BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — On a breezy summer night on the rooftop of the Thompson hotel, four members of the Aqualillies, a synchronized swimming troupe, were rehearsing for a performance.
The underwater speaker wasn’t yet working, so the performers instead hummed their beats underwater to the song “Anything Could Happen,” by Ellie Goulding. A camera, also underwater, projected their lithe limbs, yellow bikinis and pink swim caps on a large screen hanging over the city.
“They’re a can’t-miss party trick, a game changer,” said Lance Broumand, the CEO of the email magazine UrbanDaddy, who had hired the Aqualillies for that evening’s event, a party celebrating a new waterproof phone and tablet by Sony. “It’s branded engagement to the next level. You’re interacting with the brand inside the water with a synchronized swim team.”
The object, eventually, was to get all the party guests into the pool, too.
The Aqualillies, who started in Los Angeles but now have troupes in seven other cities, have performed for a roster of celebrities including Leonardo DiCaprio, Natalie Portman, Justin Timberlake and the Kardashians. They’ve appeared on “Glee” on Fox and on ABC’s “Splash,” and in the music video for the Nicki Minaj and Justin Bieber song “Beauty and a Beat.”
Lisa Gregorian, chief marketing officer of Warner Bros. Television Group, which hired the Aqualillies to perform at a Comic-Con party in San Diego celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Superman character, called them “the perfect blend of the glitz and glamour of the golden age of Hollywood and a unique, modern, contemporary performance.”
The Aqualillies have a perhaps unlikely Busby Berkeley: Mesha Kussman, 35, who studied installation art and experimental theater at New York University and had no experience with synchronized swimming (though she is a trained lifeguard) before starting the company. When Kussman moved to Los Angeles in 2008 with her husband, Jordan Allen-Dutton, a television writer and producer, she worked for music video choreographers but struggled creatively.
“I was thinking about how to break the fourth wall and bring theater that felt appropriate for LA,” said Kussman, who doesn’t perform herself. “In the center of every party was a pool, and it was lit, and I couldn’t stop thinking these pools are stages.”
She scouted her first Aqualillies at synchronized swimming meets in Southern California, talking up coaches and competitors. This being Los Angeles, some of the Aqualillies wound up being actresses.
“They’re excited about the exposure and the opportunities,” Kussman said. “We don’t really fraternize with the clients, but it’s a cool place to perform.”
Not long before the Sony event, Kussman sat on the pool deck of the Annenberg Community Beach House in Santa Monica, Calif., to watch seven Aqualillies rehearse for the Comic-Con performance. The swimmers were “land drilling,” which meant running through the routine on the deck, looking like a cross between cheerleaders and ninjas. The aggressive salutes of their arms would turn into moves for their legs once they jumped into the water.
They couldn’t use the pool because it was occupied by a fitness class, led by an Aqualilly, for civilians eager for the long, lean bodies of water ballerinas. Some of the students that day had shown up wearing vintage sunglasses and retro-style swimsuits.
Kussman’s roster includes about 100 performers, some of whom are former Olympians who retired young. Most know one another from growing up in an isolated and occasionally mocked world (see the 1984 “Saturday Night Live” sketch of Martin Short and Harry Shearer going for the gold).
Brooke Abel competed as a synchronized swimmer in the 2008 Beijing Olympics before she burned out, or perhaps “got waterlogged” would be a better description.
“It was extremely hard, and I was young, and there were so many more things I wanted to accomplish in life,” said Abel, 25, who collects mermaid paraphernalia in the Orange County home she shares with two other Aqualillies. She barely got in a pool for a year after she stopped competing, she said, instead waiting tables and working in a store that sold lavender. Then she saw friends in a performance, and she decided to audition last spring.
“I love that it’s not competitive,” Abel said. “It reminds me of when I was a kid and I’d swim and hang out with my friends, and there was no pressure.”
A booming business
Competitive or not, the Aqualillies are becoming something of a business juggernaut. Starting next year, their fitness classes will be offered in more cities, Kussman said, along with a fledgling instructor-certification program. She hopes to start troupes in Dallas; Cannes, France, and elsewhere in Europe. But she has kept management small, employing only one choreographer and one stylist for all the troupes (having event managers in each city helps).
“We keep it very tight because the branding is so specific,” Kussman said. She charges anywhere from $5,000 to $40,000 per event, depending on the number of performers, the condition of the pool and whether the client wants customized choreography.
Kussman would not comment on Aqualillies’ pay rates, but it’s safe to say none are becoming rich from the gig (the troupe performs up to four times a week during the peak summer season; the winter months can be slow).
But many are passionate about their involvement. Mary Jeanette, the company’s 26-year-old team captain who oversees each troupe’s choreography, also works as an art lawyer. She grew up in Playa del Rey, a beachside neighborhood in Los Angeles, and started competing in synchronized swimming when she was 6 after seeing her baby sitters sew sequins on their swimsuits.
“People say swimming is solitary, but my experience is so opposite,” Jeanette said. “Swimming is a team sport. It’s very freeing. You can do amazing things you can’t do on land. We can send people flying. It’s awesome.”
Keeping it classy
It was dusk, and the Aqualillies grabbed their gear, most of it stamped with the company’s swirly cursive logo, to run through the new routine for Comic-Con in the water. They were going to start off dancing on the deck and later have an Aqualilly fly out of the water in a Superman pose.
“I love how you kept it classy and it’s not too crotch-y,” said Kussman to her charges, nodding approvingly at the smooth moves. “You can see how it can get risqué quickly,” she added.
Back at the Thompson, Jeanette and three other Aqualillies had moved from the rooftop pool to “land drill” the Sony routine in a small hotel room that smelled of French fries. In two hours, they would perform, but the underwater speaker they had been promised still wasn’t working properly.
“Today was kind of hectic for us,” Jeanette said, crashing into a lamp as she thrust her arms in the air. “There’s always problems hooking it up because no one has ever seen an underwater speaker before.”
Jackie Mundy, another performer, had covered up the large tattoo of an oak tree between her shoulders with waterproof makeup so she wouldn’t stand out from the group. Though the Aqualillies pose graciously with guests after performing, she said most would rather go home than mingle at the party. “They think we’re not human when we’re out there,” said Mundy, 25, adding that she’s never gotten a date from an event. “We’re robots.”
Just before showtime, about 100 guests sipped “underwater mojitos” (rum, mint, watermelon) and watched images of a lone model paddling around on a raft projected onto a large screen. It was chilly, and few attendees seemed prepared for a night swim, despite waiters handing out towels and bikinis stamped with corporate logos.
But the crowd gravitated immediately to the pool when the Aqualillies sauntered in wearing sparkly black swim caps and sexy black tanks, waving the new waterproof phones in their hands. The underwater speaker was still broken, but nobody seemed to notice. There was plenty of applause, hooting and hollering.
Jimmy Ruggiero, a 28-year-old comedian, said he thought the show was cool and interesting — until he got splashed.
“I didn’t like getting wet,” he said.