The Aqualillies are the world’s foremost practitioners of synchronised swimming and water ballet. Their expertise is so sought after even the Coen brothers called them up when they wanted to pay tribute to the extinct Aquamusical genre in their newest film Hail Caesar! (which has recently been available on DVD). We caught up with Mesha Kussman and Mary Ramsay to discuss the often maligned art of synchronised swimming and why it might be making a comeback in the mainstream.
When the Coen brothers come calling what goes through your mind?
Mesha: It was pretty much a dream come true. I was one of these moments where you have a hunch that something to do with the silver screen is going to come along, after all the interest we’ve had in our live shows and the music videos we’ve done. We’ve ended up working with Ariana Grande, Justin Bieber and Nicki Minaj. So we knew there was an interest in this kind of thing, and we were right; we just didn’t know it was going to be the Coen Brothers. So this could only be a good experience.
Do you have a favourite Coen Brothers film?
Mesha: I think everything they do is great. I love Fargo; I love The Big Lebowski. O’Brother Where Art Thou is my favourite. Because I like anything with a song.
Mary: Hudsucker Proxy is probably my favourite. But yeah, these guys are just, y’know, legends. And not just legends. When you work with them you realise why everyone says they’re so good.
Mesha: It’s not just because of what they’re making, but also about how they work. One of the things I was really surprised and excited to find was that they hire the best creative collaborators and then they trust those people. So they do their research, and when they’ve decided the person they’re going to bring onto the team is ‘The Best’ person for the job, they trust that person. Of course, they are very involved because their vision is so exact. Part of their skill is relaying to other people through language and visuals exactly what their original vision is. But being able to work within that original vision, and then to also have the faith that they had in us to contribute what they knew only we could was really freeing and really empowering. So as an artist it’s really quite a joy to work with them.
Mary: And it seemed like everyone felt that way on set. The whole team, from the PA to the costume designer were working together for their vision.
Mesha: Yeah they had just an exceptional creative collaborative team. It was a smooth operation.
Did you have any input into developing the music for the scene you choreographed?
Mesha: Oh, actually we didn’t have the music when we choreographed it. We didn’t know what the music was going to be. We didn’t even hear it until we saw the film. I don’t think they had created the music yet. They created the music to go with the visuals.
Mary: When we were practicing and shooting we worked with a metronome. That was all the indication we had for where we need to be and when. But you don’t get the whole thing until you see the dancing with the music.
Mesha: Which, for us, is a whole different way of working. But it works for the piece because what they requested of us was to create a moving painting. So things had to happen on time with the metronome and it went pretty smooth as far as dynamics go. We created a picture with a flower that was constantly opening, slowly over time. This would be a lot different to something that we would create for a hip-hop album or something with a driving dance beat. In this you would see more legs shooting out of the water and splashing, all in time with the climactic moments of the scene. This was a bit more lyrical. I thought it was a great choice that they made having this scene be what it was; operatic… how would you describe the music?
Mary: A little flowery, but in the best way. And I thought it was so pretty, right? That they could have this contrast with the use of music and choreography to transport the audience and then have the wake-up call that Scarlett Johansson’s character is a brash version of Esther Williams.
How does it feel to know that some directors are still willing to take five minutes out of their film just to indulge in the traditions of song and dance?
Mesha: Honestly, I just think that song and dance, dance especially, it’s so beautiful on camera. It’s something that people really have a desire to see. I mean you see it on TV all the time; shows like So You Think You Can Dance? This movement is really inspiring to people. I think it’s short changing dance and song to not have it on screen, because you can create such a different product when you film dance than when you have the live experience.
Mary: Yeah, a story like Hail Caesar! really lends itself to being available to this kind of performative expression. It would be interesting to have a horror film, or something with a totally different genre than we’re used to. Oh, and by ‘interesting’ we mean totally awesome and we’d love to do it.
Mesha: If there are any horror film directors out there who want a synchronised swimming murder scene in their movie, we’re available.
Mary: Yeah and I’d love to see it in more films. We’ve received such a reaction from our live shows, and such a reaction from Hail Caesar! and other videos we’ve done that we’ve found people really respond positively to not only dance on camera, but to dancing in the water on camera. So if you add dance to a storyline you add a magical suspension of disbelief that can uplift the spirits. But if you add water to that it goes to another level because water in of itself is just so majestic.
What films/dances/styles did you take inspiration from?
Mesha: I think the biggest influence was probably Busby Berkeley and Ester Williams for the technicolour movie musicals that she used to make in the 50s. Partly because that was the era that we were recreating in Hail Caesar!, partly because she was the best. She just nailed it. There’s something that’s so universally aesthetically pleasing it’s timeless. So with this film we had the opportunity to bring back for the modern audience what was so relatable back then.
Mary: When we started Aqualillies they all had a background in synchronised swimming for about ten years on average. So we were able to do things that they couldn’t do in the 40s and 50s because our girls had been athletically trained specifically for synchronised swimming, which has developed so much since that time so we could create a vocabulary all of our own.
Mesha: Right, I mean nobody can compare to Esther Williams but if you look at what the Aqualillies as an ensemble was able to do together in Hail Caesar!, it is such an evolution upon what ensemble performers were able to do in the 50s under her. So we pride ourselves on being able to create imagery that is beautiful and timeless but also incorporate key athleticism, new techniques and the latest and greatest in water skills.
Give us an introduction on the Aqualillies.
Mesha: We run Aqualillies. I’m the founder and artistic director. I was also choreographer for Hail Caesar!’s Aquamusical scene. Mary is the executive director of Aqualillies and assistant choreographer. I think the Coen Brothers came to us because they knew that we had the most experience in the modern industry of synchronised swimming and water ballet. We feel really privileged to be able to contribute to the film and we hope there will be more films and projects like this. We also have a performance company that is international, so we have a team in Europe, a team in Australia which is based in Brisbane, and a team Canada. So we’re all over. We do live shows for private parties and events, we have clients around the world.
Mary: Our live shows are this really interesting combination of synchronised swimming and dance. So, unlike Hail Caesar! where you are only looking at us from above and everyone is in the water, our live shows are a multi-level experience. It’s a really dynamic and interactive experience because it’s right next to you. It makes a big splash.
How did you get into choreography?
Mesha: We both have different experiences. I started out as a dance choreographer performing in and designing performance art in New York City. Then, when I moved to Los Angeles, I became a part of the event scene because there was much more work, because in L.A. it’s all about the red carpet and parties. There’s not much of a theatre scene. I kept seeing that there were pool parties and that the pool is central to the experience, it would be the perfect stage, but no one is using it to perform on. That’s when I went to create Aqualillies. So from my theatre background my strengths are in branding and staging. A lot of this came about through ensemble experimentation. Then, as the company evolved, Mary became executive director and came forward as one of the stronger choreographers and leaders in the company.
Mary: I’ve been living and breathing choreography since I was six. I’ve been a synchronised swimmer my whole life. Part of being a competitive synchronised swimmer is coming up with your own choreography. That was always something that inspired and interested me. My favourite part of the year was the part when we got to do that. Then I got into coaching and started writing choreography for children around the country. It was a natural transition after I started performing with Aqualillies to bring that on camera. Things like music videos really got the ball rolling and that’s how we ended up on film. It came at just the right time too. It came at a time when I had just enough experience to have a sense of what it would look like to have our dancers on camera. It gave me a lot of information about how the world of film and synchronised swimming meet.
Mesha: I think that’s part of what makes Aqualillies really unique. We’re approaching things not just through the perspective of having competitive athletes but through a theatrical lens. I think it’s a really nice balance because Mary’s taken us back to those values. It makes it so that the level of quality of what we’re bringing to the people is always at the top level in terms of what can be done both athletically and theatrically. And then I bring in my theatrical experience in terms of choreography on land to insist that what we do isn’t just challenging but it is also beautiful to bring it to an audience that isn’t necessarily familiar with the sport, but might just want to respond to beautiful pictures. I think that we have a great team and we are really grateful to have had the opportunity to work with the Coen Brothers and help bring their vision to life and create this really special piece of art.
HAIL, CAESAR! is available to own on Digital HD™ now and on Blu-ray™ & DVD from 11th July, courtesy of Universal Pictures (UK).