Antony and the Johnsons + William Basinski and Johanna Constantine: 2 January 2010 – Sydney

William Basinski and Johanna Constantine

The lights went down and the stage was thrown into darkness, with just a muddy puddle of light here and there. William Basinski stepped up to a bank of machinery and started producing gloomy loops of ambient noise, not unlike someone trailing a wet finger round the rim of crystal glasses. From the right of the stage an oddly dressed figure (man? woman?) appeared and started a strange, slow movement across the darkened space, more procession than dance. The loops slowly morphed into something resembling a harmony as he/she loped across the stage, here a slight movement, there the shedding of some item of clothing.

For someone not accustomed to the oddities of “avant-garde” music and dance, I felt that I was being hypnotically bored into submission. The loops continued over and over as Johanna Constantine appeared and dragged herself across the stage three times, her first costume possibly representing a horse, the second some kind of lizard, and the third some bizarre tulle-encrusted jellyfish. A friend who had been the night before described this performance as “interminable”, but there must have been a few appreciators of high-art in the crowd because the applause was substantial and seemingly genuine.

Or perhaps they were just gearing up for the main event, the chance to once again see songbird Antony Hegarty in full flight. Antony is pretty much a regular at the Sydney Festival, which this show was a part of, having originally won the hearts and blown the minds of the festival-going public in 2005’s “Came So Far For Beauty” series of concerts. This series featured high-profile performers the likes of Nick Cave, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, The Handsome Family, Rufus & Martha Wainwright and Jarvis Cocker doing covers of Leonard Cohen songs, but by all reports Antony’s version of “The Guests” absolutely stole the show, so completely that people still reference it in glowing terms today.

Once the 40-piece orchestra were seated Antony appeared dressed like a particularly stylish monk in white and black robes, greeted by thunderous applause and welcoming howls. He took his seat at the piano and from there it all seemed to just fall into place. Antony’s music has been described as “chamber pop”, and is uniquely poised to take full advantage of this kind of orchestral accompaniment, which seemed to neatly complement the dominant themes in Antony’s songs, those of the desire for transformation, along with the sadomasochistic nature of love. The latter theme was explored in depth in “The Cripple and the Starfish”, with the words “I am very happy / So please hit me” jarring harshly with the conservatism of the venue, at least in my mind. The familiar theme of transformation was touched on in classic cuts from I Am A Bird Now like “For Today I Am A Boy” and “I Fell In Love With A Dead Boy”, where he asks his dead lover over and over, “Are you a boy or a girl?”

A less metaphorical transformation took place when Antony started singing the immortal words,

“I look and stare so deep in your eyes / I touch on you more and more every time / You leave, I’m begging you not to go / Call your name two or three times in a row.”

At the end of the first verse Antony smiled coyly and almost apologized for the crowd not having hooted our recognition, “It’s Beyonce!” Never before had “Beyonce!” sounded more poetic as Antony drew out the desperate and haunting soul of “Crazy In Love”, a soul I never would have imagined the song possessed prior to hearing this version. The songs were peppered with a liberal amount of stage banter, and I do mean liberal. Antony ranted at length about topics as diverse as his interest in Wicca, his interest in butoh dancer Kazua Ohno (whose photo graces the cover of Antony’s new album The Crying Light, and whom Hegarty has described as his “art parent”), and a hilarious anecdote about slagging off Rupert Murdoch onstage only to find himself mentioned negatively the very next day in the gossip column of Murdoch’s New York rag. This warm and casual stage manner contrasts with Hegarty’s performance style, which is suitably nervous and almost pained. Constant awkward gestures punctuate his singing; a distinct counterpoint to the grace and poise of his voice.

Man into woman, life into death, love into pain and vice versa; so it went until Antony performed his final transformative gesture of the night, and an expectant audience turned into a quivering wreck. The roaring standing ovation at the conclusion of the show was well and truly earned; personally I hadn’t felt so much at a show for a long time. I was awed by the sheer restrained power of this performance, and felt privileged to have witnessed this Bird Gehrl in flight.