Sync or Swim

Brighton Fringe Festival 2009, Prince Regent Swimming Pool, May 9, 2009

By Michael Kemp and Sooty Kemp

Sync or Swim performance
Sync or Swim performance

An extraordinary hand-built set, created entirely from recycled materials conjured up into exotic Aztec thrones and gargantuan silver sea-horses, flickering and refracting hooded light down into the shimmering tropical waters of the Prince Regent Swimming Pool below.

An eclectic mix of Festival audience: exuberant proud parents come to cheer their synchronized offspring, side by side with what Thomas Pynchon would once christen “The Whole Sick Crew” in V, the Brighton experimental crowd.

A packed house then, murmuring with thinly-veiled excitement, as the lights dim… the water starts to take on a life, under-currents, whirling, snaking ripples move up and down the pool - a dark shadow barely visible in the depths-no-more than one shadow…

Now the music starts, low at first and then building, building, and Slit Pyramid materialize, in their feathered finery, to initiate the evening with resonant and vibrant drone incantations. The three sisters, born of fire, aiming daemonic violin salvos and broadsides up into the public gallery. And from the steaming, rippling deep, come the first of our “water babies” - children of all ages swimming round and around, creating more waves and precise aquatic dance manoeuvres, while Slit Pyramid’s siren songs continue to lure and attract inebriate sailors to their doom.

This was Siren’s Augury: the first of five movements. In the second, an old woman, crippled by the confines of age, descends, step by painstaking step, into The Fountain of Youth - only to be reborn in charmed waters as a svelte young thing of infinite grace and beauty, accompanied by live electronic dub by Robodub. A young baby, no more than two years old, swims across the pool in her mother’s arms & waves excitedly to the crowd above.

Weirding Vessel (members of Bolide Arkwardstra, Leopard Leg etc) lope on around the far side of the pool affecting Lon Chaney Jnr. poses and ambulating gait - and launch into their invigorating sonic mayhem. The spell is cast for The Elixir of Life and ladies dressed in black diving suits, swim the murky depths, only the spotlights on their heads revealing their whereabouts, a searchlight from on high sweeps the surface, seeking, searching… it may appear like espionage, but they are in fact puppeteering elemental spirits between worlds, eventually emerging to the surface and circling, shark-like, in the dimly lit arena of the pool, to rapturous applause from an appreciative audience.

The elegant figure of Alice Eldridge follows (receiving Lon Chaney hugs and kisses from the retreating troops of Weirding Vessel) and sets up complex hypnotic rhythms with her cello and self-karaoke machines to illustrate Gene Pool - the fruits of which generate and echo around the baths, as microscopic cells, on film, split and multiply, leading us ever deeper into the mystery of the imaginary Henri Rousseau jungle night - warm lapping tides under ultramarine light…

A spirited troupe of French cancan dancers, painted by Toulouse-Lautrec, suddenly appear at the Pool of Knowledge direct from the ballrooms of Montparnasse, high-kicking and shrieking scandalously to Jacques Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld (remixed by Blood Stereo). A closer inspection reveals an extra pair of legs under their skirts…

The entire performance, with its fevered dreams, its mood changes from light-hearted burlesque, intricate Busby Berkeley routines, to energetic and sometimes obscure dark mood, and a grand finale where the Fountain of Youth lady (in reality the daughter of the woman who originally brought synchro swimming to Brighton in the 1940s) reappears as Venus Rising, and all 25 synchronised swimmers come together to form a three-eyed futuristic singing head, was an absolute joy.

Sync or Swim is a development & adaptation of Lizzy Carey’s performance proposal for Wet Sounds 2008, the UK’s first underwater sound-art festival and a marvellous heady combination of avant sound and undulating image - and we were all smitten (even if we were dashed to pieces on the Atlantis rocks afterwards).

Photograph by Greg Neate - used with permission (thanks, Greg!). You might also be interested in an exhibition of photographs by Greg Neate and other photographers.