Antony and the Johnsons at Dark Mofo: uplifting, sombre, beautiful

Antony and the Johnsons fit perfectly within the world of Dark Mofo. Images courtesy of Dark Mofo

Dark Mofo has gained a reputation in its first three years for curating and programming exciting and provocative international and local art, performance and events and unapologetically placing them in the middle of the cold, wet and dark Tasmanian winter.

Transgender multidisciplinary artist, songwriter and performer Antony Hegarty – as part of Antony and the Johnsons – fits perfectly within this world. The band played last night in the second of two headline gigs at this year’s event.

Images courtesy of Dark Mofo

Since the late 1990s, the band been at the forefront of the art music and performance scene in New York and the UK, with work that blurs the boundaries between performance art and commercial music. The breakthrough album I am a Bird Now (2005) brought international success and, controversially, won the UK’s Mercury Prize that year.

Antony Hegarty has successfully used her notoriety to publicly address issues close to her, including transgender politics, ecological consciousness and indigenous spirituality.

The Odeon Theatre in Hobart, it transpired, was a perfect venue to experience the evocative and haunting vocals of Antony in collaboration with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra – it was intimate enough to allow for a genuine sense of connectedness with the performers on stage.

The orchestra was dressed all in white. The performance started with a ghostly figure draped in white tulle resembling an androgynous angel of death (Johanna Constantine) emerging from the wings and performing a short butoh-inspired dance in a single spotlight.

Images courtesy of Dark Mofo

Antony, when she appeared, remained within this restricted, spotlit area of stage – moving only occasionally, bathed in pools of bold colour which did not light her face, creating an otherworldliness to her performance.

It was mesmerising from beginning to end.

The fragility and vulnerability of Antony’s unique voice is obvious on recordings but even more so live. A cover of Beyonce’s Crazy in Love (2003) became a hauntingly beautiful and melancholic torchsong, with Antony looking like some sort of apparition, bathed in toxic green light, communicating a depth of emotion we rarely associate with pop music.

A projected backdrop of the 1970s experimental, avant-garde art film Mr O’s The Book of the Dead (1973) by Japanese artist and filmmaker Chiaki Nagano accompanied the performance. The film features legendary butoh performer Kazuo Ohno (1906-2010) alongside a collection of other whitefaced performers.

The inclusion of this cinematic element created a strange, often discordant connection with the music performance, which, while often jarring, sometimes created a strange synchronicity. I am unsure as to whether this was coincidental or expertly timed – but they appeared to coexist happily as an unlikely pair.

Images courtesy of Dark Mofo

Antony did not speak a word before or after any of her songs but occasionally dropped to her knees on stage, or gestured to the sky. After transfixing the audience for well over an hour with an exquisite repertoire of songs from the last 15 years she left the stage following a much deserved standing ovation.

She returned shortly after and sat herself at the piano. It was here that she, for the first time in the evening, spoke to the audience.

She acknowledged the significance of performing in Tasmania, given its history of indigenous genocide and told a profoundly moving story of how she had spent time with a group of elder women in the Martu Aboriginal community at Parnngur, Western Australia, in 2013.

Antony has promised the profits from the Australian shows would be donated to help this community fight multinational corporations intent on mining uranium on their sacred land in the Pilbara.

The audience seemed genuinely moved and appreciative of her passion to use what influence she may have as an artist to challenge the complacency and apathy of society.

In the foyer afterwards, I heard someone telling her friend that the band’s music was like the soundtrack to every break-up and breakdown she had ever had.

Moving, sombre, uplifting, dark and beautiful – I can’t think of a better way to spend a cold, wet Hobart winter evening.

Antony and the Johnsons + The TSO was presented as part of Dark Mofo on June 16 and 17. Details here.

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