Since the start of her career, FKA twigs – less a singer than a very modern sort of audiovisual artist – has drawn on ballet and R&B, on fetishism and body modification. But nothing this outre tunesmith has done – not even her recent comeback single, Cellophane, and its eye-popping pole-dancing video – can quite prepare you for the start of this visually intoxicating comeback show.
Appearing in front of a lush red velvet curtain, the woman born Tahliah Barnett is dressed like a Venice carnival souvenir, tap dancing to a series of jazz scats. Sometimes she responds move for beat, sometimes it’s more abstract. Baffling, impossible to parse, this is a great attention-grabber. You are expecting one kind of weird from FKA twigs, and you get quite another. Later on in the set, one of these rhythmic themes will recur in some of the songs she’s performing for the first time.
Previously staged in Los Angeles and New York, her Magdalene tour – named after an unreleased song on an album we assume is coming – is hosted for one night only in this recently reopened, atmospheric Victorian space. The theatre had been mothballed for decades, and is reborn a strange, half-finished neoclassical space where uplit statuary and double-height ceilings magnify the resonance of this visually intoxicating set. At the start, disembodied vocals, culled from her song Mary Magdalene – “a woman’s touch, a woman’s work” – nod to Kate Bush and This Woman’s Work.
A singer of not-quite-R&B, Aaliyah via Björk, FKA twigs has an enviable vocal range. Tonight, as she roams through her Mercury prize-nominated 2014 debut, LP1, its follow-up EP, M3LL155X, and a great tranche of new music, she tops off at a tremulous dog-whistle frequency, and bottoms out at a contralto ache. But she began her career as a dancer, and still leads her art with a sinuous physicality. The word “gig” doesn’t quite do this interdisciplinary series of sung tableaux justice; it’s like an Instagram feed gone live, mixing high fashion with intergalactic stripclub vibes and a deep well of female sorrow.
Although she has an ardent fanbase of cognoscenti, FKA twigs is more widely recognised for being half of a former celebrity couple. (Her ex, Robert Pattinson, was the star of a vampire-themed film franchise; she is actually far more otherworldly.) She has not done any explicit interviews around her new material, but you can’t help but suppose that the breakup of her three-year relationship – one lived in the goldfish bowl of celebrity, and in which she served as a lightning rod for the racist attitudes of some Twilight fans – might find emotional expression in her new work. Indeed, LP2 looks as though it is shaping up to be FKA twigs’s Vulnicura – the Björk album in which the Icelandic auteur processed her breakup from her long-term partner.
Little in this grandiose, oblique show actually matches the opening dance for sheer jaw-dropping wonder; a few scenes come close and one transcends it. First, there is a lot to process. Songs from the first album unfurl with stately froideur and a dancer’s restraint; the curtain parts to reveal more curtains. She seems alone, singing as though to backing tracks; but the gig is really a series of reveals. She swaps her microphone for a sword, and stage-fights an invisible presence. One of the downsides of this ambitious, but highly stylised, show is how the music seems to serve the pictures she wants to make, rather than the other way around. Dancers appear; later still, when curtain after curtain falls, a three-piece band is revealed on some scaffolding – two operatives at banks of digital gear and a cellist, the nerve centre of this operation.
Halfway through the set, the new material finally debuts. Mary Magdalene finds her enunciating crisply, more Judy Garland than Aaliyah; multitracked vocals eventually take the song polyphonic. For Home With You, her look channels something of a nomadic tribeswoman on her wedding day; she ministers to a person in the front row, presumably in an echo of Jesus’s girlfriend. A devastating new song, Mirrored Heart, is one of the set’s most affecting. She asks a series of rhetorical emotional questions, and ends up staggering around, falling violently to the floor, picking herself up, and falling again: it looks painful. It ends with her singing a cappella, snuffling, at times almost sobbing. You can hear a pin drop before the crowd shouts its encouragement.
Last year’s collaboration with A$AP Rocky, Fukk Sleep, hinted that she might be heading in a more commercial, US direction, ready to parlay her arty notoriety into something actually resembling proper fame. But these new songs are often slow and piano-led; accessible, but not particularly mainstream and not that far removed from her compositions of old. There is a shift happening, moving FKA twigs’s emotional centre of gravity from her sexual presence to something infinitely sadder and, perhaps, more interesting. Big drum sounds combine with amorphous digital menace, and effects-laden strings have something, unexpectedly, of Sigur Rós about them.
FKA twigs’s X-ratedness remains, but it is transformed. For Lights On, an oldie about having sex with the lights on, she is stripped to a bikini and pole-dances as she does in the Cellophane video. For all the pole’s unsavoury connotations, however, FKA twigs’s athleticism is the point here: having undergone surgery for uterine fibroids last year, her physical recovery is central to this comeback.
For Two Weeks, another old song, she is transformed again, wearing a Marie Antoinette-style bustled gown that looks as if it has been made from men’s shirts. The costume design here alludes to Vivienne Westwood, a visual influence: FKA twigs collects vintage Westwood and recently performed Cellophane at the Wallace Collection in central London, a museum whose 18th-century artworks have inspired Westwood’s designs. Glitter falls.
When it comes, the mournful piano ballad Cellophane is delivered as an encore at the lip of the stage, with the red curtain once again shut behind her. “Didn’t I do it for you,” she begins, “Why don’t I do it for you?” In the video, the song’s meaning is clear: look at this cool, bendy goddess you are spurning.
Sung straight into a microphone, the emphasis shifts anew, with the final lines seemingly addressing the pain of a relationship in which fans are the third party in the engagement. “They’re waiting, they’re watching… and hoping I’m not enough,” she sings, abjectly, the online mob putting paid to her love. In turn, her dancers mob her, and, as the curtains shut, she disappears into a group hug.