Modernism Week will give audiences a taste of a classic 1940s–’50s Busby Berkeley–style extravaganza when it presents a live synchronized swimming performance Feb. 15-19 by the acclaimed Aqualillies, an international theatrical water ballet company, back by popular demand from their inaugural performance last year.
Based in Los Angeles, Aqualillies was founded in 2008 by Mesha Kussman, a dancer and choreographer who earned a bachelor’s degree in experimental theater at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.
Kussman’s partner is Mary Jeanette Ramsey, the Aqualillies executive director, with whom we recently caught up in New York as she was overseeing an underwater shoot for a major clothing company. She recounted the group’s beginnings in 2008 and their rise to being the country’s preeminent synchronized swim company. “The idea for Aqualillies sprung from a party Mesha attended,” Ramsey says. “She thought the pool would be a great stage.”
Since then, Aqualillies have been featured in The Coen Brother’s film Hail, Caesar!, on the TV show Glee, at TED Conferences, and in music videos from artists such as Justin Bieber and Nicki Minaj to Sébastien Tellier.
Ramsey got her start in water ballet at a very early age. “I have been a competitive synchronized swimmer since age 6,” she says. “I had neighborhood friends who did that. Synchronized water ballet is a team sport; it’s a very niche world.”
Aqualillies is comprised of dancers and swimmers. “All our Lillies have had elite training as dancers or synchronized swimmers with a minimum of 10 years,” Ramsey continues. “Most of our performers are in the 20s, none younger than 18.”
They perform underwater choreography and synchronized swimming shows for a variety of clients and special events, including films, music and promotional videos, and advertising shoots.
Aqualillies has a global reach and performs in Canada, Australia, Europe, and beyond. “We have roughly 100 Lillies in the United States with maybe 120 to 130 internationally, with a rotating group of cast members — several teams that are all part of the same unit.” This allows the group to present shows that vary in size from a few to up to 20 Lillies.
In addition, Aqualillies has developed another elaborate presentation that is not performed in the water. They have choreographed the proverbial “girl popping out of a cake” presentation designed as an elaborate entertainment piece. “We’re taking the Busby Berkeley concept with our ‘Cake’ performance,” Ramsey says. The Cake choreography features up to 12 Lillies who pop out of a 9-foot-tall cake that transforms into a golden bandshell. It was designed and engineered by concert set designers for U2, Beyoncé, and Madonna.
Despite their success, the Aqualillies’ most exciting moment was performing for actress Esther Williams, a competitive-swimmer-turned-movie-star who became known as “America’s Mermaid” for her aqua musicals. Ramsey gets emotional in the retelling of the occasion.
“When we performed at the Turner Classic Movie Film Festival in 2011, Esther was there. She came early to watch our rehearsal. She was so happy that Aqualillies is the continuation of what she was doing. I got a signed photo that I keep on the wall at my desk.”
“She was so interested to be there,” Ramsey recalls, choking back tears. “After so many years, it was amazing to see that it was still her passion.” Williams passed in 2013. “Her husband, Edward Bell, asked us to perform at her memorial service,” Ramsey says. “The memorial service at her home was a very private service for her family and friends.”
“We became very close to her husband who was a Hollywood actor. Every year on Aug. 8 [Williams’ birthday], we do an Esther Williams Tribute Show, and he’s always our special guest,” Ramsey says. Their annual Esther Williams show is a fundraiser for women and water issues.
So, what can Modernism Week guests expect at the Aqualillies show? “They can expect a highlight water show,” Ramsey says. “It’s a very unique experience. Generally people see it on their TV screen; this is very intimate.”
The location is the same private residence as last year — a fabulous vacation rental managed by ACME House Company. Also, this Aqualillies Modernism Week performance will be synchronized with the appropriate music of the midcentury modern era.
Aqualillies Synchronized Swimming & Water Ballet, 3 performances between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Feb. 15-19 at a private residence located at 605 E. Mel Ave., Palm Springs. For ticket information, visit modernismweek.com.