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When the Museum of Modern Art commissioned you to create Swanlights, just what were you asked to do?
Klaus Biesenbach, the director at MoMA, talks about the performance like an off-site exhibition. He came to see a piece that I was developing, a concert that tended to a lot of visual concerns, that we presented in Manchester in 2009. Based on that, he invited me to present something in the atrium at MoMA. Then the dream of it grew and grew, until we decided to do an off-site performance.
How did you outgrow MoMA?
Well, there were some practical things: the idea of working with a symphony, and also wanting to have a space that could accommodate these more theatrical production values. And I'd always had a dream of doing something at Radio City.
I love the shape of the space, the roundness of it. The idea of the piece is almost like imagining that you're in the center of a mountain. And also this idea of luminosity—like how a quartz crystal might be embedded in the black center of a mountain. So [Radio City is] kind of the perfect space for it; it's so massive and expansive, yet still has a kind of organic quality.
How do you deal with "light, nature and femininity" in a hall whose most famous residents, the Rockettes, symbolize militarized feminity?
"Militarized"... [Chuckles] I never really thought of it that way. I just always thought it was the most beautiful theater in New York City. I was responding to the geometry of the space. At the same time, we're working with almost metaphysical designs for the lines of light, inspired by images of Bauhaus lighting design for the stage.
How do you maintain intimacy on a stage as big as a city block?
[Laughs] I never thought about it like that. In the way sound is amplified, you can do something tremendously intimate in a large space. Observing the space that we're sharing is what's exciting to me. As a performer, I also like to consider myself a participant; I'm participating with the audience in this adventure.
The goal being a more communal, shared experience rather than a one-directional delivery.
Yeah. I think that even if it's just a way I try to trick myself, to put so much forward, but I do think of it as a two-way street.
Was there a specific theme that you wanted to evoke with the songs you picked for this event?
Ummm... [Long pause] Honestly, I just wanted to put the stronger songs forward, the ones that I thought were the most beautiful but that also sat within the realm of the themes that we're addressing. And there's also a focus on the newer works, because a lot of the lyric content revolves around this notion of light and darkness, a metaphysical exploration—not metaphysical, but this idea of passage from dark to light.
You've surrounded yourself with prestigious collaborators. Do you call the shots, or is there give-and-take?
I've been very lucky to work with super-talented people who bring so much richness to our work together. There's no way that I could envision a lot of the things that they're coming up with. My sense of music is more like a folk musician's grasp of music: It's about melody and some basic ideas about color and emotionality and spirit. I would not be able to create these rich symphonic textures by myself. So definitely the hand of other people is at work in the material. It's Antony and the Johnsons, not just Antony.
Antony and the Johnsons present Swanlights at Radio City Music Hall Thu 26.