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Artist Eames Armstrong is used to getting props for her curation work and performances, but she doesn’t get much attention for her swimming ability. She’s terrible in the water, she says. Yet Armstrong, along with three other artists, has crafted a semi-improvised water play, Antarctica, that includes The Little Mermaid and the Lovecraft squid monster Cthulhu.
Synchronized swimming has long been the dominant form of swimming-pool art, but this isn’t that. “I’m not really interested in synchronized swimming,” Armstrong says, “as opposed to having this weird constraint of the pool.”
Antarctica is one of four entries into Washington Project for the Arts’ tribute to the water ballet, SynchroSwim. After two years, the nonprofit arts group has resurrected its performance-art swimming competition for a third iteration taking place this evening at the Capitol Skyline Hotel. With two- to four-minute original performances, teams of local artists will ape the Olympic sport in a way that retains the sport’s pageantry, but embraces the pool’s physical constraints in unique ways.
“Once you go into the pool you have to swim,” says Maida Withers, a SynchroSwim participant and founder of Maida Withers Dance Construction Company. “Your only choice is sink or swim.”
Withers’ piece, Wedding Party—-Sink or Swim, also refers to another sink-or-swim commitment: marriage. In Withers’ aquatic rumination on matrimony, two couples dressed in full wedding garb process through the water. In a pool, that’s no easy feat—-and the limited rehearsal time at the popular swimming spot makes it even tougher. But the time and rehearsal constraints help make the piece unique. When you’re working with limitations like that, “You just get to the point,” Withers says.
Past SynchroSwim performances have varied drastically, from actual synchronized swimming to a tribute to Van Halen. Even kayakers have taken to the pool. Rarely have these performances been tightly synchronized, and at least one contestant each year has hopped in dressed in a full suit.
While SynchroSwim eschews most tropes of athleticism, it’s retained the judges—-in this case a panel of local arts leaders including Capital Fringe Director Julianne Brienza. Two teams will be awarded prizes based on execution and spectacle, respectively, and one will be crowned an audience favorite. But the judging doesn’t follow the same rigorous standards as those of a typical synchronized swimming competition. That would be unfair, says Washington Project for the Arts’ Executive Director Lisa Gold. “It’s kind of a high bar to expect artists to be synchronized swimmers.”
Image: Maida Withers Dance Construction Company and Guests, “Wedding Party—-Sink or Swim” with Tatiana Domovidova and John Moletress. Photograph by Shaun Schroth. Courtesy the artists and Washington Project for the Arts