Antony: Oracle of the Evening
By Jerry Portwood
Photo: Angela Cranford/MSG Photos
The weird and the art-fabulous mobbed Radio City Music Hall last night for Antony and the Johnsons: Swanlights. Maybe a few precious ones ducked for cover from the rain, but you couldn’t tell as hundreds traipsed by in their Downtown finery.
“Hello all my aging scenester friends,” Lady Bunny called out. She was in full makeup and wig, towering over me as other Downtown luminaries walked by. Yes, I was also starstruck when Debbie Harry came for a hug and loitered with us for a few minutes.
“I knew Antony from those Pyramid days,” Bunny explained. She snapped a picture as someone in an outrageous outfit walked by (and then someone asked to do the same with her). Rufus Wainwright passed by. Oh, there went Terrence Koh.
Inside, Klaus Biesenbach was holding court (looking just as stunning with his new svelte look), greeting the MoMA-rati. The concert was a commission by Museum of Modern Art and contributed to the serious art fag vibe in the room. Was that Michael Stipe in a long khaki skirt? Tilda Swinton looked gorgeous with her platinum do and a red-plaid jacket. John Cameron Mitchell? Check!
This was my fourth time seeing Antony in a big-deal venue. The first was Carnegie Hall in fall 2005 (with Jimmy Scott). That was followed by the watershed moment at BAM, where Antony had the Brooklyn Philharmonic as backup and emerged from the darkness as a glowing image in white. But after the Apollo concert in 2008, I thought maybe I had seen my last Antony performance. It seemed like maybe he was on repeat, but I’m so glad I changed my mind.
The Radio City event felt like the most fully realized vision of what Antony has been moving toward. Again, he began the show in darkness, behind a scrim, and sang “Rapture.” Then green laser lights (from the masterful Chris Levine) grew and danced across the scrim. A spot slowly lit Antony in the next song, so that he glowed in his white frock. An immersive experience, at times as the lights changed and danced, it felt like we were under water, looking up through fractured light. When the scrim lifted, the first of many veils to reveal a new tableau, we could begin to make out a sculpture suspended on stage (from set designer Carl Robertshaw). At times it looked like quartz crystals, other times ice. Were we in Superman’s Fortress of Solitude? An underwater cave where secret rites were being performed. When red lights played across the surfaces, it felt like those sparks you see after pressing your palms to your eyes. Had we been staring into the sun too long or waking from a dreamy daze?
While some artists—especially those tapping into a place of pain—feel like they are in some sort of arrested development, channeling passions they felt as a child, but ones that they can never quite move beyond, Antony seemed to have taken his imagination, honed it and translated it into a mature, adult landscape.
Antony would circle in a ritualistic pattern at times. His voice filling the hall. The songs . When he sang Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love,” which I’d heard him do before, I was not discouraged. While at the Apollo show I felt it was a cynical admission that his “style” could be applied to any pop song for desired effect, here it once again seemed to bring a new integrity to a commercial contrivance. So I went into this show suspect of his motives, but was converted to his artistic practice.
With deliberate arm movements, Antony seemed to be our priestess. An oracle. As he recently told me in an interview, “I’m a witch,” and I understood his interpretation even better. He was using the evening as a staging for a deeper ritual, channeling our attention and energy into something powerful. By the time he began “Cripple and the Starfish,” the penultimate song of the brunt of the show, I was spent. Antony must have felt the same.
"Well that's quite the bulk of the show," Antony said. "I'm so fucking glad. It was so ambitious, this production! It was really insane."
Exactly. After two more songs, it was over. The ritual over, collapsing upon itself. The curtain down. But we didn't want to leave. After a standing ovation, and wondering what the hell was going on, we started to head for the doors—all of us a little dizzy with the electricity, the magic of the night.
More images and the complete set list on the next page.