Halfway through the first of three sold-out shows that constitute the American debut of FKA twigs’ “Congregata” stage show last night (May 17), a group of dancers from New York City’s long-standing ballroom drag and voguing scene took over the stage at Sunset Park’s Brooklyn Hangar. Naturally this burst of energy kicked off with a bit of shade: “Did twigs say she was coming to New York?” their ringleader asked, incredulously. Adorned in varying states of glittering glamour ranging from full drag to low-cut onesies and corsets, these male dancers served up impressive aerial spins and drops, battles driven by hand performance, and plenty of catwalk realness. It was a respite from the show’s stunning high-wire eroticism, and yet the voguing break served to underline the most intoxicating element of twigs’ music: a sense of longing. The crowd still wanted to go deeper with twigs.
Produced as part of the Red Bull Music Academy’s month-long programming series in New York, Congregata is a nearly two-hour show featuring upwards of ten male dancers (some recognizable from her latest video) and a four-piece live band, who are largely heard but not seen amidst the darkness. Not that anyone would be looking at them anyway. Amidst interludes highlighting styles such as crumping, ballet, bone-breaking, contortionism, and of course, voguing, Congregata was as much a fully realized vision of modern dance as it was a celebration of twigs’ music. “A lot of music artists don’t respect the roots of dancing,” twigs recently told the Times. “I never want to associate myself with something that I don’t understand. I would never want to be guilty of cultural appropriation.”
At first twigs attempted her choreographic homages alone, accompanied only by artful lighting design that highlights the soft and hard dichotomy that punctuates her work. By the fifth song, “Papi Pacify,” twigs — who is classically trained in choreography — found herself intertwined and straddled with one of her dancers. They proceeded to writhe on the ground, grind upright, and thrust into the air. It was as, if not more, sensual than the song’s memorably twisted video — yet to see these acts play out on stage removes the disembodiment that can accompany twigs’ ethereal upper register on record or her unwavering stare from behind a screen. Whatever haze of sexuality twigs occupies within her art can easily be thought of as a dream world, until you see it IRL. But it’s also not just about her.
Though her dancers served as useful back-up — twigs’ Cleopatra- and Marilyn-style lifts cannot be achieved without them — they also performed their own routines, independent of her. The homoeroticism of Congregata has never been seen in a large-scale live show from a pop star, not even Madonna in the early ’90s, when she appropriated Voguing and offered up images of gay sensuality. In recent years, many pop stars have spoken out in support of same-sex rights, with some — like Lady Gaga — even writing hit singles about this topic (“Born this Way”). But none have forced audiences to confront these issues in the explicit, boundary-pushing ways that twigs, her choreographer Aaron Sillis, and her director Ryan Heffington (best known for his recent work with Sia) do with this show. Not when a tangled-up four-way of sorts breaks among the male dancers, many of whom are dressed in black kilts.
The show’s highlight, however, was very much a singular star moment for twigs. Dressed in a glittering vest, the singer stood behind a row of red light beams, weaving her body in and out of their path while aggressively offering up “Video Girl,” a tension-filled highlight of last year’s LP1. Her body seemed to become a prism, the same way her music can do the same to its listeners. Even when a row of dancers were playing follow the leader amidst the laser beams, twigs might as well have been the only person on stage. Aiding in this were her high-fashion, high-femme dominatrix looks — a combination of work from her mother Bonita Barnett, her stylist Karen Clarkson, and her couture favorite Alexander McQueen.
Congregata is a show about lust, control, intimacy, and ultimately, isolation. As she closed the show with EP2 standout “How’s That,” twigs ran to her departing cabal of male dancers, one by one, until they left her alone in the middle of the stage with only the spotlight to keep her warm. It wasn’t anything she’s not used to, however. Though FKA twigs’ art — songs, videos, live performances, visual branding — is often marked by its sensuality, it’s not usually a red-hued paradise. As a fluid display of sexuality’s darker corners — particularly sadomasochism — Congregata ranks as one of pop music’s most ambitious statements, and serves as a reminder of what FKA twigs does best.