The crossover artist: Antony Hegarty’s artistic journey culminates in a massive performance tonight at Radio City

Antony Hegarty. (Courtesy MoMA and Clive Osborne.)
Tweet Share on Facebook Share on Tumblr Print

Swanlights, the large-scale symphonic concert event by Antony and the Johnsons commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art and featuring a 60-piece orchestra at Radio City Music Hall tonight, is the culmination of a particular fascination Antony Hegarty first developed over two decades ago.

"The idea of luminosity and exploring the sense of light and dark in the space, and connecting that to the music," was how Hegarty described it to me in a phone interview in December. "Using as a model the idea of quartz crystal in the black center of a mountain, the idea of luminosity within the pitch."

"The relationship between light and darkness is something I've been thinking about for a long time starting with my observations of the photography of Peter Hujar," he said; he was referring to the photographer most known for his black and white documentation of queer culture. Hujar's most famous image, Candy Darling on Her Deathbed, would be used for the cover of the second album by Antony and the Johnsons, 2005's I Am a Bird Now.

But really there was another event that prefigured his interest in Hujar's work. In 1987, as a teenaged Hegarty walked along the streets of Angers in northwest France, he said, he was captivated by a poster with an unusual portrait of a middle-aged Japanese man. The man, heavily made up and wearing an elegant woman's outfit with long lace gloves and a wide-brimmed hat, lifted and curled his hands toward his face as if he were gently lifting a veil. Not knowing anything more about the image or what the poster was designed to advertise, Hegarty asked the man putting it up, in his best French, if he could have one.

MORE ON CAPITAL

ADVERTISEMENT

He took it home and taped it over his bed. A few years later Hegarty, then 21, saw a film by Peter Sempel called Just Visiting this Planet. It showed a man in white-face in a long white dress doing a kind of delicate pantomime interjected with violent bursts of movement around another man standing very still. His movement was inflected with feminine nurturing, but heavy with a tragic sense of suffering, endurance, and affection. Hegarty cried when he saw it.

Upon returning home, he was surprised to realize that the man in the film was the same man in the poster he had had above his bed all that time—Kazuo Ohno, one of the founders of Butoh, "the dance of darkness," a Japanese dance form which embraces playfully grotesque costuming, subversive subjects, and absurd staging. Over the years, Hegarty would incorporate some of these elements into his own work. The poster of Ohno, from that point forward, would remain above Hegarty's bed and it would be a source of his greatest inspiration.

"Kazuo has been a lifelong hero of mine, and has a very particular, quite feminine ecstatic approach to theatrical dance form—very devotional and very emotional," said Hegarty. "And in the course of my work, I've aspired to do in music what I was so compelled to observe him doing in dance in terms of aspiring to a kind of transformation, the white inside blackness—shaking inside molecules—in a very tender way."

The Radio City Swanlights, performance, though named after Antony and the Johnsons' fourth album, is a medley of songs spanning Hegarty's career that have been arranged for a symphonic treatment by Nico Muhly, Rob Moose, and Maxim Moston. The event also features a light installation by light artist Chris Levine, lighting designer Paul Normandale, and set designer Carl Robertshaw.

Swanlights is actually the second work of Hegarty's inspired by Ohno, and the final realization of a project begun in 2009. That year the symphonic production The Crying Light was staged at the Manchester International Festival. In it Hegarty, a gentle giant of a man over 6 feet tall, appeared in a white flowing gown, under an installation that looked like an explosion of crystal, glowing and smoking overhead, and sang in his signature controlled vibrato into the expanse of the Manchester Opera House. But tonight, Hegarty goes further.

"The scale is radically different," said Hegarty. "But what we were experimenting with in Manchester, is [now] most fully realized."

"This is the largest scale production I've ever facilitated," he said. "In that regard it's really exciting. We're building set pieces and working with an amazing designer, Carl Robertshaw. He builds these kite-like structures. It's a mystery to me how we're going to fabricate stuff on this scale."

And while they've been touring Europe doing symphonic shows, Hegarty said, "We've never built such immersive sets for the spaces we've performed in. It's sort of the scale of the visual installations."

Since that performance in 2009, all of the energy, it seems has been put towards perfecting this performance.

"I've been working with Chris Levine, a light artist from the U.K., and we've been developing these ideas for the last couple of years. This is the final realization of this performance."

Klaus Biesenbach, chief curator-at-large at MoMA and director of MoMA PS1, has had quite a bit to do with how large this particular performance has become.

"He came to see the show in 2009," said Hegarty. "And included it in an exhibition he did [in 2009]—a series of performance art pieces he thought were interesting presented at PS1—100 Years [A History of Performance Art]. That began the conversation between the two of us about bringing the piece to New York and transforming it."

"This is one of the first times I've worked so closely with a museum as a producer," Hegarty said. "And that's really because of Klaus."

HEGARTY'S LIFE AND CAREER, IT SEEMS, HAVE been shaped by fortuitous encounters with influential figures in the art and music industries who have taken a shine to him and beamed him into the place he needed to be, leading him on a sequential trail of transformation, with each new set of musical and artistic challenges presenting an opportunity for personal and professional evolution. As a result Hegarty leaped to stardom with a kind of speed reserved for very few musicians.

One of the first such fortuitous encounters happened in college. While Hegarty was enrolled at the University of California at Santa Cruz, he was taught by gay activist and author Vito Russo, whose class, The Celluloid Closet—based on his book by the same title—explored the portrayal of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender characters in Hollywood film.

Hegarty, who grew up in Chichester, England, moved to the San Jose, California at the age of 10. He started writing and recording songs when he was 13 by emulating singers he admired like Kate Bush, Marc Almond, Boy George, and Nina Simone. Though he never took theater classes at Santa Cruz, Hegarty would gather friends and put on productions at the end of each year in the school's cafeteria: "Transvestite musicals," he called them, inspired by the films of John Waters. He would play the tragic character. These would also be formative in that they were the first time he would take on a feminine persona.

His play Meg and Sylvie involved a character drawn to abusive relationships who is beaten up and thrown out of her house and later kidnapped by an S & M fiend. In Sister Rosa, Hegarty played a nun who eats too much cheese and gets abducted by perverts.

Vito Russo understood Hegarty's theatrical ambitious, and encouraged him to move to New York. And that year, 1990, Hegarty did just that.

In New York, Hegarty enrolled in the Experimental Theatre Wing at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. There he found another mentor in Martin Worman, an actor, playwright, and female impersonator who had been a member of the famed San Francisco psychedelic drag troupe the Cockettes. Worman introduced Hegarty to the filmmakers Jack Smith and Charles Ludlam as well as the whole landscape of transgender performance artists whom he considers his spiritual forebears, his "family tree." He also began his research into queer underground performance by visiting and interviewing legendary personalities on the circuit, like Hattie Hathaway, performer and promoter of the Mudd Club and Pyramid.

It was no doubt influential figures like Worman and Russo who not only took notice of Hegarty's talent, but also helped him find his voice as a transgender performer. With friends Johanna Constantine and Psychotic Eve, Hegarty formed the Blacklips Performance Cult, an avant-garde drag theater troupe with whom he put on weekly shows at Mother, one of New York's central underground performance clubs located in the meatpacking district and frequented by drag queens, punks, and "gender mutants." It was there that the Blacklips performed surreal and gothic, barely-scripted tableau of camp burlesque during which Hegarty would belt out torch songs that brought the college kids and drag queens alike to tears.