A day's shooting with the Aqualillies water dance troupe is transformed into a sinister-edged short in Clara Cullen's Above and Below. Appearing at this week’s annual art-world pilgrimage, Art Basel Miami, the Aqualillies recall the golden era of swimming champion-turned-Hollywood actress Esther Williams. Yet today’s portrait, scored by Nicolas Schindler, demonstrates the strange uniformity and beguiling shapes of the troupe’s practice as much as their athletic prowess that has earned them fans in Natalie Portman, Leonardo DiCaprio and Dita Von Teese. “Every show and every audience is different, so you never know how people are going to react, which in turn fuels you in the moment,” says Alejandra Miranda, a member who swam for the Colombian national team growing up. “I think my favorite or maybe scariest memory was swimming with sharks for the background of a Justin Bieber concert.” Founded in 2008 by Mesha Kussman, the performers are a mix of dancers and former Olympic swimmers, some of whom have made appearances in music videos for Sébastien Tellier, and most recently, Katy Perry’s “Unconditionally”. Stealing a moment with the water ballerinas during a recent rehearsal, NOWNESS regular Cullen was required to keep up with Aqualillies' strenuous regime. “I was swimming with them the whole time,” she says. “I couldn’t believe how long I was staying underwater but it was so striking I couldn’t stop—I was almost dying for air.” Cullen shot on black-and-white Super 8 to depict them in a brand new light. “Troupes have a distinct identity,” she adds. “In fact, someone told me it looks like a Soviet film.”
STATS FROM ON SET
Number of pools
Three: Annenberg Beach House and Palisades High School in Santa Monica, and the Thompson Hotel, Beverley Hills.
Number of water ballerinas
“Anything Could Happen” by Ellie Goulding.
Food consumed on set
Peanut M&M's; hummus and pita bread.
Approximate calories per person burned on the Aqualillies workout
Look out for more of Clara Cullen’s depictions of troupes in the coming months.