Despite dark clouds and scattered storms, swarms of people crowded around the edges of Druid Hill Park Pool on Saturday afternoon to watch synchronized swimmers pay homage to scientific phenomena—both real and fantastical, celestial and super-local.
The premiere of local performance collective Fluid Movement's fifteenth annual water ballet ended just before the massive storm hit, resulting in the cancellation of the second show that evening. But in that hour, the scene felt like a hyped-up, quintessentially Baltimore summer day: colorful, humid, and the best kind of weird. "Science Fair! The Water Ballet - Hypothesis: It's Gonna Be Awesome" filled the chlorine-blue pool with swimmers old and young dressed as reanimated bodies, light waves, potatoes and sunflowers harvested from Mars, great scientists of the past, and actual garbage, among other things. By the end of the show, approximately 80 performers were in the water at once.
That number is the result of more than a decade in reaching out to the community and Fluid Movement's open-door policy.
"If you sign up, you're in; if you show up to the rehearsals, you're in," says Valarie Perez-Schere, a founding member and current Board President of Fluid Movement. Perez-Schere acts as the producer and "superintendent" of the show, which she notes in her opening remarks is dedicated to Robert L. Drake Jr., a scuba instructor and lifeguard of Baltimore City Recreation and Parks' aquatics program who passed away in January. A banner stretching across the blue backdrop reads "Robert L. Drake Jr. Middle School 17th Annual Science Fair."
In her Fluid Movement debut, Kay-Megan Washington emcees the science fair as the bubbly educator Ms. Waters, providing shrill, pun-riddled commentary between scenes or "projects." Her best jokes are insider: when introducing the Save The Bay club, whose project includes an appearance from Baltimore's own Mr. Trash Wheel, Ms. Waters informs the audience that the Inner Harbor's solar- and water-powered trash-collecting device has been known to pick up tourists from Chicago, referring to the recent viral video of carefree or more likely unaware Chicagoans swimming in the harbor's poo-filled waters.
And as gleefully as those tourists leapt into the city's mass toilet, so did the synchronized swimmers into the much cleaner pool. With choreography created for all kinds of bodies—many dressed in fairly elaborate costumes—slowed down by water, the movements appear simple, but still create spectacles through synchronicity. That, and the over-the top props and costumes. Those who believe swim caps and goggles can't be fashionable beachwear should look to the Brides of Frankenstein, who circle and kick to the tune of Lady Gaga's 'Born This Way' in enviable salmon pink one-pieces with iridescent robes.
Two of the upcoming shows (which take place at Patterson Park Pool) will be held at night and will include an additional light show element.
"The thing that I love most is that every flick of water is like diamonds," Perez-Schere says of the light shows. "Any spray, when we jump in, it pops and shines."
Each scene features different sets of performers—a model adapted by Fluid Movement after their first water ballets left performers exhausted after treading water for long stretches of time. This also allows the production to feature kids as performers. In "Science Fair," kids swim in a tribute to unified field theory, with appearances from pint-sized reincarnations of Isaac Newton, Jane Goodall, Mae Jemison, Nikola Tesla, Albert Einstein, Maria Mitchell, Ada Lovelace, Emilie du Chatelet, and Caroline Herschel (note the very important female scientist representation here).
True to the class project spirit, each scene is also helmed by a different director or team of directors, who create the choreography and overall look of the scene. But the process is highly collaborative, Perez-Schere says, and often develops through the rehearsal process with the input of the performers.
Founded in part by now New York-based cirque-burlesque hero Beatrix Burneston AKA Trixie Little in 1998, Fluid Movement does not limit itself to water ballet—the group regularly trades in its goggles for roller skates. A highlight of the last either Transmodern Festivals has been Fluid Movement's "Love Parade" and last Spring, the group appeared at the inaugural Light City festival with a dance tribute to the outgoing McKeldin Fountain. Perez-Schere hopes that in the future, the group will be able to teach the community how to create public spectacles through, for example, workshops in making props and set pieces out of found objects.
In or out of the water, all Fluid Movement shows contain that distinctly Baltimore-burlesque sensibility of going all out with anything and everything you've got (though, needless to say, Fluid Movement shows tend to be more kid-friendly than burlesque). Like previous Fluid Movement water ballets—particularly last year's meme-worthy ode to the film career of Jeff Goldblum—"Science Fair" makes little sense and it doesn't need to. The bliss on the swimmers' faces quickly spreads to the audience. It's the most ridiculous thing they've ever seen in a public pool.
"Science Fair: The Water Ballet" is held at Patterson Park Pool for six shows on Aug. 5-7. For more information, visit fluidmovement.org.