An enraptured audience stood applauding and whistling for five full minutes, without a curtain call or encore, following “Swanlights,” Antony and the Johnson’s performance at Radio City Music Hall Thursday night, commissioned by New York’s Museum of Modern Art. For some 90 minutes, Antony, his distinctive vocals complemented by a coordinated light show and evocative sets, delivered new arrangements (by Rob Moose, Nico Muhly and Maxim Moston) of songs selected from the course of his career.
Antony Hegarty (commonly known by his first name alone), having risen in the 1990s through a scrappy club scene in New York’s East Village, and been championed by luminaries like Lou Reed and Björk, has now achieved something of his own superstar status, as evidenced by this one-off performance to a nearly full house.
Self-defined as transgendered, Antony possesses a voice that famously challenges description. A species of contralto with tenor dips—neither definitively male nor female—it was robust enough on Thursday to best a 65-piece orchestra while retaining its tremulous delicacy. (Members of Antony’s own band—the Johnsons—were included among the players.) That tremulousness, perhaps his voice’s most distinctive feature, conveys a pitched emotionalism-expressing tearfulness and joy, longing and ecstatic dissolution. Antony’s voice is perfect for his over-the-top lyrics, which treat mortality, sado-masochistic love and environmental destruction. His singing easily maneuvers through the increasingly complex rhythms and melodies of some of his recent compositions.
With his ambiguous sexuality and otherworldly voice, Antony can be downright spooky. When, waving his arms as he sang, he ordered a ghost to “leap from my heart and find your way” and a snake to “shed your skin and go away” (in the song “Ghost”), one could believe the singer was actually seeing those apparitions. Repeatedly asking, “How long will dust wait?” (from “Dust”), he seemed to be interrogating the dead. Antony came of age in the era of AIDS and accelerating global warming, and his pressing concern is the fragility of life-and its preciousness (“living is a golden thing, it means everything,” he sang, in “Swanlight“).
Stepping up to the challenge of Antony’s shamanistic persona, Chris Levine, a light artist, and Paul Normandale, a lighting designer, created a spectacle of holograms and lasers that at times jumped the stage to embrace the entire theater, linking performer and audience. Antony first materialized as a barely visible mound in semi-darkness, surrounded by an eerie green halation. Over the course of the show, his form evolved into greater and greater brightness and full clarity. Sometimes vertical lasers formed a spinning cage around his body. (The bird theme was present from the start, in an unsettling prelude by dancer Johanna Constantine, costumed as what looked like a featherless baby bird, waving prosthetic wings as if trying to take flight.)
Hovering above Antony’s head was a giant crystal-like prop, the most dramatic element of Carl Robertshaw’s abstract sets. Its facets seemed to become translucent or opaque, tightly bound or fragmented, depending on the lighting effects passing over its surfaces. Further heightening the theme of progressive clarity, a series of scrims rose in succession, only at the end fully revealing the orchestra at the back of the stage. In one segment, Antony was shadowed by the silhouette of Moose, the conductor as well as one of the arrangers, an effective bit of choreography.
“Swanlights” evolved from an earlier performance, “The Crying Light,” mounted in 2009 at the Manchester Opera House. Last night’s show was organized by Klaus Biesenbach, chief curator at large of the Museum of Modern Art and director of MoMA PS1, with Eliza Ryan, an assistant curator at MoMA.
Photo: Angela Cranford/MSG Photos