Off the deep end

Whether it's Poe on rollerskates, a Hades hoedown or Cleopatra in the Patterson Park Pool, the performance art group Fluid Movement isn't afraid to get in over its head.

July 27, 2000|By Deborah Bach | Deborah Bach,SUN STAFF

Valarie Perez Schere, tight yellow shorts over her black bathing suit, tattoos exposed and sunglasses perched on her head, paces poolside in Patterson Park, gesturing and throwing out directions to her cast like a hyped-up Martin Scorsese.

The group listens as Schere, a redheaded fireball, describes the scene they're about to rehearse. Their decadent celebration interrupted by the approach of Octavian and his Roman army, the Egyptians jump in the pool, ready for battle. Mass carnage ensues before Mark Antony, believing his beloved Cleopatra is dead, offs himself dramatically with a sword.

"Yeah? Dig it?" Schere asks the swimsuit-wearing actors around her. "Do you guys want to hear the music before we do this?"

She flicks on the boombox and a strange Egyptian-techno hybrid wafts out. Cleopatra, a young African-American woman with braided hair, a gauzy sarong and royal blue eyeshadow, waits regally on the sidelines. The Egyptians lounge at one end of the pool. At the other, inner tube-wearing, robotic Romans teeter stiff-legged into the shallow end.

A motley assemblage of shapes and sizes, the performers are not your average group of svelte swimmers. But then "Cleopatra: Life on the Nile" isn't your average synchronized swimming performance.

Opening tonight and running through Saturday at Patterson Park Pool in southeast Baltimore, "Cleopatra" is the latest production from Baltimore community arts group Fluid Movement. Among its other credits: a roller-skating interpretation of Poe's "Masque of the Red Death," an abridged version of Bizet's Carmen featuring hot-dog puppets, and, at last weekend's Artscape festival in Baltimore, "Hoe-Down in Hades," a square-dancing take on the Greek tale of Orpheus.

But chlorinated water is in Fluid Movement's blood. The group made its first big splash last summer with an offbeat synchronized swimming performance in Patterson Park called "Water Shorts" and the oddball ideas have been flowing like a tap ever since.

Like the show planned for the Jewish Museum of Maryland this fall to coincide with its ongoing exhibit of family treasures. A re-creation of great moments in Jewish and Yiddish theater, "Tchotchke Follies" will feature a cast made up of salt and pepper shakers.

Melissa Martens, curator of Jewish Museum of Maryland and, with Schere, one of Fluid Movement's founding members, says the group finds inspiration anywhere and everywhere. "Sometimes we know the story we want to tell, sometimes we just know the medium we want to perform in, such as swimming or skating," says Martens, 30. "We get inspired by any number of things."

The group's mission, Martens says, is to introduce audiences to complex stories in a way that makes the esoteric more accessible.

"We try to pick things that have familiarity and resonance with the audience, but by juxtaposing it with something comical or unexpected, it helps to bring it to life in a new way," she says.

Keri Burneston, the 25-year-old driving force behind this kitschy pairing of classical themes and pop culture, founded Fluid Movement out of a dissatisfaction with the traditional ways she saw art being presented.

A few years ago, Burneston, now on staff at Living Classrooms Foundation, was studying painting and drawing at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Dabbling in conceptual installations and video work, she was feeling increasingly self-indulgent. Burneston grew up in a working-class family and had always used her dad as a barometer to gauge the accessibility of her art. He wasn't coming to see her work, and she started thinking she was on the wrong track.

"I felt like a lot of people I was in school with and the art world in general expected the audience to figure out what they were doing," Burneston says. "I felt like it was my responsibility to help people understand what I was trying to say."

Ideas began to germinate, and Burneston decided to stage a puppet show. Unfamiliar with opera, she began listening to opera recordings until she found something she recognized: Carmen. Next was the medium. She figured the pairing of the all-American hot dog with European culture could only yield good results.

The franks were carved with mouths and accessorized with tiny swords and earrings, but the Vienna sausages originally used for the show's cherubs were quickly traded in for firmer, less odorous tofu wieners.

"Coming out of the jelly, the sucking sound they make is just disgusting," she says. "Tofu dogs hold their shape better."

After "Carmen: The Hog Dog Opera," Burneston set her sights on a water ballet. As a child, she'd play mermaid with her friends each summer, doing synchronized flips and practicing moves. She dreamed of being a synchronized swimmer or a movie star. Then in college, Burneston first saw an Esther Williams film and found a heroine in the 1940s swimming star.

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