Off The Deep End

The All-volunteer Fluid Movement Celebrates 10 Years Of Turning Average Joes And Janes Into The Stars Of Their Wacky Water Ballets

July 23, 2009|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

Shannon Twenter bowed one arm into the shape of a handle, tipped over far to one side, and made like a little beer stein, short and stout.

Inside the Riverside Park Pool, the 19-member Milkmaid Brigade from Lichtenstein mimic her every movement as best they can while treading water. Then, on cue, the milkmaids began simultaneously backstroking, a few with yellow scarf "pigtails" trailing behind them.

It was almost time for the Flurry Family to crash-land in Peru after trips to the Russian Gulag and Japan, and the milkmaids didn't want to delay their plane.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Thursday's editions on the art troupe Fluid Movement mistakenly stated the name of Valarie Perez-Schere's former employer. When she got involved with Fluid Movement, she worked for the Patterson Park Community Development Corp. The Baltimore Sun regrets the errors.

"Watch your spacing!" Twenter called to the swimmers, while adding in an undertone to an observer, "A plot that makes sense is not a high priority for us."

And Fluid Movement's thousands of fans wouldn't want it any other way.

The wacky all-volunteer group. which will celebrate its 10th anniversary next week, is a Baltimore institution, performing annually for a total audience of up to 4,000. Other cities might occasionally stage a synchronized water ballet, but if there's another municipality that produces these extravaganzas year after year, it has escaped the notice of Fluid Movement.

The group prides itself on welcoming all comers. Fluid Movement deliberately does not hold auditions and turns no one away. In the past, the performers have included trained synchronized swimmers - and they have included folks in floaters and life preservers.

The grand finale of this year's show, Strange Customs: The Flurry Family Odyssey, when all 80 cast members get in the water and strut their stuff, is not to be missed.

"The whole point of Fluid Movement is to give folks access to art that they might never have had," says Valarie Perez Schere, a founder of the group, and a current performer and board member. "Maybe they never took part in a high school play. Maybe they never got up in a bar and did karaoke. This gives them a chance to be creative."

Part of the group's mission is to involve residents in their city.

"All of our art is created to be performed in urban spaces," she says, "So Fluid Movement is as much about the process as it is about the final product. It's about showing up at every rehearsal, and getting to know Baltimore's parks, pools and lifeguards."

And perhaps no other water ballet boldly applies glitter to places where it has never been applied before. "When we began, we had no mikes, no tech and no scenery. Basically, one guy hit 'play' on a boombox, and that was it," says Ted Alsedek, one of four producers who makes sure each show goes ... um, swimmingly.

Now, scenic elements include a 12-foot guard tower painted blue, and fences surrounding the gulag are topped with real barbed wire. The scene in Lichtenstein takes place before a snow-covered Alp and features a life-size stuffed goat. Peru has a volcano, and in Japan, a fabulously green Godzilla makes a surprise appearance.

"Each scene is almost a show in itself," says Alsedek, who dreams of ever more elaborate special effects: underwater speakers, a sophisticated lighting system, perhaps an LED screen to improve visibility for spectators seated at a distance.

Tragically, the goat doesn't float, and neither does Godzilla, so about half of each 30-minute performance takes place out of the water.

The idea for Fluid Movement comes from the water-logged brain of Keri Burneston, also known as the burlesque performer and half of the duo, Trixie Little and the Evil Hate Monkey.

In 1998, Burneston was floating in a pool with friends and listening to tunes. She is a huge fan of the old MGM musicals from the 1940s and 1950s featuring swimming sensation Esther Williams, and she thought it might be fun to put on a water ballet.

After rehearsing in a friend's pool, Burneston sensed, rightly, that there was a larger audience for such a show than could fit in a Baltimore backyard. She started searching for a public pool in which to perform, and crossed paths with Perez Schere, who at the time worked in marketing for the city Department of Recreation and Parks.

"It was such a ridiculomongous idea," says Perez Schere, "that I knew it was something I absolutely had to get involved with."

All of this naturally raises the question of where the show's organizers find 80 average Baltimoreans willing to perform in public in their bathing suits - and audience members willing to fork over $10 to watch them. The mystery deepens with the discovery that a large proportion of the volunteers are teachers and scientists, two professions that emphasize brains over brawn.

"You'd be surprised how easy it is to cast our shows," says show producer Amanda Richardson, adding that a participant in a recent show uncannily resembled the rotund Jerry Garcia, the late lead guitarist for The Grateful Dead.

"Fluid Movement is kind of contagious," Richardson says. "Once you see someone else who doesn't have a perfect body perform in a swimsuit, it's very liberating."

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