What is aqua-ballet? Who does it? And why do they do it? Gabrielle Lynam-Smith, answers these questions and more in conversation with the Wet Hot Beauties. Read on...
It’s early on Sunday morning and, to the opening lines of Sia’s ‘Chandelier’, forty women (and one man) step into the water of Auckland’s Parnell Baths and stride forward together. They are one half of the Wet Hot Beauties, an amateur water ballet troupe. The other thirty or so members are to the side of the pool, whooping and applauding as the working half go through their moves. The group is rehearsing one of the numbers from Sea Change – a full-length water ballet that will be performed in the Parnell Baths this February during Auckland Fringe and Auckland Pride Festivals.
Expertly choreographed by Lara Liew, Sea Change is an exploration of ‘the ties that bind’; whether family, love, or relationships. With additional music from Beyoncé, Little Mix, and Santigold, this is a powerful performance. Lara, who is a professional dance teacher and choreographer, calmly but firmly manages the potentially chaotic floating formations of swimmers, diving lines, and co-ordinated splashes that punctuate the music like exclamation marks.
Lara says she draws inspiration from the American movie director and choreographer Busby Berkeley, whose complex geometric patterns using dancers became images associated with the glamour of 1930s Hollywood. The whimsy, campness and sheer spectacle of these is still attracting millions of fans decades later.
Founded by Pip Hall and Judy Dale seven years ago, the Wet Hot Beauties were created after the founders were told they were ‘too old’ to join a synchronised swimming team. Some laughter and a few expletives later, they decided to form their own group. “We did it that afternoon”, says Pip, who, when not aqua-balleting, is a scriptwriter and actor.
Starting with just 11 members, the group is now over 100 strong, with around 70-80 ‘core’ performers attending weekly practices and rehearsals.
In their pre-rehearsal briefing the most noticeable sound is laughter. The sense of joy is palpable, and it’s this pursuit of joy that continues to inspire Pip and Judy. Stage manager (and biggest fan) Justin says it’s Pip and Judy’s spirit that makes the group something out of the ordinary. “It’s just so much fun.” He had sworn never to work as a stage manager again, after a 15 year career managing acts and productions, but “I got drawn in by the fun of it. We ran some workshops at Splore and we had 500 people join! It’s joyous.”
The group is all-inclusive, and all ages. Hamish, currently the only male in the group (though there have been several) says he joined because his flatmate signed him up as a joke. “I didn’t know anything about water ballet,” he says. He stayed because “it’s fun, silly, and great for co-ordination.” He says despite some teasing from his workmates, they have come to watch his performances and you get the impression they might secretly be a little envious of his courage.
For Jacqui, joining the troupe has been the first time since university that she has been in a non-competitive environment with other women. As a business owner in a male-dominated industry, she relishes how much fun she can have in a group. Another performer says that holding a senior position at work means she spends a lot of time telling people what to do – coming to the Wet Hot Beauties means she gets to let go and be told what to do by some else for a change.
For their final stint in the pool Lara encourages them to just have fun, not worrying about making mistakes. The song is Run the World (Girls), and for four minutes, 80 women (and one man) do just that.