Illinoise review – brilliant story of loss, grief and reconciliation

<span>Illinoise: ‘dance theatre of the most compelling order’.</span><span>Photograph: Matthew Murphy</span>
Illinoise: ‘dance theatre of the most compelling order’.Photograph: Matthew Murphy

A week ago, Illinoise won the Tony award for best choreography in a musical. Which felt about right. Because it is the most dancey of dance musicals. There is a book, by the Pulitzer prize-winning playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury. There is even a programme booklet explaining the motivation of the central figure. But there are no words – apart from the lyrics from the Sufjan Stevens album, which forms the basis of a score brought to life by three brilliant onstage singers and orchestrations by Timo Andres. It is the steps by New York City Ballet’s Justin Peck that tell a story of loss, grief and final reconciliation.

At first, the show, which originated at the Fisher Center at Bard College, is disconcerting. You keep waiting for someone to speak. But gradually, Illinoise begins to cast its own spell, unfolding with a dreamlike emotional logic.

Tragic images – bodies jumping from on high – mingle with supremely confident simplicity

It begins with a camping trip where Ricky Ubeda’s sad-eyed Henry goes to forget his troubles. His companions tell stories through movement that reflect their concerns about their own lives: one casts influential Americans in the shape of zombies, their arms pushing upwards like tree branches; the song Jacksonville conjures an iridescent tap dance. There’s a chilling evocation of the Chicago mass murderer John Wayne Gacy and a jokey plea for everyone to be seen as Superman.

But the piece, set under a floating forest and amid steel girders by Adam Rigg, digs deeper when it begins to unfurl the story of Henry’s love for his friend Carl and the complex feelings triggered by his desertion and suicide. This section is full of choreography that is exceptional in its suppressed, naturalistic power, full of jagged stops that break the lines and simple effects that break the heart.

Tragic images – bodies jumping from on high – mingle with supremely confident simplicity. There is one sequence where his lover, Douglas (an exceptional Ahmad Simmons), calms Henry by making him walk in a square. It’s so simple, but it says so much, creating dance theatre of the most compelling order.

Illinoise is at St James theatre, New York, until 10 August