Spark Of Creativity

Fluid Movement troupe throws cold water on the notion that remembering Baltimore's Great Fire can't be fun.

August 05, 2004|By Kirsten Valle | Kirsten Valle,SUN STAFF

Sandwiched between two lines of red-and-blue-clad actors dodging raindrops under a Patterson Park pavilion, Sherri Chambers is trying to pull one out of the fire.

"You thought you've won again and then you get hit with a wall of water," she's saying, waving her hands theatrically toward the "flames," though she might as well be talking about herself. "And then you go into a salsa dance."

Just another wacky night for Baltimore's Fluid Movement and first-time director Chambers, who appears calm and collected - especially with just one week to bring her incendiary finale under control. Earth, Wind and the Baltimore Fire, a tribute to the 100th anniversary of the Great Baltimore Fire, is Chambers' first leadership role with Fluid Movement. But if she's feeling any five-alarm sense of dread, Chambers isn't letting on.

She gives the cue and blue "water" and red "fire" begin dancing, thrashing their arms like sassy sea anemones to edgy, Latin-inspired percussion against the backdrop of Patterson Park's rolling green and dog-walkers. It takes a few tries to get the flailing in sync, and some off-the-cuff changes are made to the "fire" actors' moves, but this group is used to last-minute rearranging.

"This show has got a lot of things going on," says Chambers, dressed modestly in a plaid shirt and jean skirt, blond curls caught in loose pigtails at her neck. "It's a fun look, a semi-historical look, at something that was huge for Baltimore."

Fun with the Baltimore Fire, which claimed more than 70 downtown blocks in February 1904? Why not, says Jeannine Disviscour, curator of the Maryland Historical Society, which has seen record attendance at its own tribute, the Baltimore Ablaze exhibit. She calls Fluid Movement's show a great way to commemorate the event. "The fire has clearly caught the imagination of and inspired Baltimoreans," she says.

Besides, Chambers adds, "I think the spirit is pretty clear, that it's in honor of [the fire] and not making fun of it."

As for other burning questions: Yes, the show will feature real fire (not to worry - there's water, too, plus a 150-foot Slip 'n' Slide). No, the music has nothing to do with a certain '70s R&B powerhouse (salsa compositions are by Dan Deacon, an experimental musician and college friend of Chambers). And yes, the director is a little worried about living up to the zany renown of Fluid Movement, founded in 1998 by Baltimoreans Keri Burneston, Melissa Martens and Valerie Perez-Schere and known for such offbeat fare as Carmen: The Hot Dog Opera, Go-Go Pirate Show and 1001 Freudian Nights: A Biography in Bellydance.

Perez-Schere, who's helping with costumes and fund raising, offers counsel by phone to Chambers when she needs it. "As a director, it's a lot of responsibility to try to make a show that everybody's going to be happy with," Perez-Schere says. "[Chambers] takes everything in stride."

Meanwhile, outside the pavilion, Duff Goldman as the mayor, dressed regally in a top hat and ratty sweat shirt, rehearses loudly while Holly Tominack and Betsy Bartow, the very-Baltimore narrators who smell the fire from their marble stoops, peer at their cheat sheets, perfecting the native tongue. "I think he's gon' say sumpin' 'bout da far," they speculate of the mayor, whose tall, prim wife is played by Joe Meduza.

The show also features flamenco dancers as flames, tumblers as the wind and children from the Baltimore City Carrera Program as the ultimately victorious water drops. This cast of about 50 volunteers includes newcomer to veteran, middle-schooler to middle-aged. Instead of an audition, actors attended an open house, where they discussed what they had in mind for the roles. "There's pretty much something for everyone," Chambers says. "The attitude is that anyone could be performers and everyone should be."

Carrie Wilson, playing a fireman, is a first-time actress who moved to Baltimore recently after a two-year stint in Africa with the Peace Corps. "Acting is a stretch for me," says Wilson, who joined Fluid Movement to meet new people. "It's a lot of fun, and [the group] represents Baltimore well, from what I know about the city, how it's centered around neighborhoods and people are friendly."

Martens, choreographer of Earth, Wind and the Baltimore Fire, says one thrill of production is working with newcomers. "It's always an exciting challenge. The most vibrant thing is that there are all different people with different skill levels," she says.

The mayhem just enforces the group's intent. "We like to say the purpose of Fluid Movement is to cover the whole city in glitter," Burneston says through silver glitter-glossed lips. "We also want to empower people to be ridiculously creative."

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