Nostalgia is a double-edged sword. Sitting on the cusp of the century, the millennium industry is inundating us with views of the past, simultaneously assuring us that the future will be even better. Like Janus, we're supposed to look forward and backward at the same time, a neat trick if you can manage it. In honor of the 50th anniversary of Seafair, organizers revived the Aqua Follies at Green Lake, a combination of synchronized swimming, trick diving, and sketch comedy. The original Follies ran from 1950 to 1965 and was a lavish affair, with imported talent like Bob Hope, Olympic-level divers, and two groups of dancers—the Aqua Dears, who swam, and the Aqua Darlings, who didn't. The sum of these diverse elements was a variety show, part in the water, part on the stage, and part in the air. The contemporary version of the Follies doesn't quite live up to its previous reputation, but certainly evokes the time before Folk Life and Bumbershoot (and all the other festivals in between) when Seafair was the only big event of Seattle's summer.
Seafair Aqua Follies
Green Lake Aqua Theater, July 9
For most of us, synchronized swimming conjures up either old Esther Williams movies or more recent Olympics telecasts. Like figure skating or rhythmic gymnastics, it's one of the schizophrenic sports—you have to look good as well as be good. But beyond the sequins and heavy-duty hair gel, it's mostly about our fascination with patterns and sequencing. Resembling a speeded-up nature film or a child's kaleidoscope, we see geometric shapes emerge and transform. Much of the effort involved takes place underwater in the murk of Green Lake, out of sight. Our view is of young women with undeviating smiles and seemingly disembodied limbs.
Legs scissor up and corkscrew down in cascading patterns, heads in bright bathing caps bob to the surface and tilt like dominos. Occasionally you can see the dim outlines of whole bodies floating, spread-eagled, hands and feet touching in a buoyant web. The water softens all the action; even percussive or splashing movement loses a bit of its angularity as it dissipates in the waves. Although the choreography by Jennifer Clarke and Khadijha Cutcher of the Seattle Synchronized Swim Team included some of the usual paraphernalia (feather boas for a "Salute to the Silver Screen" and umbrellas for a number to "Singin' in the Rain") the most interesting part was seeing the structure underneath, like watching fireworks floating on the water.
If the synchronized swimmers were about shape, the diving, performed by members of the Great American Dive Team, was about action. These were the guys at the pool who had the cannonball competitions. They did all the classic bits—push in the one who's afraid of the water, throw a loose rope to the one who can't swim, run into the one who's bent over looking down and then ride him like a horse into the lake—all with a tremendous splash as the punch line. The gooney nature of their act was at home in a show created in the 1950s. Later in the evening it was a surprise to see them performing straight dives—I had to look hard to recognize the same men who had been plummeting into the water wearing oversized brassieres and Dr. Seuss-style top hats. An unexpected pleasure was seeing diver John Deininger, one of the original Aqua Follies divers, still performing intricate twisting and spinning maneuvers on his way down from the platform.
Master of ceremonies Chris Alpine was full of references to old-Seattle popular culture, like Ivar Haglund and Stan Boreson, and for all the musical allusions to the Spice Girls and Michael Jackson in the cut-and-paste musical score for the swimmers, this incarnation of the Aqua Follies was true to its midcentury roots. Unfortunately, this extended into some of the technical logistics as well. With microphone troubles and extended pauses while the swimmers got out of the water (there's no place for a curtain at Green Lake!), it seemed rather like Mickey and Judy's exclamation "I've got a barn—let's put on a show!" But in the end, those glitches, like the Boeing jokes and juggling comedians, were familiar and charming. And, as we left the bleachers to the tune of "Rock Around the Clock," we were happy to think about Seafairs from days gone by, when men in blue shirts and captain's hats ruled the city for a few weeks every summer.