its denizens. The show’s trajectory will not attract the state’s tourist authority, especially given that one of the tracks is about the serial killer John Wayne Gacy. It does not attempt to sum up what it means to be a Chicagoan or an Illinoisan or even a Midwesterner. That is not its point.
In fact, the musician not only quickly abandoned his announced project of recording an album in honor of each of the 50 states, all to be released on his own record label Asthmatic Kitty, but he also later said the whole thing had always been something of a ruse. In the end, he only released albums in honor of Michigan, the state of his birth, and Illinois.
If you are not highly familiar with Stevens’ poetic lyrics, know that what he took from the Midwestern iconography of this particular patch was a series of cues suitable for lyrical riffing, and the more offbeat the better. Stevens was intrigued by Casimir Pulaski Day (who isn’t?), Superman of Metropolis, Decatur and UFO sightings. One track on the album, with which I’ve been spending much quality time of late, is called “Come On! Feel the Illinoise!,” as much an homage to the British pop band Slade as to anything to be found in Normal or Peoria.
Peck sees in this oeuvre a naturally theatrical storyteller and, in a work headed next to New York’s Park Avenue Armory, he sets about trying to tie these album tracks together, with the help of the fine playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury, who penned a skeletal scenario rather than a traditional book, given that the show has no dialogue nor any words at all that are not set to music.
That new story, simply put, involves a group of friends, apparently Downstaters, who gather in what looks like a state forest preserve to tell stories from their journals. They take the middle of the circle one at a time, a la “A Chorus Line,” although one protagonist, a gay man at the core of a complex web of friendships and love affairs, assumes the center. Chicago, the state’s biggest city, is the place to go for self-actualization — but Peck is the principal choreographer of the New York City Ballet and he knows which side his bread is buttered. In the end, Chicago is merely a way-station. The cool kids go on to New York City. Where else?
This longtime Chicago writer has watched that come down many times before. No hard feelings. (Just sayin’ though.)
The dancers, whose proficiencies include ballet, tap and contemporary dance, are all so superb, I’m resistant to singling out any of them individually. You’ll enjoy the work of Kara Chan, Ben Cook, Jeanette Delgado, Gaby Diaz, Robbie Fairchild, Christine Flores, Rachel Lockhart, Craig Salstein, Ahmad Simmons, Byron Tittle, Ricky Ubeda and Alejandro Vargas.
Peck is hardly the first choreographer to be drawn to Broadway and overt theatricalization, and there are times where this piece reminds me of Twyla Tharp’s “Movin’ Out,” which was structurally similar and had some of the same tensions between narrative specificity and corporal evocations of mood and feeling (between Chicago and New York, it moved more toward the former, as audiences seemed to want). Tharp also was dealing with a body of work of separate stories, albeit from a more accessible musician. I think Peck finds a good balance: my main criticisms of the piece are the appearance of a kind of false ending a few minutes before the actual conclusion and, in general, a weaker and more stuttering and scattered last 10 minutes than all that has cohesively gone before. I suspect time got away.
The creativity of Peck’s work is really something, though: the way a gingham cloth becomes Superman’s cape is cool, as is the way Peck and Drury honor Gacy’s victims, and how they approach the racial tensions and oppressions inherent in the history of this state. The show is a very warm-centered work, whimsical and yet vulnerable, experimental and familiar both at once.
As was the case with what he did for “Carousel” and “West Side Story,” both of which I thought choreographically superb, Peck articulates yearning so very well. He knows how to create pictures and then explode them, to encapsulate what happens to our bodies when we feel tense or afraid or untrusting of our partners or friends. But he also loves manifesting joy and thus he leads Stevens naturally introverted work firmly by the hand in that direction. I imagine Stevens would be surprised by how fun his own self could be.
Superfans of this composer will, I think, be in hog heaven here. The orchestrations by Timo Andres are close to the originals but also deftly theatricalized and thus fresh. Choreographer and musician understand each other’s gestalt. And the whole affair has the air of a Grateful Dead experience for the faithful.
If you have never heard of this oft-coy musician, as long as you understand what you are and are not getting, you’ll have a wonderfully sensory experience.
The Chicago run, by the way, is both short and close to sold out.
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.
Review: “Illinoise” (3.5 stars)
When: Through Feb. 18
Where: Chicago Shakespeare’s Yard Theater on Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave.
Running time: 90 minutes
Tickets: $57-$135 at 312-595-5600 and www.chicagoshakes.com