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.
Visitors to Te Papa's current art exhibitions would struggle to miss the works of New Zealand-born photographer Alexis Hunter writes Glory Days arts and lifestyle contributor Georgia Munn. In fact, this "small but perfectly formed" group of Hunter’s works, entitled The Model’s Revenge, is front and centre in the national museum's art space - the first thing your eyes meet - which is very much the intention of Te Papa senior art curator Sarah Farrar.
Farrar says she wanted to place a woman artist in a place of prominence, and that it was important to her to open the new season of Ngā Toi | Arts Te Papa with “a strongly feminist statement". It's a fitting spot for this series of photos, which speak about issues facing women with a unique and humourous voice.
Alexis Hunter was born in New Zealand and studied in Auckland, and relocated to London, where her twin sister lived with her artist and filmmaker partner Darcy Lange, in the early 1970s. As an antipodean transplant, Hunter brought with her a more egalitarian, "almost DIY attitude" that differed vastly from British concepts of class and society. She "just got stuck in" without worrying about what others thought of her bold and outspoken work, although Farrar says Hunter was still acutely aware of the class system around her.
Hunter soon realised painting wasn't the best medium to express her political ideas and ambitions, and that photography allowed her the total control of being both the subject and the artist. She worked at the forefront of the feminist art movement and feminist theory, and exhibited her photographs with various collectives of woman artists during the 1970s.
Hunter's New Zealand-ness is seen in The object series, featuring photos of isolated portions of men's bodies, with several focusing on their tattoos. This was a reaction to a lecture Hunter attended in London where a British academic spoke about tattoos in a “patronising and offensive” way - she was struck by the narrow view, as growing up in New Zealand she’d seen the importance and tradition of Maori and Pacific Island tattoos. Other photos in this series emphasise sections of the male body without ever showing their faces, twisting the gaze and objectifying as women have been throughout Western art history.
In the title image of this Ngā Toi | Arts Te Papa exhibition, The Model’s Revenge, Hunter photographs her own nude torso pointing a gun straight out of the photograph, reversing the gaze back at viewers while asking them who calls the ‘shots’ with a visual pun. This sense of humour is prevalent in Hunter’s photographs, which use the power of humour to speak about political and social issues.
Hunter worked in commercial animation to support herself as an artist, and other works in The Model’s Revenge are similar to film strips, telling small stories through series of photographs that let viewers apply their own narratives and prejudices. One series of “photographed performance” shows a beautifully manicured woman's hand fondling a fabric-clad object, which is eventually revealed to be a video camera and then turned out towards the viewer in the last frame with yet another visual punchline.
Another filmic series shows the same manicured hand playing with rough, rusty machinery and becoming literally dirtier and dirtier with each subsequent shot. Although these images are not explicity sexual, it's difficult not to infer sexuality from them. It's no wonder that, in conservative London over forty years ago, Hunter struggled to find film processing studios to print her work.
Although these images were shot several decades ago, the messages behind them are still incredibly poignant to modern viewers. The themes of gaze, fear and objectification and the potent feminist viewpoint in Hunter's works are just as applicable now, despite gender equality becoming a more mainstream - and increasingly commodified - issue. Farrar says it's thrilling to see younger generations engaging with these works and learning about Hunter, and at a recent floor talk - the uncompromisingly-named 'Gender, Sexuality, Power' - mothers and daughters attended together and engaged in discussion about how we make sense of these works.
Hunter firmly believed that art was a vehicle for communication to speak to the masses, so her works are befitting of a national institution where many visitors are not a traditional arts audience. Farrar is glad that the museum can inspire its visitors, with this and other exhibitions, to ask “what moment are we part of?” and “is Hunter’s work still relevant to audiences today?” In the artist’s own words: "While there’s inequality and patriarchy in the world there’s a need for women-centred theory and philosophy and direct action."
We love Alexis Hunter and strongly recommend you get to Te Papa and see these wonderful photographs before the exhibition ends on the 26th February. Find out more about her and the show on their website.