Theatre preview: Million Dollar Mermaids, Barnsley Civic

Million Dollar Mermaids
Million Dollar Mermaids
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Synchronised swimming tends to conjure up images of fixed grins, nose clips, stylised exaggerated movement and flowery swimming caps, but in the golden age of Hollywood it meant big box office, making a star out of former competitive swimmer Esther Williams in the 40s and 50s – and it certainly has a special kind of elegance.

Williams appeared in a number of ‘aquamusicals’ which were hugely popular and earned her the nickname Million Dollar Mermaid. Leeds-based creative Lucy Meredith was inspired by Williams to create a piece of work with her newly formed company Yorkshire Life Aquatic that will bring the grace of synchronised swimming to dry land outside Barnsley Civic next week.

“We have been working on the project since the beginning of this year,” says Meredith, who has been training six ‘mermaids’ –performers from around Yorkshire – with the help of choreographer Zoe Parker. “I competed in synchronised swimming at county level as a teenager, so I developed parts of the piece in the water and then Zoe transposed it into dry land movement.”

The Yorkshire Life Aquatic team will perform a routine, set to specially composed music by local musician Jamie Fletcher, that combines aspects of physical theatre with synchronised swimming techniques and a series of vintage Hollywood ‘bathing beauties’ poses. “We tried to find some Esther Williams movies to watch together, but we discovered that they are almost impossible to get hold of,” says Meredith. “So we looked at what we could find on YouTube and we used old photographs of other 1950s movie stars in bathing suits, to get the poses right.”

In June the company was successful in gaining a place on the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Summer Sublets scheme which enabled them to develop the project. “It was important to us that we used performers, rather than dancers,” says Meredith. “We didn’t want a group of one-size people, we wanted it to be about the beauty of real women, so we looked for women of different shapes, sizes and ages.”

The finished piece aims to celebrate that diversity while bringing a touch of old Hollywood glamour to the performance space. The process of transposing movements which are essentially water-based onto land involves imagination and a willingness to ‘give it a go’. “Everyone has taken to it really well,” says Meredith. “They are so excited and enthused by the idea – and that is just as important as technique. A lot of it is about balancing, so that it looks like you are actually in the water. Part of the work is comical – it does look quite funny.” Last weekend the team performed at the Beacons Festival near Skipton, where they received a very warm welcome. “We used material we had developed during the Summer Sublets – and we got a great reaction from people.”

In Barnsley they will be performing in the area around the water feature in front of the Civic, as well on the grass and near a rock sculpture. Next month at Bramley Baths in Leeds they will use the pool and the changing rooms. “We have had so much fun creating the work,” says Meredith. “We hope people enjoy it and that it encourages them to go to their local pool.” Esther Williams was born in 1921 in California and in her teens set many records as a member of the LA Athletic Club swimming team. Unable to compete in the 1940 Olympics due to the outbreak of war, she joined the Aquacade show in San Francisco where she caught the eye of MGM scouts who recruited her. After appearing in several small film roles, she made a series of so-called ‘aquamusicals’ which propelled her to stardom.She retired in the 1960s and became a successful businesswoman lending her name to retro swimwear. She died in June this year, aged 91. After the Million Dollar Mermaids have performed at Barnsley Civic at the end of this month, they will prepare for their shows at the Bramley Baths in September. It is also hoped that they will take part in the annual Leeds arts event Light Night, which sees hundreds of arts events happening across the city. Although, given that it happens in Autumn, it’s easy to wonder about the wisdom of the swimsuits.

Million Dollar Mermaids, Barnsley Civic, August 30; Bramley Baths, September 29.