Saint Antony

Linda Yablonsky on Antony and the Johnsons at Radio City Music Hall

Left: The Radio City Music Hall marquee. (Photo: Matthew Carasella) Right: Antony and the Johnsons onstage. (Photo: Todd Eberle)

IT’S OFFICIAL! The Museum of Modern Art is now in the entertainment business. Mark Thursday, January 26, as the night MoMA departed its acoustically challenged home for the sacred ground of Radio City Music Hall. The reason: a one-night-only performance of Swanlights, a visually and vocally elevating concert by Antony and his Johnsons, a sextet that expanded into a sixty-piece orchestra for their appearance on one of the biggest and most storied stages on earth.

Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Liberace, Liza with a z, the Grammys, the Tonys, and, of course, the Rockettes have all trodden its boards (along with the camels and goats in its Christmas and Easter pageants). Personally, I regard David Bowie’s spectacular, drop-from-the-flies entrance as Ziggy Stardust there in 1973 as one of the great thrills of my life—an event also recalled on Thursday by Tilda Swinton, for whom it is less memory than legend.

The striking We Need to Talk About Kevin star, clad in a silky, red plaid, Haider Ackermann jacket and white blouse, was among a select group of fifty or so guests invited to a preshow reception in a breathtaking, triple-height, Deco lounge upstairs. In town to help promote a show of celebrity portrait paintings that her paramour Sandro Kopp had opened at Lehmann Maupin Gallery’s Chrystie Street outpost the night before, she spoke of her upcoming vampire movie with Jim Jarmusch and her delectable sense of style. “I’ve been wearing all white lately,” she told Terence Koh, who dressed for the occasion in a fluffy white angora coverlet of his own design. “Yeah, me too,” he said.

Left: MoMA PS1 director Klaus Biesenbach with artist Sandro Kopp, Antony, and Tilda Swinton. Right: Artist Terence Koh. (Except where noted, all photos: Linda Yablonsky)

“Have you seen the kitchen here?” asked Michael Stipe, sidling up to MoMA’s associate director Kathy Halbreich, who produced the show with MoMA PS1 director Klaus Biesenbach. “It’s fabulous.”

So was everything else about this high-wattage, Downtown Goes to Heaven evening, the social event of the year (so far). With it, Biesenbach may now claim to be the Sol Hurok of performance art. (Rumor has it that he snagged Kraftwerk for an appearance at MoMA later this year.) Rubbing shoulders with collectors Dasha Zhukova and Beth Swofford, choreographer Michael Clark, actor Alan Cumming, hotelier André Balazs, and MoMA director Glenn Lowry, the white-haired museo-showman worked the room as if born to schmooze.

According to Halbreich, Radio City had been Antony’s choice of venue for the show, advertised as “a meditation on light, nature, and femininity.” The decision followed two years of discontent centering on the singer’s wish to perform as a body floating among large crystals in a pool set in the museum’s atrium. “I think he is divine and heartbreaking,” Halbreich said. She also displayed an e-mail Hegarty had sent earlier in the day. “This could be my Hindenburg,” it said of the show.

Not a chance. At curtain time, ushers were still wrangling a capacity crowd of six thousand rain-soaked ticket holders into the amber glow of the theater, accompanied by William Basinski’s celestial electronica. Biesenbach and Halbreich slipped into the row in front of me, beside Wendi Murdoch and Zhukova. Matthew Barney and Björk were a few seats away, in front of Swinton and Kopp, Thomas Dozol and Stipe, with Jennifer McSweeney, Roberta Smith, and Jerry Saltz behind them and Biesenbach’s mentor Alanna Heiss a few rows forward.

Left: MoMA director Glenn Lowry, MoMA deputy director Kathy Halbreich, and Björk. Right: Adi from threeASFOUR.

The house lights went down and a heavily made-up Dr. Julia Yasuda, Ph.D., came onstage to read a missive from the star that dedicated the show to Marsha P. Johnson, a transgender figure active in the Stonewall days who inspired the name of Antony’s band. Johanna Constantine, a dancer, stepped before the immense gold curtain, flapping the white, wing-like appendages affixed to her arms with increasing velocity, as if she were a bird revving for takeoff. She raised her arms triumphantly, the curtain went up, and rotating skeins of green light expanded and contracted in the air above the stage like constellations of undulating green nets. “Reminds me of Pipilotti Rist,” someone sitting nearby whispered.

A giant mobile that suggested a loose aggregate of white and metallic box kites—crystalline forms from drawings by Antony, who has a show of them at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles now—descended from the flies behind the projections, as the unseen orchestra sounded the first notes of “The Rapture.” Antony’s ethereal voice wafted through the hall, but it was a few minutes before his statuesque figure, clad in a flowing white robe by Ohne Titel, and dwarfed by the mammoth mobile, emerged from a shadowy murk beneath it.

Though hardly self-conscious as a vocalist, Antony may be the shyest performer in show business, so determined is he to avoid the glare of a spotlight. There wasn’t one. (“No one wants to see the face of an old drag queen,” Antony, forty-one, has said to friends.) Standing alone onstage, he sang in shadow for most of the two-hour concert, frustrating those longing for a better look at the source of his emotive vocals, and pleasing others happy to find themselves in the realm of pure spirit.

Clearly, it was Antony’s intent to make his inimitable, sweet voice the star of the show, while the laser blasts (by Chris Levine) and the lighting design (by Paul Normandale) provided the visual dazzle. Running through torch songs, ballads, and laments at a leisurely pace, Antony sang of love, ghosts, darkness, and grace, reaching transcendent moments during favorites like “Cripple and the Starfish,” or “I Fell in Love with a Dead Boy,” when Antony became a stark silhouette against a backlit scrim.

Antony performs Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love” at Radio City Music Hall in New York, January 26, 2012.

His surprise cover of Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love” delivered a dreamy meditation instead of a thumping rouser. It drew cheers from an audience so rapt and reverent, it might as well have been in church. For the final two numbers, the scrims that had so far shortened the stage lifted, as did the pendulous mobile, revealing the orchestra and bathing Antony in bright light at last. “It worked!” exclaimed Biesenbach. “The curtain went up! It actually worked!” (At rehearsal, he said, nothing had gone according to plan.) The show ended with “The Crying Light,” an aching love song that fades out on the lines “I was born to adore you / As a baby in the blind /
 I was born to represent you /
 To carry your head into the sun /
 To carve your face into the back of the sun.”

The audience rose from its trance and the hall erupted in bravos. “Thank you,” Antony said. “That’s the show—and I’m so fucking glad it’s done!” That got a very big laugh—relief all around. “It was so ambitious, this production,” he added. More cheers. The curtain fell but everyone remained on their feet, applauding and waiting for an encore. None came.

“It’s $8,000 a minute for overtime here,” Halbreich said, as the aisles filled with lingerers. Union stagehands started striking the set.

Left: Rufus Wainwright. Right: Artists Space director Stefan Kalmar with Clarissa Dalrymple.

In the downstairs lounge, Lady Bunny, Joey Arias, Agosto Machado, Taboo!, and several drag queens made the afterparty feel like a reunion of Antony’s Blacklips pals at the Pyramid Club of the early 1990s. Rufus Wainwright scooted through the room, recalling his own past show at Radio City. Filmmaker Charles Atlas, who recently completed a feature-length performance documentary with Antony, was all smiles. Steven Hegarty, Antony’s brother, introduced himself to Björk, who will soon bring her whiz-bang, iPad-driven show, Biophilia, to Roseland. “Wasn’t Antony great?” Hegarty asked. “I think this is a big step up for him,” the Icelandic diva replied.

Finally, Antony descended the stairs and was immediately showered with flowers and hugs. “Isn’t it amazing? My whole family is here!” said Antony, looking dazed. Asked if I could photograph them together, he retreated behind a column. “Oh, but that’s so private,” he said.

Yet this very public evening reminded me of New York in the old days, when such glam gatherings—the American premiere of Einstein on the Beach at the Metropolitan Opera in 1976, or the 1981 opening of Diego Cortez’s “New York/New Wave” show at PS1—marked seismic shifts in our culture. Swanlights didn’t quite do that. But it did make magic—no small feat in a world so badly in need of it.

Left: Lady Bunny with artist Charles Atlas. Right: Artist Laurel Nakadate.