Reveries at Illinoise

Issue Six: Illinoise
Natasha Sinha
March 19, 2024
Natasha Sinha

Natasha Sinha (she/her) is a producer and dramaturg, focusing on new plays and new musical work. Natasha has been Associate Artistic Director of Playwrights Horizons since 2021. Previously, as Director of Artistic Programs at Signature Theatre, she spearheaded new artistic programs for Signature (including a new holistic residency for early-career playwrights), and she was artistic line producer for select plays and musicals (including Dave Malloy's OCTET, FIRES IN THE MIRROR by Anna Deavere Smith, and Lauren Yee's CAMBODIAN ROCK BAND). She is the recipient of the 2019 LPTW Lucille Lortel Award. Until 2018, Natasha was Associate Director of LCT3/Lincoln Center Theater which exclusively produces premieres (including DISGRACED by Ayad Akhtar, Rude Mechs' STOP HITTING YOURSELF, Dave Malloy's PRELUDES, WAR by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, BULL IN A CHINA SHOP by Bryna Turner, GHOST LIGHT by Third Rail Projects, Martyna Majok's queens, and Antoinette Nwandu’s PASS OVER). She kicked off the LCT3 Spotlight Series with SHABASH!, hosted by Danny Pudi and Parvesh Cheena. Natasha was the Associate Producer at Barrington Stage Company. As a freelance dramaturg, she has worked on new plays and new musicals by Dave Harris, Michael R. Jackson, Grace McLean, Shakina Nayfack, Danny Pudi, Heather Raffo, Sam Salmond, and Kit Yan & Melissa Li. Natasha is a co-founder of Beehive Dramaturgy Studio, which works with individual generative artists as well as organizations such as Page 73, Musical Theatre Factory, Yale Indigenous Performing Arts Program, and Astoria Performing Arts Center. She is on the Advisory Boards of SPACE on Ryder Farm, Rhinebeck Writers Retreat, and Musical Theatre Factory (where she was a co-moderator of MTF's POC Roundtable). She has served as a judge on many award committees, taught classes, written articles, led panels, and created events to center a range of exciting new voices from historically oppressed communities. In her free time, Natasha is one of three coordinators of Amplifying Activists Together.

Photo by Tess Mayer

Nidia Medina

Nidia Medina (she/her) is a theater producer and artist who was worked professionally in many aspects of non-profit theater over the last 17 years. She serves as Producing Director of INTAR Theatre, where she was previously Associate Artistic Director, producing the award-winning run of Vámonos by Julissa Contreras. Recently she has also worked with WP Theater as Artistic Producer, leading the charge on the wildly successful run of Sancocho by Christin Eve Cato, and served as Interim Producing Director at The TEAM. Other producing positions include being a Line Producer at The Public Theater, Associate Producer and Director of the Studio at Theatre for a New Audience, Special Projects Producer at WP Theater, Associate Producer at INTAR and more. She has produced everything from Shakespeare in the Park, a film, an international tour, to boundary-pushing off-Broadway shows in some of New York’s most prestigious houses with some of theater’s most brilliant creative minds.  In addition to her producing work, Nidia is also a writer, performer and curator of programs and artistic happenings. Her work also includes student outreach and sitting on grant panels. She holds a BFA in Acting from Emerson College and a Master’s in Arts and Cultural Management from Pratt Institut

Editor's Note from Nidia Medina: There was a point early on in my watching of Illinoise that I wondered, "Uh oh, am I smart enough for this?" which certainly stemmed from the immediate realization that I had stepped into a show with no dialogue whatsoever, not a single word that wasn't sung or physically embodied. HOW DO I DEAL WITH THAT? I did decide ultimately that yes, I am smart enough, because my specialty is stories, and this piece is ultimately, a story. This was a show that I walked away from with mixed thoughts -- what was successful for me, what wasn't -- but the show stuck with me for days after, as I rolled parts of it around in my head, peeled away my initial impressions, and thought of the bits that deeply resonated (a beautiful love connection between two dancers, the sadness of losing someone you love slowly to illness and the different ways grief takes hold). Ultimately, that is probably the best bit of this show - the little seed it plants in your mind (heart?) that just keeps growing long after you've walked away from the Armory. That you can keep coming back to it, for something that annoyed, something that confused, titillated, excited, made you cry.  Oh also, the other thing I thought immediately about this show was, "I cannot WAIT to read what Brittani, Natasha, and Arminda think."  Enjoy.


Making it into an all-state orchestra as a teenager meant a break from the suburban apathy of my high school. There, I met a fellow musician who could see sounds as colors. I immediately looked up this condition, synesthesia, to confirm its blurring of the senses: a stimulation of one sense can cause a stimulation in a separate sense. I was so jealous! I wanted to be a Synesthete. I wanted to experience a single piece of art as deeply as possible and in every possible way.

Once I was in New York City, I could sit in my college library or ride subways and listen to any single album over and over again, mining it for more and more learnings about its artistic choices. So as a music student and as a young adult in 2005, I relished the idiosyncratic, sometimes sweepingly symphonic and sometimes intimately soulful album Illinois, by Sufjan Stevens. Minimalism (major Steve Reich vibes) was set against maximalism (an extravagantly epic and dense tapestry of sound). Rhythmic gestures moved buoyantly from instrument to instrument to build musical layering. There were playfully spirited anthems with 5/4 odd time signatures alongside somber and chilling songs about dark forces within humanity. And ultimately, it held an unexpected sweetness amidst an intricately textured soundscape of folk, swing, funk, jazz, and symphonic pop. Illinois was a feast that allowed me to delight in spending time with it.


If you would have told me then that this Sufjan Stevens album would one day lead to a dance-forward stage adaptation, I’d probably have been intrigued but also thoroughly suspicious. (Ah, the fragile heart of an idealistic purist.) I probably would not have expected a new, additive experience of Illinois.

Illinoise (added “e” from the cover of the Sufjan album!) follows a tale of friends around a campfire, sharing stories that are connected to Illinois – particularly the story of Henry, who is drawn to Chicago by love and for adventure, which introduces him to both tragedy (with Carl, his childhood best friend and object of his unrequited romantic love) and true love (with Douglas, with whom he then creates a gorgeous and real romance). Some of the plot feels fated, some of it feels surprising. But I was fine with the narrative simplicity, considering the musical complexity of the songs and the abstraction that dance can achieve.

Ricky Ubeda and Ben Cook in Illinoise at Park Avenue Armory. Photo Credit: Stephanie Berger

Justin Peck and Jackie Sibblies Drury choose to omit the theatrical tool of dialogue entirely, in crafting the adaptation’s throughline. The lyrics live with a couple vocalists who are somehow both ethereal yet starkly of the earth. The music (via surprisingly full and enticing orchestrations) is delivered to us by the vocalists and an orchestra (arranged on multiple platform levels, beneath upside-down trees). The rest of the story is thrust toward us by way of Peck’s lively choreography. The warmth of that storytelling reaches directly for the heart from beginning to end. The more literal choices feel unfortunately hollow, particularly when they line up too cleanly with the lyrics. A hat on a hat has little purpose or poetry. But Henry’s enchanting and transcendent sequences with Carl and with Douglas are rich with psychological storytelling. We watch Douglas gingerly soothe his partner in moments of wrenching grief, before we watch them fly through the air in unison and in love. Witnessing their bodies in motion – making shapes separately and as a pair – offers a breathless experience of the peaks and valleys of their existence together. There’s an instinctually expressive approach to the balance of their arms and legs, the tempo of any moment’s given movement, and the calibration between intentionally jagged sharpness and graceful suspension. We understand the fullness of their relationship, without hearing a word spoken between them.

Rhythmically, the Movin’ Out/A Chorus Line-like vignettes around the campfire would feel different if the songs had been created at the same time as the choreography and the narrative… if the songs didn’t live a life in the cultural zeitgeist, in a particular order, together as a full album… if the show were a gesture of generative art rather than interpretive art. If, if, if. So I imagine some might have less patience before Henry’s story tenderly assumes the spotlight – particularly if the album didn’t play a formative role during their coming-of-age. The first half hour or so is mostly structured as single-song stories for the other characters to tell (and some of them are riveting, like the question/answer accumulation of “Jacksonville” that incorporates mesmerizing tap dance), but it isn’t until later that we really settle into Henry’s lengthier and more soulful journey.

There’s something ineffable about the art absorbed during our formative years, even when we get older and distance opens us to new language for it. Typically, what I discussed above would distract me much more deeply – the cascades of nostalgic reveries wouldn’t be enough. But the collective heart and strength of Illinoise (activated by nostalgia, and perhaps impacted by the truth that I’m not part of the dance world) supersede the uneven choreography and narrative. Vulnerability can invite generosity, especially if you arrive open to catharsis. Illinois was an emotionally-driven musical offering, and almost 20 years later, Illinoise similarly reaches me as an emotionally-driven dance offering.


If I was crying, in the van, with my friend / It was for freedom / From myself, and from the land.

I made a lot of mistakes / I made a lot of mistakes / I made a lot of mistakes / I made a lot of mistakes


Whether you welcome a dance show that spins on an emotional axis or not, Illinoise offers an alternate way to experience a musical gesture from 2005.  

Robbie Fairchild in Illinoise at Park Avenue Armory. Photo Credit: Stephanie Berger

Tracking my own emotional journey over half a lifetime, against a single set of songs, is a trip! I recently read that Sufjan himself moved to Chicago for art, as I had moved to New York City, and as many have done as young people. To grow, to learn, to discover. I was still at the beginning of that city-enabled adventure back then – back when I was falling in love with the concept of looking at a work of art as if it’s in a kaleidoscope that could always be rotated one more time, to reveal something new about it. Back when this album came out, adding the ingredient of time hadn’t struck me as one more meaningfully new way to approach art.

But it used to be that the evocation of loneliness, heartbreak, and tragedy in Illinois had the deepest impact and the longest half-life for me. After seeing Illinoise, I think now it’s the joy that follows: the hard-won love for Henry with Douglas, and – while living with darkness and tragedy – the ability to achieve such lightness that he literally becomes airborne.

Join Our Mailing List

Thank you! More views are coming your way!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
A Project of The Lillys
Web Design and Development by 
FAILSPACE Design Services