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Antony and the Johnsons: sublimity and silence at Disney Hall

October 15, 2008 |  3:14 pm

Near the end of his time-stopping performance last night at Disney Hall, Antony Hegarty stood in full light and sang "Everything is New," a lyrically spare, melodically superabundant song that's a staple of his live shows. Buoyed by the swell of Thomas Bartlett's piano and a 19-piece orchestra conducted by his frequent collaborator Rob Moose, the divo gently pulled the title phrase in different directions, augmenting it with wordless cries as the the music grew dissonant and dark.

Hegarty's contralto (or castrato, depending on which gender you wish to assign to him-slash-her), bent upward toward resolution, locating joy within the tumult of strings and percussion. It was a moment that distilled the enchantment that surrounds this androgynous art star. Before the rapt audience's eyes (and within our delighted ears), Antony had become an unnamed creature in a freshly born world.

The performance, in which Hegarty was backed by his sextet, the Johnsons, and members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, enacted a creation myth. Starting in darkness, in an eggshell-colored silk costume that seemed to be covered in growing tendrils, Hegarty let that paradoxical voice intertwine with orchestral arrangements that began gently and took time to coalesce. The Angelo Badalamenti composition "Mysteries of Love" -- one of the founding texts of Hegarty's self-conception as Antony, a being beyond categorization -- was an ideal starting point.

It's always surprising, how this song unfolds, incrementally but with a hidden pull. In the the arrangement Hegarty wrote with composer Nico Muhly, its magnetism is so subtle that the listener is almost startled to realize she has become engrossed. This was the mood the pair's arrangements set all night; executed with grace and restraint by the players under Moose's conduction, they were absorbing without ever being forceful.

There were dramatic moments. The new "Kiss My Name" involved a tangle of brass and drums; "Ghost" had a circular structure with a vague undertone of mystical qawwali music. A version of Beyonce's "Crazy in Love," which broke the audience's reverent mood enough to elicit some giggles, pointed toward a new interest in rhythm that shows up on the new Antony and the Johnsons EP, "Another World." (The YouTube video above shows Antony performing it at another show. David Byrne has also covered this song, proving that those who call Miss B a derivative pop star do so at their own peril.)

The variety in the arrangements remained subtle, however, allowing for Antony to enact that performance of gradual awakening. Because his voice is so dramatic, it's easy to forget that he's not merely a singer, but a conceptual artist whose appearances honor and further several legacies.

His stylized, ultra-feminine gestures invoked both the operatic diva tradition and the drag queens inspired by that music's grande dames; there's also something of the silent film era, and even the tableaux vivants that preceded it, in Antony's fluttering hands and slow turns. The all-important lighting made Antony's movements seem almost spectral at first, but once his facial expressions became visible, the connections to the theater and the cabaret became clear.

Though the music's tone was mostly Impressionist, at one point it took a hint from John Cage; after the quietly frenetic introduction to "(I Fell in Love With A) Dead Boy," the orchestra paused for about 30 seconds as Antony stood stock still at the microphone. This interruption of the flow startled listeners out of their reveries and forced us to remember that we were at a show -- a public imagining of romance and longing, and of identity itself.

This acknowledgment was essential. Antony emerged as part of the powerful re-imagining of drag that emerged in New York in the post-AIDS era. He's become a pop star, but his performances still honor peers like John Kelly and Justin Bond and elders like Lypsinka. Though he fit in completely in the sleek high-culture palace Frank Gehry built, he made sure to bring along those old friends -- in spirit, anyway.

He dedicated his encore, "River of Sorrow," to the street activist Marsha P. Johnson, who cofounded the activist group Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries in the 1970s and was drowned in the Hudson in 1992. Breaking character, Antony told of moving to New York just after Johnson had died and adopting her as a guiding spirit.

He sang his elegy for her with appropriate gravitas, but as the strings formed bubbling currents, he smiled. "Those are the saints in the river," he said. That was so Antony: even in death (maybe especially in death), he could see something being born.

-- Ann Powers

Read Margaret Wappler's interview with Antony here.


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