REVIEW: Water Ballet ‘Sirens’ (Auckland Fringe)

Wet Hot Beauties Sirens
Can all shows be performed in the water from now on please?

There’s something in the water…

Wet Hot Beauties Sirens
Can all shows be performed in the water from now on please?

They say there hasn’t been a Water Ballet performed in Auckland for 50 years. That is, until last week. The Wet Hot Beauties took over the Parnell Baths, delivering an awe-inspiring visual extravaganza in the water. As I sit down to write this, I am still buzzing, images and bodies swimming through my mind, forming evocative shapes and patterns. Sirens is inspired by the Greek myth of the nymphs who would lure sailors through their song and lead them to their deaths. “Can you resist the Sirens call?” the poster asks. I couldn’t. Please take me with you ladies!

Water Ballet was popularized by those grand 30s and 40s MGM Busby Berkeley films and its biggest swimming star Esther Williams. It’s not something I could claim to have enjoyed before. The bodies moving in unison in these films are indeed impressive, but to what end? Those ladies with their fake smiles seem all spectacle with no substance; Naff, in a ‘look at what people to used to be into in the olden days, aren’t they funny’ sort of way.

Sirens completely changed my perception. It manages to pay tribute to its forbears, but update it for the tastes and cynicism of modern audiences. They perform with a wink and a nod, acknowledging and embracing the inherent ridiculousness of the form. The soundtrack is eclectic, with splashings of Gaga, Kate Bush, Brooke Fraser (There’s something in the Water, of course) and a rousing dance to Black Eyed Peas ‘Pump It’ to close the show. There’s lot of humour, fun, and the small troupe of sailors are giddily goofy with their dance moves that the swim-capped woman get them to do. All 60 odd of them.

To get everyone moving as one is a huge logistical feat by the show’s choreography team Linda McFetridge, Olivia Tennet and Stephen Butterworth. The performers are of mixed abilities with woman ranging from their teens to their 50s.  The set piece dances are simply stunning, and it is a grand sight when everyone is in the water moving together. There’s much variety and interesting patterns and formations; the show really explores the choreographic possibilities of working within this medium, with great attention to detail.

Brad Gledhill must have fun lighting the show – the play between the different coloured LED lights and the water is beautiful, giving the water a wonderful texture.   

The narrative is clear and carried well through the show. At its heart is the doomed love between the feisty Queen of the sirens OIivia “Small Fry” Tennet and the Sea Captain Stephen “Butters Bitch” Butterworth. They are expert at conveying meaning through their dance and gesture. One of the biggest highlights was their sensual dance to Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights, until the other jealous water nymphs rush in to intervene. It’s touching when the Sea Captain searches for his love in this sea of unfamiliar faces.    

Sirens enjoyed a well deserved sold out season for its Auckland Fringe debut, and its added Christchurch fundraiser show didn’t take long to sell out as well. I was lucky to catch the final performance, and they had more people than there were seats around the pool or the side balcony.  We were in the right place, right time to be lead to the ramp directly facing the pool to catch the ballet from above to get an excellent expansive view of the performance below us.

Sirens is a huge achievement, and I applaud everyone involved. I definitely think as an art form this modern water ballet has legs, or rather, flippers, and I anxiously await the opportunity to dive into their next work.

Sirens was presented by the Wet Hot Beauties as part of the Auckland Fringe Festival.

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