As residents who’ve had their basements flooded with human waste, their intestinal tracts threatened by E. coli and their tax dollars flushed away on ineffective public works projects know all too well, Baltimore’s “aging infrastructure” is not exactly one of its strong points.
On the plus side, however, all this municipal mayhem has inspired art.
Behold the theme of this year’s “water ballet,” mounted by the local performance art group, Fluid Movement: “Sinkholes, Sewers, & Streams: A Water Infrastructure Ballet.”
The show, performed in city swimming pools, takes audience members on a journey as if they were a drop of, well, fluid – from sinkholes to wastewater treatment plants and down sewers and through storm drains into the Inner Harbor.
Along the way, viewers meet a rotating cast of characters, including “the roving spirit of Abel Wolman,” the Baltimore-based civil engineer who pioneered using chlorine to treat water safely, and the Stool Fairy, who admonishes swimmers for contributing to the legendary “fatberg.”
The latter refers to the 24-inch-wide lump of congealed fat plugging up the city sewer system that, covered by The Brew (What’s lurking beneath Charles Street?), made international headlines.
“It’s fun, it’s silly, but there is a public health message behind our show and why people should see it,” says Ashley Ball, the organization’s artistic director.
Unfortunately, the group’s eight performances – four this Saturday and Sunday at Riverside Park Pool and four on August 5-6 at Druid Hill Park Poll – are already sold out.
By necessity, this story will serve as a way for readers to understand the significance and artistry of the endeavor.
From Shakespeare to Yacht Rocket
For most people, the idea of a synchronized swimming performance conjures up the image of young women carrying out carefully choreographed routines, contorting their bodies into graceful shapes, and moving as naturally through the water as if they were born there.
Throw that out the window, add some glitter and neon costumes, and you have Fluid Movement. The Baltimore-based performance art group is about as far from traditional synchronized swimming as possible.
Since 1999, the group has performed “water ballets” in Baltimore in city pools, parks, plazas, and other venues and cultivated a cult following for their comedic approach to the medium. Their ballets cover a wide range of topics, from twists on the classics of Shakespeare and Herman Melville to last year’s intergalactic-nautical mash-up: “Yacht Rocket: A Synchronized Swimming Space Spectacular.”
Last night’s dress rehearsal at Riverside Park Pool was yet another display of the group’s creative approach to the medium.
In the precious minutes before the show started, some members were touching up their skull face paint for their starring roles as dead fish, while others helped Zosia Zaks climb into a skintight brown bodysuit bearing what is to most Baltimoreans a familiar slogan, “The Greatest City in America.”
“I’m a park bench that gets sucked into a sinkhole,” Zaks confirms nonchalantly.
In the pool, a circle of yellow-costumed swimmers, with nose plugs and loofahs adorning their swim caps, encircle the fatberg, cast as a sparkly mass of spray foam insulation held afloat by a base of pool noodles.
The swimmers throw pieces of fabric, representative of wet wipes and other nonbiodegradable products, onto the fatberg, despite being scolded by Shanna Dell, the “Stool Fairy,” who shakes her wand at their misbehavior.
Chaos and Connection
While the premise may seem bizarre to the uninitiated, this kind of controlled chaos is what Fluid Movement thrives on. It’s what intrigued Ball, the artistic director, who saw her first water ballet in 2014, a year after moving to the city.
“I saw a flyer for the show, ‘Star Spangled Swimmer: The War of 1812 the Water Ballet,’” she recalled. “And I was like, ‘I understand all these words apart, but I don’t understand them together, and I need to.’”
At the time, Ball struggled with depression and needed a creative outlet to work through. She had tried out various theater companies, but none had the inclusive community she craved. With Fluid Movement the connection was immediate.
“I went to my first rehearsal, and I was like, ‘Oh, my people!’ They were so accepting of me where I was, and it was so liberating to realize that I’m fine just where I am.”
Ball started as a dancer before ascending through the ranks and taking over as artistic director in 2022. The more she grew into the community, the more she realized the unique and vital space Fluid Movement gave her.
“Frivolity is one of those things that seems like it’s not important, but it is important,” she said. “It’s something that a lot of people lose as they get older. And it makes us all better members of our community to be able to share silliness with each other.”
That’s not to say the program never addresses more serious topics. In fact, treading that line was more important than ever with this year’s infrastructure theme.
“The one thing we were worried about was what if there’s another sinkhole or another infrastructure problem, and here we’re being kind of coy about it,” said Valarie Perez-Schere, a founding member of Fluid Movement and former artistic director. “But I think the show treats it with enough seriousness that it does its duty.”
A Ballet is Born
Much like what travels through Baltimore’s underground infrastructure, “Sinkholes, Sewers, & Streams” took a circuitous route to production. The idea was born backstage at the performance of 2017’s “Sharkespeare: The Water Ballet.”
During the previous months, two sinkholes had swallowed up parts of Mulberry and Cathedral streets near Fluid Movement’s West Baltimore headquarters, making it hard for organizers to transport their equipment to and from their rehearsals.
“I come from generations of civil engineers. I have to join you in this because this is for my father.’” – Barbara Wilgus.
With that on her mind, Marta Zoellner, a former Fluid Movement producer, at first jokingly pitched the idea of an infrastructure water ballet. Her friend, Barbara Wilgus, immediately pounced on it.
“My father was a civil engineer, and I come from generations of civil engineers,” Wilgus said. “I said to Marta, ‘This is my birthright! I have to join you in this because this is for my father.’”
The pair fleshed out the idea over time, and what they initially pitched as “Sinkhole: the Water Ballet” expanded to include other facets of Baltimore’s municipal public works.
Delayed by the pandemic, the show couldn’t be coming at a more timely moment.
Wilgus points to last year’s E.coli outbreak, where 1,500 West Baltimore businesses and residences were placed under a “boil water” advisory after the bacteria was detected in the water system.
The crisis again pointed the spotlight at Baltimore’s aging water system, especially after it was revealed the problem only came about following a cascade of other infrastructure failures.
A sinkhole on North Avenue, caused by the collapse of a 115-year-old tunnel, had forced the city to switch the source of West Baltimore’s drinking water to Lake Ashburton.
However, one of Lake Ashburton’s main pipes, installed in 1925, had been taken offline after it started leaking and opened a dangerous sinkhole at the dam. The chlorination levels needed to kill off bacteria like E.coli in the lake’s water supply were reduced.
“Who would ever think that everything is so interconnected until you start really looking at it,” Wilgus said. “And that’s really what the show’s all about.”
That connection was only further enforced after another infrastructure breakdown forced Fluid Movement to move its August 5-6 performances from the Clifton Park Pool to the Druid Park Pool.
Clifton Park Pool was closed for most of this month due to a broken pool motor. While it has since reopened, Fluid Movement organizers didn’t want to take valuable pool time away from a community that has, so far, been deprived of it.
This was the second time Fluid Movement had to relocate.
Patterson Park Pool, where the group has practiced for years, is shut down all summer due to inoperable motors and flooding.
Striving for Inclusion
While Ball and Wilgus talk extensively about the “insane joy” of putting on shows, both maintain community is the most important part of Fluid Movement. It’s such a core principle that they made it their tagline, one they shout to the audience at the end of every show: “We are Fluid Movement, and so are you.”
That bond persists no matter how long a member has been in the group.
For some members, it goes beyond friendship to family. Perez-Schere and her friend, Emily Pelton, were both pregnant with their now-21-year-old children during Fluid Movement’s 2001 show and raised them with the program.
“This is where my daughter learned to advocate for herself,” Pelton said, noting that her daughter was the first to raise accessibility issues at their former rehearsal space, the Clifton Park Pool.
“In the past, she really struggled, saying, ‘I can’t do this’ or ‘I need help with that,’ and this has been a safe place for her to be able to talk about what her needs are,” Pelton adds.
It’s a similar story for Carol Beck, who is performing in the show as part of the Dan Meyer Choir alongside her daughter Anne, a first-time swimmer in the production.
Anne, who is 26 and has Down Syndrome, is a passionate dancer and swimmer. Beck said most recreational programs don’t include people with disabilities after a certain age. At Fluid Movement, it was different.
“Usually, there are special arrangements for young people with Down Syndrome or intellectual disabilities or to include them in a special way,” Beck said. “This is one of those places where it’s kind of seamless.”
Despite Fluid Movement’s goal of inclusion, there remains a question of who comes and participates in their shows.
Operating in a majority Black city, the organization remains predominantly white; something organizers acknowledge they need to work on.
“We are a very white group; we are aware of it,” Ball noted. “It’s not by design. It’s not by intention. It’s not by desire.”
Ball said she’s focused on ways to make Fluid Movement more accessible. The group, for instance, now offers drop-in style dance classes to provide a low-stakes way for interested people to test the waters.
Fluid Movement accepts swimmers of all skill levels as well as volunteers who can work on production, set design and other non-performance elements. But that doesn’t change the fact that, for right now, the organization’s leadership group remains predominantly white.
“It’s something I would love to have a real roadmap for, but I don’t.”
“We’re all part of the solution.”
Among the reasons for choosing this year’s theme, organizers said, is the idea it might broaden the production’s appeal. The feeling of irritation over sewage in the basement or traffic jams due to the latest sinkhole is something all city residents can share.
Organizers also make a point of not placing blame just on government agencies and demonstrating that residents can play a role in fixing the issues.
“We’re all a part of the solution for public health,” Ball said.
“It’s not just on these agencies. There are things we can do in our daily lives to impact the city for the better.”
Throughout the show, performers hammer home those “little things” that can preserve the city’s infrastructure. For example, don’t put grease down the drain, buy a reusable water bottle, wet wipes go in the trash, not the toilet. They’re small steps, but ones in the right direction.
“Our tagline is ‘We are Fluid Movement, and so are you,’” Wilgus quipped. “We should also say, ‘We are infrastructure, and so are you.’”