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Justin Peck on ‘Illinoise,’ Spielberg, Dance, and His Movie Directing Debut

Justin Peck knows the campfire at the center of his Broadway dance-led show Illinoise (St. James Theatre, April 24 to Aug. 10) very well indeed. It doesn’t just warm the hands of the characters, and encourage the telling of stories, including the tale of love and tragedy related by lead character Henry (Ricky Ubeda)—it also stands for the power of theater that has nourished Peck himself, one of America’s most celebrated living choreographers, since he was little.

“We’ve all had the experience of the campfire in some form in some way—the magnetism of it, the opening up, the comfort, and desire to share stories,” Peck told The Daily Beast. “In some sense, the power of the sharing of stories and the collectivity of that sharing finally helps save Henry.”

“For me, too. I was like a lonely theater kid growing up. I felt that feeling of togetherness whenever I would go to see a musical or a play seated with others. We were all experiencing something. It felt like it was moving us emotionally. And so I think Illinoise does have that ‘meta’ aspect to it, around the experience of theater. The catharsis of watching a performance is akin to what Henry goes through in the moment of having his community around him.”

It is not so much a love triangle as a love square in Illinoise—one of the most surprising openings in a crowded Broadway spring season, with a swirling mass of shows opening before April 25, the cutoff date for shows vying for Tony Awards whose nominations will be announced on April 30.

Among its Broadway peers, Illinoise stands alone: for one, it is a piece of propulsive, striking dance, choreographed and directed by Peck, with music taken from Sufjan Stevens’ 2005 concept album, Illinois (yes, an “e” has been added). The book is by Peck and Jackie Sibblies Drury. The characters do not speak a word of dialog, and the songs are performed by three singers who stand on platforms looming above the action. The singers do not dance.

Shara Nova (foreground) and Tasha Viets-VanLear from the company of Illinoise."

Shara Nova (foreground) and Tasha Viets-VanLear from the company of Illinoise.

Liz Lauren

We watch Henry fall in love with another young man, Carl (Ben Cook); that young man has a girlfriend too, Shelby (Gaby Diaz), who has a fatal illness. Further in the future, Henry has another partner, Douglas (Ahmad Simmons).

Around this central story are a group of friends/other dancers unpeeling other stories around the fire about subjects as varied as Superman and John Wayne Gacy—but it is Henry’s story as the principal story of grief, passion, love, and kinship we keep returning to. The act of storytelling as a shared experience, and the balm of connection and friendship underscore all the stories and themes.

Bradley Cooper and Carey Mulligan dance in a black and white still from ‘Maestro.’

Bradley Cooper and Carey Mulligan, in a black and white still from Maestro.

Netflix

Illinoise is also unique in that it won’t have any preview time on Broadway—another achievement for Peck, 36, whose choreography has been seen not just at New York City Ballet, where he is acting Resident Choreographer, but also on the Broadway stage (Carousel, for which he won a Tony Award). In film, he choreographed the astonishing dance sequences in Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of West Side Story, and, more recently, the lush dance dream sequence Bradley Cooper and Carey Mulligan shared in Maestro.

Peck, who has created almost 40 works for NYCB and other ballet companies around the world, is ambitious to bring modern dance to bigger, more diverse audiences on both stage and screen. Indeed, Peck reveals to The Daily Beast that he is about to make his film directing debut, helming a dance-centered movie with New York City at its heart.

“‘Illinoise’ really is this little engine that could”

Typically, theater shows have a few weeks of performances before critics are invited to see them, and before an official opening night. Not so with Illinoise. It only closed at the Park Avenue Armory 29 days before its scheduled Broadway premiere at the St. James Theatre, and while the company will have a bit of rehearsal time in its new space the show will premiere there on April 24—which will also be its opening night.

“We’re feeling super-thrilled and exhilarated by it,” Peck told The Daily Beast. “It feels kind of electric, getting the chance to carry the show forward. The transition to Broadway will be a little bit punk rock, but that works for the this show specifically. The process of developing, building, and guiding the show into a Broadway run has not been traditional, but it also hasn’t been rushed. The show exists through the energy that runs through it, and that is predominantly expressed through music and dance. It’s this special event that gets conjured up every night, and we want to guide it so there is not much of a gap between what was at the Armory and what will be on Broadway.”

Lindsay Mendez and Justin Peck, winners for Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel, pose in the 72nd Annual Tony Awards Media Room at 3 West Club on June 10, 2018 in New York City.

Lindsay Mendez and Justin Peck, winners for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, after the 72nd Annual Tony Awards, on June 10, 2018, in New York City.

Jenny Anderson/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions

The move, and abrupt opening date, also puts the show into Tony Awards contention.

“That feels really good to me,” said Peck “especially so my team can be considered for any honors.” A potential summer run on Broadway had been discussed, but “summer runs of shows on Broadway can often be forgotten, especially when awards’ consideration comes around,” said Peck. “My team has been working so hard, and relentlessly, on this project—and in a way the whole process has been building something from nothing. There are also a lot of Broadway debuts in the cast—it’s an added bonus for them to get considered for any awards.”

“I think awards are important to the extent they celebrate the community of theater, which is one of the most incredible communities,” Peck said. “For a show like Illinoise, which is not built on an IP or blockbuster movie—it really is this little engine that could—I do think awards recognition can sometimes help pique the curiosity of audiences to experience it.”

“What theater can do is create a communal experience that can move people, and help them understand themselves better, and the world around them.”

— Justin Peck

The ecstatic audience response at the Armory was “overwhelming” for Peck. “I can’t fully comprehend how the show connected with people. To me, that’s the greatest gift. I have been receiving a lot of amazing messages and notes from strangers, as well as from friends and fans. It has the ability to tap into the emotions of an audience; everyone seems to be able to connect to it in a very unique way. That’s the most thrilling thing. What theater can do is create a communal experience that can move people, and help them understand themselves better, and the world around them.”

In this, the show mirrors how Peck himself responded to Stevens’ album; as he worked on the show, so the character of Douglas expanded, and a more nuanced trajectory of how the dynamics between the main characters and the themes of grief, loss, and catharsis were both mapped.

The original company of Illinoise.

The original company of Illinoise.

Liz Lauren

The show is “very personal” for Peck, “in ways that are not cut and dried. There are shades of different people in my life who have influenced who the characters are and how they relate to each other. One of the biggest things that I went through at a young age was that my mom (Luisa) was diagnosed with cancer, and passed away very early in my life before I really got going with my creative career. She never got to really experience any of this miracle going on both with my work and the opportunities I have been granted. The friendships I had when I was younger are also reflected in the show.

“The loss of my mother, and having to hold that and process that and work through it was hard—I’m a very independent-minded person, so sometimes it was hard to ask others to help me. The message of the show is to give yourself over to your community a bit so you can lean on them through moments like that—we can’t do it all alone.”

A still from the 2014 documentary 'Ballet 422,' which tracked Justin Peck’s early work at the NYCB.

A still from the 2014 documentary Ballet 422, which tracked Justin Peck’s early work at the NYCB.

Jody Lee Lipes/Magnolia Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection

Peck’s mother died in 2012, a month before the premiere of his first ballet for New York City Ballet.

“It was so hard because it happened at this very high point in my life,” Peck said. “Obviously that’s a very difficult thing to have to go through as a young person, and simultaneously I had to meet a deadline with a premiere and be at the front of the room guiding the company. I do think it required a lot of persistence to make my way through all that.”

“The death of a parent is one of those life experiences that we all go through sooner or later, and it took years to really process it, and see how it has informed some of the work I have been making.” In Illinoise, the chief female character dies of cancer. “Before her soul gets carried away, it repeats the same phrase over and over again—she falls through her lover’s arms to the floor. That reminds me of the repetition of going through chemotherapy treatments, and how painful that can be and how rigorous it has to be, and not guaranteed to work in the end.” Is Illinoise crafted in his mother’s memory in some sense? “Yeah.”

“So many of my chosen family are gay”

The show also puts a full and complex vision of gay relationships, passion, and love center stage. “The album has been a huge influence on the queer community since it first came out, I think about that a lot,” Peck said. “The song, ‘The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out to Get Us,’ is the heart and soul of the show, with the biggest, most romantic gestures of two men who are in love. It’s very important to me. I’m not a gay man, but my closest friends are gay. So many of my chosen family are gay. Sufjan is too, so it’s been important to me to be able to honor that and be able to spread not just acceptance but an embracing of it in theatrical form.”

The Times Are Racing, a New York City Ballet piece Peck created in 2017, featured a male pas de deux featuring the dancers Taylor Stanley and Daniel Applebaum Queer representation is “culturally important” to him. “When I’m making work, especially as New York City Ballet is coming out of New York City, I feel like it needs to reflect the city around us. It needs to be a mirror of what the city is, the diversity of it, and the expansiveness of the kinds of people who run through the city. It’s a big responsibility for me to carry that mantra forward through my work in different ways.”

Harrison Coll and New York City Ballet in Justin Peck’s 'The Times Are Racing.'

Harrison Coll and New York City Ballet in Justin Peck’s The Times Are Racing.

Erin Baiano

This commitment to diversity and respect was grounded in Peck’s upbringing. His grandfather was the pacifist and civil rights activist James Peck.

“He was always spoken about with such pride by my family,” Peck said. “His values and way of thinking, and his pursuit of equality and acceptance, were instilled with me at a young age. It was something I felt very connected to, and activated through, in a way.”

Peck is also motivated by a desire to see dance reflected in as many artistic genres and forms as possible.

The company of "Carousel" on Broadway (2018)

Carousel on Broadway (2018).

Julieta Cervantes

“I think for whatever reason I have this gift of being able to harness the power and language of dance,” Peck said. “I also have a love of so many mediums and forms. I get to participate through dance in filmmaking, theater-making, and dance-making. I love what dance can hold. Physically it can be some of the visually most exciting art there is, and it has an ability to tap into the kind of emotion that might be unobtainable if the drama was just in dialog form, or sung. Illinoise is a good example of how dance can hold in motion the most powerful language of expression. I’m really into how dance can be used and manipulated as a form to say things in different emotions.”

“I could easily make ballets for New York City Ballet and not do anything else, but I really feel like I gain a lot artistically getting to work with these other mediums. It feeds both my creative curiosity, and is also a way to see how I can spread the language of dance and see how far I can go.”

“I’m excited for the future, and more optimistic than some other people in the industry are. Who knows, maybe I am being naïve, but that’s just me.”

— Justin Peck

It’s been particularly exciting to work on Illinoise, Peck said, as—unlike Carousel or West Side Story, say—it is an original work, with the in-built challenge of “giving a full, dramatic, theatrical arc to the evening without speaking at all.”

Peck thinks that Broadway’s post-pandemic return is “solid—we’re definitely in a much better place than we were even a year ago. I think this season is huge, and we should celebrate and be excited about that. It shows a lot of creative work is being done. Audiences will come and see shows if the quality is there. I’m excited for the future, and more optimistic than some other people in the industry are. Who knows, maybe I am being naïve, but that’s just me.” This season, Peck has already seen Enemy of the People—and was “fascinated” by how director Sam Gold had filled the unique space of Circle in the Square—and is looking forward to seeing Oh, Mary!, The Wiz, The Who’s Tommy, and Lempicka.

“I like an aesthetic of inclusivity”

Growing up in San Diego, Peck said, “I was always, and still am, quite introverted, and very interested in the arts, music, and dance.”

Peck’s father Sam had grown up in New York, and his father had brought him to a lot of theater—including the original Broadway production of West Side Story. On the family’s theater trips to New York every summer, the young Justin would watch first acts agog, then fall asleep after the first act at various performances. Savion Glover’s Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk (1995), was a huge influence when Peck was just 9—encouraging him to take up tap—as was seeing Hedwig and the Angry Inch at 12. His parents had “wide, adventurous tastes,” and introduced Peck to all kinds of theater.

New York City Ballet's choreographer Justin Peck directs rehearsal at the Lincoln Center's Samuel B. & David Rose Building in Manhattan, NY, on March 20, 2014.

New York City Ballet’s choreographer Justin Peck directs rehearsal at the Lincoln Center in Manhattan, NY, on March 20, 2014.

Yana Paskova/The Washington Post via Getty Images

“When I saw Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk I thought, ‘I am so intrigued by this form, and want to learn more about it,’” Peck said. “That led me into participating in theater. I did a lot of musicals, community theater and professional work back home in San Diego. Just before I turned 14 I started doing ballet.” At 15, Peck moved to New York, having been accepted into the School of American Ballet, “which was almost like a great boarding school. I was able to come of age right in the city, it was a really beautiful time for me.”

Peck joined for corps de ballet of NYCB in 2007, and was promoted to Soloist in 2013, always nurturing “the dream” of transitioning to choreography and direction at the right moment. (He had first choreographed a piece for the School of American Ballet as a student in 2005.)

Justin Peck (center) on the set of West Side Story with Steven Spielberg

Justin Peck (center) on the set of West Side Story with Steven Spielberg

20th Century/Everett Collection

Peck was appointed Resident Choreographer at NYCB in 2014. He says that he crafts movement that “feels good” on his own body, and has always been interested in choreographers like Bob Fosse who create their own signature movements. His role was previously held by George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, the cofounding choreographers of NYCB, and Christopher Wheeldon; Peck finds following these famed predecessors “helpful and inspiring” rather than intimidating—particularly Robbins who “jumped between ballet and film and wore different hats. I always thought, ‘That’s close to the career I would like to have.’”

While some choreographers improvise with their companies, Peck laughs that he is “too much of a control freak” for that, and knows exactly what movement—both in terms of precision and quality—he wants. “While this is a very controlled process, there is room improvise and influence the show on the part of the performers,” he said. “They bring their own personal qualities to the characters that help illuminate them.”

Ariana DeBose in 'West Side Story.'

Ariana DeBose in West Side Story.

20th Century/Everett Collection

Peck likes his works to feel “inviting” for an audience, with movements that only dancers can properly perform but which look like movements regular mortals can achieve. Peck notes how dance can “sometimes feel alienating, making an audience feel they are watching something they don’t know enough about. I like an aesthetic of inclusivity, especially in a story like Illinoise. I don’t think of it as ‘ballet.’ I think of it as an amalgamation of different styles, influenced by street dance, breakdancing, and tap dancing.”

Having worked on fashion shows, music videos, and collaborated with musicians like Stevens, Philip Glass, and Dan Deacon, Peck would next like to work with FKA twigs. “I think she’s got a very ethereal, gorgeous sound as a musician, an expansive sound that would work well for dance. Also, she’s a dancer herself. I’m curious to see what she would write for dance.”

Justin Peck and Patricia Delgado attend the New York City Ballet 2023 Spring Gala: INVENTION at David Koch Theatre at Lincoln Center on May 04, 2023 in New York City.

Justin Peck and Patricia Delgado attend the New York City Ballet 2023 Spring Gala at Lincoln Center on May 4, 2023.

Jared Siskin/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

Peck is married to Patricia Delgado, former principal dancer with the Miami City Ballet; the couple have a daughter, Lucia, born in March 2021. The couple collaborate on many projects (including West Side Story). “Our work is our life, and our life is our work,” Peck said. “Our careers tend to bleed over in the most beautiful way. We really love it. We don’t turn off our laptops at the end of the workday. We’re constantly talking with each other about ideas. We have different dynamics depending on the project. While she’s technically not involved in Illinoise, her spirit is very much part of its community. Sometimes she’s not available because she’s doing her own projects, but (Peck laughed) I try to get her involved in whatever I can, because she has such an extraordinary spirit.”

“It’s a story that centers New York as a place, with dance as part of the expression of the characters and who the characters are.”

— Justin Peck

Next, Peck would like to make movies, and reveals he is working on his film directorial debut—a dance-centered movie that, in the same spirit as Illinoise, will be an original work built “from the ground up. I can’t say too much about it, but we have a script, and we’re at an exciting point with it. It’s a story that centers New York as a place, with dance as part of the expression of the characters and who the characters are. Again, thinking of Bob Fosse, I’m very inspired by All That Jazz, his last big movie, and just how wild and radical that was—and how it was about people who danced, and how Fosse used dance in different kinds of ways to tell the story.”

“Working on West Side Story, and getting to collaborate with Stephen Spielberg who really is the greatest living filmmaker, was amazing,” Peck said. “He was very generous with time, feedback, and support. It became this kind of wonderful masterclass to how to make films. I tried to soak up as much of it as I could.”

Peck is fascinated by how dance can be used in film to tell stories: “I think dance is not utilized enough as a language in all these mediums. I feel I have the tools to potentially bring more dance to those arenas.” Peck says this as if he is again listening to the crackling of the campfire, and all the stories sparking into life around it—a world of possibilities he cherishes, soon to come with the added bustle of camera crews and clapperboards.

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