5 August, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London.
Billed as: “A dance and concert event featuring Yoshito Ohno, Antony and the Johnsons, Johanna Constantine, film and tape loops by William Basinski, and screening excerpts from ‘Mr O’s Book of the Dead’ in a magic tribute to Kazuo Ohno.”
A semi-transparent curtain divided down-stage from the musicians up-stage. Loop guru William Basinski was all but invisible behind a projected chiaroscuro of swirling mists and an occluded moon as Johanna Constantine of Antony’s Blacklips Performance Cult, looking something like an animate Day of the Dead Catrina in gauzy veils and body paint, slowly struck stylised Kabuki shapes, postures of supplication and release.
Constantine was the visual focus, repeating her deliberate ritual three times, once in black veils, once in white, once in little more than body paint, outrageous heels and a sweeping braid of red hair, but, arresting as she was, it was Basinski’s music, a masterfully constructed sequence of distressed loops, that invested the drama, and our experience of it, with tension.
After Constantine’s routine, a series of still images of the night’s dedicatee, Kazuo Ohno (whose image will be familiar with anyone who owns either Another World or The Crying Light, since it graced the covers of both), were projected onto the screen.
These images were overlaid with philosophic quotations: “Countless birds are flocking around you”, read one, as the accompanying image, in faded 70s colour, showed a seated, hippified Ohno surrounded by acolytes; “Many are born within me” read another; “Moving quietly allows one to walk with great care”.
The curtain was then drawn to reveal Antony Hegarty at the piano accompanied by his Johnsons; on this occasion a string trio of cello, viola, and violin or guitar.
In this intimate setting, which emphasised the supple strength of the singer’s tremulous vocal, Antony played a selection of his best-loved songs, including “Cripple and the Starfish”, “Another World”, “My Lady’s Story”, and “The Crying Light”). While he sang, Kazuo Ohno’s son, Yoshito, illustrated Antony’s narratives with mute, strangely affecting gestural theatre.
Ohno, in living-statue makeup, danced in stylized movements that conveyed intense emotion with subtle economy and simple props; proffering a single rose in “You are My Sister”; less explicably donning a Picasso-esque horse’s (or perhaps an anteater’s) head during “Epilepsy is Dancing”.
Sometimes Ohno’s movements directly paralleled the string trio’s music, for instance refracting dazzling high notes from the violin from a full-length mirror amid glints of of light.
A further interval for film projections included Ohno home movies (with a prerecorded soundtrack, possibly by Basinski) of playful performance rituals undertaken incongruously in an inhabited pigsty. Whereas Constantine’s act leaves me cold, there is something strangely affecting about Ohno’s work. Although it is a rarefied, undoubtedly self-conscious art form, Ohno’s furtherance of Kabuki is compelling, and the ethereal quality of his expression of it is entrancing.
Antony returned to encore with a surprise but heartfelt rendition of Johnny Mercer’s “Fools Rush In”, a far more nuanced interpretation than either Cliff Richard, Doris Day or Bow Wow Wow ever achieved. It was conducted by a swooning miniature puppet Antony, manipulated by Yoshito Ohno, which took the final bow.
This was a rare treat; a glimpse into the creative consciousness of Antony and – for all its modesty of scale – one of the strongest multi-media shows I’ve ever seen. I’ve become used to seeing Antony’s music in an orchestrated setting. This show stripped those orchestral arrangements back to the basics to reveal the crystalline beauty of the songs, and illustrated them with glimpses into the fertile soil of the composer’s imagination.