It's a Saturday afternoon, and the performance space at Saint John's United Methodist Church in Charles Village is filled with brightly dressed people. The crowd of 60 or so includes young girls with hair dyed unnatural shades of red and blue, a group of women done up like little Dutch girls, and a flamenco dancer.
Onstage, a man decked out in a violet polyester athletic suit, with matching headband and shoes, clutches a microphone and exhorts three hula-hoopers to "take it side to side," making the movement sound risqué, like he's emceeing a burlesque show. The hoopers draw whoops from the crowd, and the emcee—played by local actor/high school English teacher Ted Alsedek—then directs the trio through a series of neck rolls, one-legged stunts, and endurance tests. The crowd goes wild.
Welcome to Hula Hoop-a-Thon, an annual fundraiser for the local performance troupe Fluid Movement, where all the eccentric revelry of a typical Fluid Movement event rears its head. People dress lavishly, act outlandishly, and roll around in the derring-do of it all. Over the past decade, Fluid Movement has won over Baltimoreans with its water ballets, belly dances, roller-skate-a-thons, and strangely conceived paeans to the city with which it has a bizarre love affair.
Its mission? Bringing ordinary places (such as public pools) and people together for shows that are flat-out fun, gracing the commonplace with a spray of glitter, and staging events that are absolutely "magnificent," in both the ironic and genuine senses of that term.
"Fluid Movement is one of those organizations that does everything right," says Bill Gilmore, executive director of Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts. "They're community-based, they're volunteers, they're funny, creative, inclusive, and they support each other. And they're incredibly entertaining to watch."
Their show titles hint at as much. Past performances include Frankenstein on Wheels, 1001 Freudian Nights: A Biography in Bellydance, and the Go-Go Pirate Show, an adaptation of Treasure Island performed aboard the U.S.S. Constellation.
Each show is constructed around a seemingly random, but painstakingly assembled, hodgepodge of scenes. Earth, Wind, and the Baltimore Fire, for example, included two neighbors speaking Bawlamerese, dozens of people in fire-red outfits doing Spanish dances, tumblers dressed in what looked like cotton balls, fire artists twirling torches, and swimsuit-ed lovelies cascading down waterslides. You couldn't help think that the Patterson Park Pagoda, which provided the set with some of its backdrop, had never seen anything so warm and unpredictable in its 116-year history—save perhaps for the Great Fire of 1904 itself.
A parade of Baltimore's underground "stars"—including indie music sensation Dan Deacon and Duff "Ace of Cakes" Goldman—have been members of Fluid Movement's rolling cast and crew, which runs anywhere from 60 to 80 people, depending on the show and the number of folks who want to be involved. It's rare that anyone is turned away. In fact, the troupe's water ballets have been known to include people who can barely swim. "They just put on life preservers or tubes and go for it," says Eric Voboril, a three-year Fluid Movement vet.
The water ballet is a Fluid Movement staple. This year's production is scheduled for the end of July in Riverside Park, with a second weekend of performances planned for Patterson Park's pool on August 2-3. Like almost all of their offerings, the show, called Mother Goosed: The Nurseryland Campaign Tales, will have its share of Balticentric references. To prepare, the show's brain trust took a slew of cast members to the Enchanted Forest, that old Route 40 West haven for bedtime-story characters. "We really wanted the show to have that feel, that strong Baltimore connection," says Jane Shock-Osborn, one of the producers.
The story evolved as a satire of the 2008 election campaign. "We tend to home in on big themes, then shrink them down," says Osborn. "Things can get silly. We started drawing parallels between the president and Humpty Dumpty and it went from there."
Besides portraying the downfall of a president with synchronized swimming en masse and pageant-like skits, Nurseryland will also, Shock-Osborn says, "use the tale of Little Bo Peep to talk about the Green Party. We're completely convinced that Fluid Movement will be credited historically with making the sheep the symbol of the Greens."
It all started with hot dogs made of tofu.
Soy franks were dressed to play the part of a diva and her ensemble. They were the "stars" of Carmen: The Hot Dog Opera, a 15-minute mockery of high and low culture that made the rounds of avant-garde Baltimore stages, including 14Karat Cabaret and Artscape, in 1998. A creation of Keri Burneston, who had just graduated from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County [UMBC] with an art degree, Carmen turned some heads in Baltimore's often-unflappable art scene.
"It was a good example of almost all the work Fluid Movement has done since then—a simple, funny premise that is also slightly creepy," says Gary Kachadourian, visual arts coordinator at the Baltimore Office for Promotion & the Arts. "I remember the hot dogs falling apart during the performance."
Burneston, who conceived Fluid Movement, came to Baltimore just as a heaping handful of local artists began to embrace public accessibility over gallery exclusivity. She was well received. "I studied painting and drawing but was really frustrated with the whole gallery scene and felt that it alienated people," says Burneston, now currently known around town and elsewhere as the would-be superhero/trapeze artist/burlesque performer "Trixie Little."
Around the time Carmen was hatched, a whole new scene was forming. "It actually was a real inspiring moment in Baltimore's artistic history," says Burneston. "Everyone just seemed to want to take over the world with art and to make people care."
Burneston joined forces with two other women who wanted to make art that reached real people. Melissa Martens, the diplomat and pragmatist among the triumvirate, and Valarie Perez-Schere, a theater-loving marketer at a redevelopment agency, brought their ample energy. They also brought connections to people who would eventually comprise Fluid Movement's first board. Although the fledgling operation ran on a shoestring (and still does; its annual budget is around $25,000), it would need broad community involvement to give it a patina of legitimacy.
The trio staged Water Shorts: A Synchronized Swimming Extravaganza, in 1999, with the help of The Creative Alliance and Friends of Patterson Park. "It was a perfect example of what was a new sensibility that started to appear around then when a lot of young artists were making aggressively innovative work that was also really friendly and welcoming," says Kachadourian. "It was easily one of the most grandiose and overachieving of those projects. I think it's also easy to say that it was a pretty important piece in bringing attention to the new outgrowth of innovative performance work coming out of Baltimore. It helped other artists see the Baltimore location as an advantage instead of a liability."
Burneston's style caught on. "[It's] a crazy sparkle aesthetic," says Timothy Nohe, a former Fluid Movement player and board member. "Her take is, if something isn't completely fabulous, throw more glitter at it."
But while Fluid Movement is all about fun, it isn't above (or below) dealing with weighty stuff. Besides putting the moves on Freud and Poe (in Poe on Wheels), the group has incorporated some consciousness-raising social issues, including teen pregnancy and youth violence, into its shows. "There was such a strong connection with, and empathy for Baltimore," says Nohe, an art professor at UMBC, "and that empathy lended a lot of structure to the pieces."
One of the main tangential beneficiaries of early Fluid Movement shows was Patterson Park. Perez-Schere's then-employer, the Patterson Park Community Development Corporation, seeing an opportunity to counteract the park's unsafe reputation, gave the troupe support early on. Its executive director at the time, Ed Rutkowski, was one of Fluid Movement's first board members. And with The Creative Alliance following suit by staging plays in Patterson Park, the area came to life in a way that pleasantly surprised the neighborhood. At a time when much of it looked bleak, with boarded-up rowhouses and the fallout from a citywide real estate flipping scandal, artists offered hope.
"It all made us feel so good about the future of the neighborhood," says Rutkowski. "It was palpable. These people came out of nowhere to put on these incredible shows. You'd see 700 people come to the park for a roller-skating ballet. That was the beginning of re-establishing the park as safe. Now, when I hear people talk about Patterson Park, it's usually positive."
So, why do they still do it? Why do they continue to cram imperfect bodies into Speedos and don silly costumes and make-up? If they're going to shout, "Look at me!" why not be a little more self-conscious about it, right?
"The beauty of it all is that anyone can find a place within the work, which means that for people like me who come from a more stringent theatrical background—where there's a seriousness or intellectuality about theater—Fluid Movement can help you lose those bad habits," says Alsedek, the Hula Hoop-a-Thon emcee. "It opens you up to other ways of being creative. The stage doesn't even have to be a stage. It can be a swimming pool."
And because the group functions as something of a collective, it endures despite losing key members. Martens left for Chicago last year. Burneston maintains ties, but they're tenuous, as she travels extensively to put on her "Trixie Little" shows and studies circus arts at a school in Vermont.
Still, Fluid Movement remains, um, fluid. The committees, directors, and producers who put in the daily work continue to do so—for next to nothing—while accepting creative input from anyone associated with the troupe. "This great, democratizing impulse has really come to the fore," says Nohe. "It is now an organization that works with the creative process almost like a Wiki—it's very open-sourced."
Fluid Movement's collaborative spirit has led to spinoff groups, perhaps most notably Glitterama, the "more adult" variety show that Alsedek produces at least once a year at the Creative Alliance. "The glitter's in our hearts, although we occasionally pour it out into the audience," says Alsedek, echoing Burneston.
Nohe claims "this kind of generative, creative spirit that one normally focuses on friends, family, or lovers, can be used to create momentum by bringing people together." Such a unifying spirit instills dedication and tenacity that sustains the group.
Others say Fluid Movement's animating spirit has a lot more to do with embracing not the inner child, but the need to be child-like, to keep one's eyes wide open and enjoy the company you're keeping. It's not just the lofty goal of making art together. The id is alive and kickin', too.
"It's like making a cannonball into the big end of a pool," says Eric Voboril. "It's not just about having a good time yourself. You want to get everyone else wet too."