In Justin Peck’s ‘Illinoise,’ Dance On and Feel It

Justin Peck was around 17 when he first heard the Sufjan Stevens album “Illinois,” an epic paean to the state, nearly two dozen tracks brimming with orchestral indie rock, dense, lyrical wistfulness and sometimes obscure local history. This listening experience came long before Peck wanted to make dances, before he was even a professional dancer.

But “Illinois” urged him to move. “It was an instantaneous, illuminating thing that I felt like it was so danceable,” said Peck, now the resident choreographer and artistic adviser at New York City Ballet. “And it is so rare to find someone who can conjure that, especially someone who’s alive right now.”

Ever since, Peck, 36, has found artistic inspiration in Stevens — “the voice in music that has led me down paths further than I’ve ever gone before,” he said.

The two collaborated regularly, including on “Year of the Rabbit,” the ballet that launched Peck as a choreographer, in 2012. Not long after they began working together, Peck, hoping to experiment with storytelling forms, and influenced by dance-pop productions like Twyla Tharp’s “Movin’ Out,” asked if he could make a theatrical piece set to “Illinois.” Stevens took nearly five years to agree.

Justin Peck, left, and Jackie Sibblies Drury, who said the show “feels like the most broadly appealing thing that I have actually ever worked on.”Credit…Sasha Arutyunova for The New York Times

Almost five years later, the result is “Illinoise,” a project that is every bit as ambitious and genre-defying as its soundtrack: a narrative dance musical that combines a coming-of-age story, a snapshot of queer identity and a meditation on death, love, community, history, politics and zombies.

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