Thom Yorke, Radiohead frontman, alternative-rock legend, notorious free spirit with his band’s platinum-selling self-releases and go-its-own-way moxie, deserves a new title: the dance world’s guitar hero.
If there were ever a rock star to affirm the power and necessity of dancing, to return it to the realm of vital human expression, it is Yorke. I recently saw him at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, one of the stops on his current national tour, where he danced all night. He played a little music, too — songs from his solo albums “The Eraser” and “Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes,” as well as a song from his side hustle Atoms for Peace and from the soundtrack he wrote for the horror movie “Suspiria.”
Yorke’s music is unfailingly beautiful and richly layered in electronic beats, poetic lyrics and his high, plaintive vocals. But my eye went to how the 50-year-old Englishman lost himself in a world of sensuality onstage, how he transferred in a physical way, through his body, the immersive energy of his music. And how he pulled the audience forward in anticipation of his next unexpected twist or liquid roll of his hips or his bobbing, bouncing way of traversing the stage.
Even seated at the keyboard (which he did rarely), Yorke kept up his dance, rolling his shoulders and swaying with a smooth, watery quality.
There’s no confusing Yorke’s obvious love of dance with other mainstream musicians who have made dance part of their live shows and music videos, such as Beyoncé, Justin Timberlake, Usher, Lady Gaga, Michael Jackson and so on.
These artists incorporate dance in a conventional way, working choreography into their concerts with backup dancers or their own punchy, often aggressive and highly practiced moves. Dance is another hard-hitting or flashy element of their spectacle. Yorke’s approach is different.
There’s nothing forceful or deliberately crowd-pleasing about his movement. Not everyone has appreciated it. Yorke turned to ballet choreographer Wayne McGregor to help create the moves for his video “Lotus Flower,” from Radiohead’s album “The King of Limbs” (there’s a clever dance image), in which he performed snaky, sinuous gestures and staggered and shook as if possessed. It was one of the most-watched music videos of 2011. It was also widely parodied, and even some fans professed to be mystified by such a frank display of weirdness.
If Yorke’s music is seen as cerebral, his moves are decidedly anti-intellectual.
That’s the beauty of them. You can’t not be moved by his dancing; it is so raw, personal and seemingly spontaneous. Even if you think it is a bit odd — and you would not be alone — you can also appreciate how swept up in it he becomes. It is distinctly Yorke-ish: subtle, lyrical, emanating from deep wells of feeling. Yorke speaks through his dancing just as he does through his lyrics, his guitar and piano, and the diving, soaring flight of his voice.
Yorke’s affection for dance has taken other forms, as well. Throughout his career, he has brought his music right to the heart of the dance world. He collaborated with modern-dance legend Merce Cunningham on a dance work called “Split Sides,” in 2003, with Radiohead performing as the pit band.
Perhaps it was the dance theme that attracted him to “Suspiria.” The movie centers on a German dance company that is secretly run by witches. It starred Tilda Swinton, hair braided down her back, no makeup, as a convincing double for the late, highly influential German choreographer Pina Bausch.
And in his current tour, Yorke proclaims his love of dance — his need to dance — even louder.
At the Kennedy Center, Yorke quickly lifted the audience out of their red-velvet seats and onto their feet, to join him in what became an evening-long dance-a-thon. He was constantly in motion, swaying and buoyant all throughout his two-hour set. Wordlessly, simply by example, he invited participation.
Yorke’s body follows the movement of his voice, in songs such as “Black Swan” (a title that recalls the sexy antiheroine of the ballet “Swan Lake”) and “Interference,” with their ethereally floating vocals, mellow and dreamy. His gently but insistently moving presence contrasted with the relative stillness of his two collaborators: Nigel Godrich, the Radiohead producer who provided electronic accompaniment, and Tarik Barri, who contributed gloriously swirly visual projections. They shared the stage with Yorke but mostly kept their heads down, absorbed in their computers.
At one point, Yorke, in a black T-shirt and trousers rolled high to display his chunky white sneakers, scooted those eye-catching feet backward in a reverse cha-cha. He raised his arms while circling his hips to throw the focus squarely on his wiggling midsection. His belt buckle caught the light. He played air bongos, rocked his hips.
Dancing is simply what he does when he sings; it’s probably what he does in his kitchen, and in the recording studio.
But one of the only songs Yorke didn’t dance to was, ironically, a waltz, the melancholy and mysterious song “Suspirium,” which Yorke wrote for “Suspiria.” It was his last encore.
“This is a waltz/Thinking about our bodies/What they mean/for our salvation,” Yorke crooned while playing the keyboard.
And after acknowledging the cheers, and saluting the balconies, Yorke bowed to his audience with the grace and ease of a ballet prince.