Antony and the Johnsons’ ‘Turning’ Is Not a Transsexual Manifesto

Though it’s been six years since the wrap of Antony and the Johnsons’ European tour of Turning, the eponymous musical performance piece is the subject of a modest but moving new film by Charles Atlas, opening this Friday at IFC Center. Along with scenes from the live show—Antony Hegarty’s music accompanied by thirteen models, taking turns on a rotating platform—Atlas captured some of the backstage chatter and rehearsal nuances (Hegarty at one point instructs the orchestral musicians to play everything “bouncing upward, never falling down”).

Each of the women also gave an interview, sharing their experiences in frank but oddly sweet anecdotes. As a young girl, Eliza Douglas woke each morning hoping to find a penis under the sheets; Kembra Phaler realized that getting sent into the hallway was an easy gateway to ditching school for the beach. But for a project that’s as much about community as anything, the harrowing address of loneliness was unavoidable. The fashion designer Sunny Shiroma breaks down as she recalls slowly losing an entire circle of friends during the ’80s. Nearly all the girls talk of having felt isolated at some point.

On his website, Antony Hegarty notes that he’s been thinking about circles of light, the Arctic, witches, oxygen, feral intuition and a global new two-spirit alliance. He and Atlas, whose orange sideburns could be the subject of their own documentary, also had some thoughts on the film.

This was not, contrary to Le Monde’s headline, a transsexual manifesto?
Antony Hegarty
: I liked that the word manifesto was attached to the description of the film because it means something definitive. But the fact that they called it a transsexual manifesto seemed a little inaccurate because there’s a lot going on, there’s a lot of different kinds of people in the film.
Charles Atlas: I don’t think we were making a manifesto of any kind.

What were you making?
: A piece that embraced a lot of concerns—it’s really Antony’s world, I’m brought in as a collaborator. The vision is really the feminine vision that Antony has in his music and his outlook.
AH: It was about the form. The idea for the piece sparked out of the form of the turning model, Charlie’s portraits of turning models. He’d done another piece he’d shown in a gallery in New York [in 2003] before we did Turning, which was a very intimate portrait of one of the models’ turning face, sort of fragmenting and fracturing over a period of time. We used that as the prototype for this large exploration of a live performance—a marriage of that idea with a concert scenario. And we also integrated a sense of community into the process, whereby the models are seated in the front row, and performing for each other over a period of time.

Was the community that Sunny talked about something you had any experience with?
: I moved to New York in 1990—that was a different period of New York history. But certainly AIDS made an impression on several generations of people.
CA: It was definitely part of my experience.

What was it like? I know that’s a vague question—
: (chuckles) That’s a terrible question. It was a plague. It’s hard to think that it’s not part of someone else’s history.
AH: There is another generation now that’s grappling with that history. It’s kind of like WWII, when my grandmother used to tell me about WWII. Someone told me he saw the Sunny piece and he just said it was maybe, like, one of the most striking descriptions of that, and somehow so succinct. And it gets so many aspects of it across. It really is striking.
CA: And the dramatic notion of a group—and then all of them are gone. You know, I had a huge circle of friends, and a lot of them are gone but not all of them.
AH: I had that same thing explained to me by Vito Russo, that concept of a wipeout. There’s something so disarming about the way she tells the story—and it wasn’t something we solicited. The reason that the interviews are a part of the film is because at the end of the process of doing the second tour in Europe, we all had such a well of feeling in us, but we had never really articulated what it was we were doing. And of course, the narratives weren’t a part of the performance. But I went around just to collect interviews with people, just to find out how people were feeling and what their impression was of what we were doing. Because we didn’t really have a strong—as you say, manifesto—we were basically working with a form and with my music.
CA: We all had a feeling about it, and it was definitely a world and an image that we were projecting. But it was very loose—you know, there wasn’t a way to put words to it so much. Of course, as an audience you could watch and project from Antony’s music onto the particular model.
AH: And the themes of the songs actually did seem to collaborate with what was going on for the models. The idea became for me that the meaning of the piece was the sum of everyone’s feelings and intentions as they were participating. It was very open.

When you’d say to them before the shows, have this in your head: think about the time you felt the most loved, or think of yourself as a skeleton, did they ever tell you what they were thinking?
: (chuckles) I thought they basically just humored me.
CA: Well I thought it was really helpful because a lot of them had never been on the stage before. People who are performers kind of know how to carry themselves on stage, but that was especially helpful for the girls who didn’t have that experience.
AH: It was to encourage them not to focus on their externals, but just to go in and find a reverie. Because the whole idea, for me, of the portraits was to seek something kind of essential.
CA: Just, to be. That’s a hard thing to do.
AH: I thought of it as clay turning—it finds its form. So I just wanted to give them some ideas so their mind could wander, make them feel comfortable. But most of the women were very aware of the other women watching them, and there was a very strong sense of performing for each other. Not necessarily impressing each other, but raising the bar, and raising the energy. And I think there was a tremendous sense of pride—there was a strong commitment from everyone.

What’s been the response so far?
: What’s interesting for me has been the way people find a way to connect to the piece. It’s like, in some ways, bringing the narratives in—the pedestrian narratives of some of the women—grounds the piece.
CA: It was very funny [at the premiere]—three people came up to me and said, “I really want my mother to see this piece.” Separately, three separate people.
AH: I think there’s something about a feminine circle that is helpful, especially for certain kinds of people. It can even be restorative in a way—it’s almost kind of an indigenous idea. It’s not a hierarchical structure. It has a kind of alchemy to it, and also a sense of witnessing each other in equal footing. We did the show in Brooklyn, and an Inuit woman came up to me and said, “This is what it’s like in Alaska.”

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