Film studio MGM found success in the 1940s and ‘50s with a string of frothy, colorful aquatic musicals: films like "Neptune’s Daughter" (1949) and "Million Dollar Mermaid" (1952) surrounded swimmer Esther Williams with fountains, water slides and dozens of bathing beauties in elaborate, Technicolor production numbers.
Water ballet disappeared from the big screen more than 50 years ago, but when filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen decided to pay homage to the artform in their new film set in early-'50s Hollywood, their production team knew just who to call: Los Angeles-based aquatic dance company Aqualillies.
Thirty-two members of the company appear in a memorable musical sequence in "Hail, Caesar!," which features Scarlett Johansson as an Esther Williams-like aquatic film star. Johansson makes her entrance dressed in a shiny green mermaid tail, surrounded by a ring of swimmers wearing vintage-style red and yellow bathing suits and swim caps, moving in sync like a kaleidoscope.
Aqualillies founding director Mesha Kussman says the Coens started with a clear vision for the look and feel of the musical sequence.
“They wanted symmetry and simplicity. They wanted it to feel like Busby Berkeley. They wanted it to feel larger than life,” says Kussman. “They gave us the direction to make it almost like a moving painting.”
Mary Jeanette Ramsey, the executive director of Aqualillies, trained Johansson for the film and was the actress’s mermaid-tailed swim double.
“It requires a lot of physical endurance [and] a cool head. You need not to freak out when your legs are tied together,” says Ramsey. “The hardest thing for someone who doesn’t have a background in synchronized swimming is learning to hold your air in your chest. It’s sort of intuitive for most people to fill their cheeks with air, but when you do that, your face isn’t freed up to act or do facial expressions.”
Kussman says that when she formed Aqualillies eight years ago, she wasn’t thinking about those classic MGM musicals. She was just looking for a way to step up the dance presentations she was already staging at parties and events around L.A.
“The pool was there at every party and I was just like, why is nobody doing anything with this stage? It’s lit, it’s central, it’s kind of a no-brainer,” says Kussman. “At first I thought, I’ll just put dancers on rafts! And then I was like, why is it so hard to get dancers to perform in the water? There’s got to be an easier way.”
That easier way, she found, was to work with veterans of the world of competitive synchronized swimming, to merge that strict discipline with commercial dance and a high-fashion retro style that Kussman says was inspired by music she heard at her home in Echo Park.
“My neighbor would play '40s and '50s classics just over and over again,” says Kussman. “This music just would waft over the fence and into my mind.”
Kussman and Ramsey say that shooting "Hail, Caesar!" on the Sony lot felt like revisiting the midcentury heyday of the aquatic musicals. The swimsuits created by longtime Coen brothers costume designer Mary Zophres “fit like swimsuits would fit in the 1940s,” says Ramsey. “They were very tight in the waist, almost sort of like a corset. It really brought you back to the period.”
“The tank where this was shot was the same tank that Esther Williams swam in,” adds Kussman. “And because the set dressing was of that period, you know, if someone took me there, told me to open my eyes, I‘d say, 'I’m dreaming.' But it wasn’t a dream. It was real.”
Ramsey says one highlight of her years of working with Aqualillies was the opportunity to meet Esther Williams herself — and to get her autograph and a written note of encouragement.
“Mine said, ‘Always keep swimming,’” says Ramsey. “I always remember that, in the few moments where the life of a water ballerina gets tough.”
Kussman says that when Williams died in 2013 at the age of 91, the Aqualillies were invited to swim at her memorial service.
“It was a nice way for us to sort of give back to her and her community and say thank you for everything you’ve done to inspire us.”
Aqualillies, which now has “teams” in cities across the U.S. and in Canada, Europe and Australia, will offer synchronized swimming classes at the Annenberg Beach House in Santa Monica starting in April. The location of a planned public performance on Esther Williams's birthday, Aug 8, will be announced on their website: Aqualillies.com.