Ep 20 – Mary Jeanette Ramsey
Brett Stanley: [00:00:00] Welcome back to the underwater podcast. And this week we’re staying firmly at the surface of the water with Mary Jeanette Ramsay, choreographer, performer, and executive director of the Aqualilies, an American synchronized swimming troupe, or artistic swimming as it’s now called.
We chat about working on the Cohen brothers film, Hail Caesar with Scarlet, Johannsen , Helping Beyonce craft and all black synchronized swimming troupe for her visual album, black is King, and how the sport has evolved from the fifties When legend Esther Williams made it famous. Alright, let’s dive in – gracefully though, and point your toes.
Mary. Welcome to the podcast.
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:00:46] Hi, Brett, glad to be here.
Brett Stanley: [00:00:48] you’re based in Southern California? Are you there at the moment or are you kind of, uh, quarantining somewhere else?
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:00:53] Yeah. So I am I’m based in Southern California, but right now I’m actually up in the San Juan islands. So right off of the coast of Seattle, we have a friend who has a house here, and we drove up to spend a few weeks just as a break from quarantine. So I’m currently surrounded by like a beautiful meadow and trees, and I can see the water in the distance, but, um, that’s kind of an anomaly for this time.
This is only our. Fun getaway for the next couple of weeks.
Brett Stanley: [00:01:21] Right. That sounds pretty amazing though, to be able to wake up and see all that around
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:01:25] It is, it is lovely up here. And it’s interesting. We, we we’ve been here before, but we had to drive up because of, you know, COVID-19 and everything. Um, so it was a little bit of a challenge to get here, but once you’re here, it’s, it’s all relaxation. So I’m loving it.
Brett Stanley: [00:01:41] That’s beautiful.
Is it somewhere you can swim
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:01:43] Um, Um, the water is about 50 degrees.
Brett Stanley: [00:01:47] Okay.
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:01:48] we, we could, but, um, one thing I’ve learned in my life is that I do not love cold water, so
I’m staying dry for now.
Brett Stanley: [00:01:56] Exactly. And which is interesting for what you do. Um, which, and I know the name of this is kind of, but you started as a synchronized swimmer, but now it’s called artistic swimming.
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:02:05] Yeah, so I grew up as a competitive synchronized swimmer. And forgive me if I continue to accidentally call it synchronized swimming, because it was only recently changed to artistic swimming. Um, Faena the big governing board for synchronized swimming and all water sports. Um, officially changed the name back in 2017.
So the sport of synchronized swimming is now officially known as artistic swimming.
Brett Stanley: [00:02:30] Oh, wow. And how does that make you feel for someone. And he’s come up through that whole synchronized swimming thing. Does the change, the name change kind of makes sense to you?
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:02:39] You know, um, the name change was actually a very controversial move in the synchronized swimming community. There were a lot of people that did not want to name change. I, um, I personally don’t love it only because I think after so many years of saying that I’m a synchronized swimmer and I D and identifying with that, I’m a little bit stuck on that phrasing.
Um, but also I think that from a kind of marketing perspective, it. It wasn’t necessarily a good move to change the name. Um, synchronized swimming as a sport that was really, really popular in like the fifties in the sixties, um, across the United States. Um, I, it, it was something that women were encouraged to do, um, as kind of like a lady like group activity.
And then I think that as, um, As sports became more integrated in there became more options for women. Those all female programs sort of not entirely died out, but didn’t, you know, didn’t maintain their popularity. And so we we’re really trying to grow the sport in the United States and also to grow the, the sports awareness, um, in the public eye.
And so I think changing the name was, was perhaps a little bit confusing for, for that purpose, but, um, um,
Brett Stanley: [00:03:52] know what synchronized swimming is. Like they’ve seen it enough to be able to know, Oh, that’s what that, you know, that’s what they’re describing, but artistic swimming,
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:03:59] Exactly. You kind of have to say artistic swimming, formerly known as synchronized swimming. Every time you bring it up. So it’s, it’s a little confusing for us, but th the change has been made. So, you know, obviously we were, we’re moving forward with it.
Brett Stanley: [00:04:13] And then there’ll be a transition when people start to learn, it’s like renaming anything, I guess, you know, it’s like when Prince changed his name to love symbol, you know,
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:04:20] Yeah, which is exactly what I thought of when this change was made. Um, yeah, I think, I think after the next Olympics, because that’s when the sport gets the most publicity, people will kind of start to get a feel for the name change. But until then, um, I think people will think of it as synchronized swimming.
Brett Stanley: [00:04:36] Right. Yeah. And so, so talk me through kind of synchronized swimming. Cause a lot of people will know what it is, but may not understand how much of it. Is actually under the water. Um, I think a lot of what we see is from the surface up, but you’re doing a lot of work under the water itself. Right.
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:04:53] Yeah. So the reason synchronized swimming is so challenging is because half your body is doing these beautiful artistic moves on the surface. And then the other half of your body is doing this kind of rote movement. That’s just meant to keep you afloat in the water. So when your arms are out of the water, your legs are doing that egg beater kick to keep you afloat.
And then when you’re out upside down with your legs out of the water, your arms are doing an in and out movement called sculling to keep you up. So even when it looks beautiful on the surface, there’s a lot of work going on underneath that makes it incredibly, incredibly, physically challenging.
Brett Stanley: [00:05:31] Do you get judged? Cause you know, it’s a sport, it’s a, you know, as you said, it’s an Olympic sport. Do you get judged on how things look below the surface? As much as you do above the surface?
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:05:40] You are not judged on anything under the water, unless you touch the bottom in which you can get a penalty. But in theory, they are only judging what they see on the surface. And the judging there’s two kinds of scores. They give you one score for technical merit. So how hard your routine is and how well you’re executing those movements and then artistic oppression, which goes into your music choice, the artistry of your choreography and all of that, those elements.
Brett Stanley: [00:06:11] Right. And so will that gives the overall score?
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:06:14] Yes, exactly. Throw out the low score and then the high score, and then you take the other scores and that is how you get your, um, the number that is, you know, use to, to compete with the other teams.
Brett Stanley: [00:06:28] yeah. so from the competition side of stuff, then, is that your history? Did you kind of come up doing synchronized swimming in a competitive kind of realm?
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:06:36] Yeah. So I grew up as a competitive synchronized swimmer. I started when I was six in the LA area and continued until I was about 18. When I went to college at William and Mary, which is in Virginia. Um, I continued in the collegiate circuit for a few years. Um, and then when I moved back to LA after college, I was really excited to keep synchronized swimming in my life.
Um, and that’s how I ended up. On the performance side. Um, but yeah, all you know, all throughout, when I was young and high school and college, I was competing.
Brett Stanley: [00:07:07] Oh, nice. So what took you into that? Had you seen those, those movies from the fifties of like Esther Williams and stuff, or was it just something that the school was offering and you kind of jumped into it?
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:07:17] Yeah. You know, it’s funny. I get asked about a lot. Sure. Williams has really became an inspiration to me, but not until a little bit later in my life when I was already really embedded in the sport, the reason I started the sport is because I love to swim. I love to be outside. And I, when I was. Still now, but especially when I was young, being on a team was really exciting to me.
Like I like to work with a group of people who achieve goals. So I played soccer. I played softball, but synchronized swimming was always my absolute favorite. Um, and I started because there was three girls who lived across the street from me. Two of the older girls were my babysitters and the youngest girl was my age.
She was in my class at school and they were all synchronized swimmers. And we, we used to sneak across the street to their neighbor’s house and swim. And I, I just fell in love with it really early. And, you know, as I got older, it became clear that this was the thing I wanted to focus on over. Anything else.
Brett Stanley: [00:08:15] Right. Well, did you have a dance background? Like, were you doing dance at all or was it more athletic? For you
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:08:21] Yeah, it was more athletic for me. I do not have a dance background besides the, you know, obligatory one ballet class you take when you’re about six years old. But, um, yeah, I was attracted to the performance side though. I liked that it involved smiling and sparkly swimsuits, and you know, I did like the.
The physical athleticism of it, but th the shiny part of it was the performing side. Like, I really just wanted to, I wanted to put on a show with my friends.
Brett Stanley: [00:08:53] But wait, were you like that before? Like, did you do like shows and stuff for your family or was it, was it when you started synchro that you kind of started doing that?
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:09:01] I think mostly when I started synchro, I mean maybe a little bit. I think all kids have a little bit of that performative quality, but I definitely, I wasn’t an actor or into the school plays or anything in particular like that. Um, synchronized swimming just kind of felt like its own thing. To me. It was, it was a lot like the other sports.
I did those team sports, but it also had this glamorous quality and I think that’s what attracted me.
Brett Stanley: [00:09:27] Oh, that’s amazing. with the synchronized swimming. Do you find, I mean, it is very much a sort of a above the water kind of sport, I guess, but are you doing training so that you can stay under longer to do those above the water movements with the whatever part of your body is sticking out of the water?
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:09:44] Yeah. I mean, you’re doing a lot of different types of training, but one of the things you’re doing are underwater lab. So swimming, as far as you can underwater cause of the pool. And the more advanced you got, you’ll start to do like one half laps underwater, two laps underwater. Um, you you’re really working on breath control because you want that day of competition to feel easy and not that physically challenging.
And you, you know, it, it really takes. Expanding and warming up your lungs both on a regular basis to hit that level. And also like right before your competition to make sure your lungs are warm. So, um, yeah, you’ll, you’ll see a lot of people swimming underwater as they prep for a competition. And the other thing you’ll see is teams underwater, you know, Basically communicating with each other, um, when you’re in a competition, um, and you’re all warming up there, there will be maybe eight or nine teams pool.
And a team is a group of eight people typically. So they’ll be a team of eight here, a team of eight here, a team of eight here and underwater. Above water. It just sounds like people talking, but underwater, it sounds like this strange group of dolphins, because every little team has somebody you call the beeper and the beeper is the person who’s counting underwater for everyone.
And it sounds kind of like, Hmm. But everybody’s, everybody’s a sort of different, so, and you know, your friends beep so some, you know, you might have a friend who’s like, Hmm, it’s just kind of like. You, you get, you kind of get used to hearing that, but the funny part is underwater. It sounds like just this bizarre school of different kinds of dolphins.
That’s a funny little secret that people don’t no about us.
Brett Stanley: [00:11:26] See, I had never even thought about that sort of thing. I just assumed that, you know, to keep the rhythm and stuff and, and that you just knew your choreography so well, that once you’re under the water, you just had to go with it. But to see you guys so
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:11:38] well, you’re right about that. So, When you’re actually in the competition and the music is playing, you’re using all of your breath and all of your energies. So you don’t have anyone beeping like that. But when you’re warming up, the way the warmup works is the pool is just open everybody’s in. No music is playing.
So you have to practice without music. And that’s how we do it.
Brett Stanley: [00:11:58] Oh, okay. So it’s like, one of you is the, is the music or the beat
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:12:03] Exactly. Exactly.
Brett Stanley: [00:12:05] That must be quite bizarre when you’ve got like several teams in the water at once and full beeping.
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:12:09] Yeah, it’s, it’s one of those memories that now I realize was very odd, but at the time was totally normal.
Brett Stanley: [00:12:16] You know, it does, it does actually solve a mystery to me. And because I, when I’ve shot underwater in like public swimming pools, and usually they don’t shut down the whole swimming pool for me, but they’ll be like, yeah, I don’t know, like water polo or synchronize going on and the other end of the pool.
And I’ll be down to doing a shot and I’ll hear someone making that noise. And I didn’t really know what it was,
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:12:37] Yup. Yup. Synchronized swimmers.
Brett Stanley: [00:12:40] Beeping communicating with each other, like, like orcas, that’s how you guys hunt in packs.
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:12:45] Pretty much.
Brett Stanley: [00:12:46] So, so then like, you know, in after college and stuff, I guess is when you kind of got into the more performance side of it as opposed to competing, um, which brings us to the Aqualung. Please
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:12:58] Yeah.
Brett Stanley: [00:12:59] talk us through that.
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:13:00] Yeah. So after college, when I came back to LA, um, I really wanted to keep this in my life in some way, and I knew I didn’t want to compete anymore. Um, I, I don’t know. I think I had just reached the top of where I was hoping to go.
Like, I didn’t have Olympic aspirations and I had already swim in college, so I didn’t really like have goals in that way anymore, but I still wanted to have synchronized swimming in my life. Um, and I had actually had some experiences with performance with performances because I grew up in Los Angeles.
Um, even when I was young, like 12, 13, 14, we would do like one off little celebrity weddings, or we, we did, you know, a birthday party for Pauly shore, random things. Yeah. Just random things would come up because this history of synchronized swimming as a performance element has always kind of been there since Esther Williams, but nobody really knew where to.
Find those people. Um, Um, so I, I had always had, I had a little bit of experience with performing and I edit, always been my favorite part. You know, like even when I was 12 or 13, I was like, Oh, if we could just do this all the time, this would be the best. These pools are warm. Like everybody’s clapping.
Everyone thinks everything we do is amazing. Like
it’s, it’d be great.
Brett Stanley: [00:14:18] that energy. Yeah.
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:14:19] Yeah, exactly. So as I, um, smell at this plane, go over.
Brett Stanley: [00:14:24] Yeah.
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:14:25] Yeah. So when I came back from college, I wanted to find some way to continue that. And I found Aqua lilies, which had just been recently started by my business partner, Misha Cosmin my, my now business partner at the time, I was just a performer. Um, and I kind of just shot her an email and said, I really want to do this.
Like, I love performing. I miss this. Um, And I jumped in pretty quick. I, I started with a news feature. We did for Katie LA like a morning news show, um, which, which was super exciting. So that was kinda my, my debut moment with Aquila Lee as an, I got to see it on TV. So that was a kind of glamorous, exciting moment for me when I was starting.
and then my second show was a performance at the 2011 Turner classic movies, film festival. And that particular event was an honor of Esther Williams and she was still alive at the time. And she was the VIP guest. So we got to do a performance for Esther Williams, which was just kind of the highlight of anything, any synchronized swimmer could hope for.
Brett Stanley: [00:15:30] Man. That’s amazing. That’s like, that’s like being able to play for your idol. That’s
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:15:35] Exactly exactly. It was amazing. And the part that was so cool is that she actually came early and watched our whole rehearsal. She sat poolside for the entire thing and just like. You could tell that she was really vibing this and like remembering it and feeling it and wanting to be around it. It was special to have her poolside with us.
And of course, like you’re rehearsing. So that’s when you’re getting all the kinks out. But when Esther Williams is watching, it’s not a rehearsal, so you’d better get those kinks out pretty
Brett Stanley: [00:16:04] Yeah, that’s right. So how old would she have been around then?
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:16:07] Um, Um, you know, she would have been at 99 this year. Yeah.
Brett Stanley: [00:16:12] And how many, how many years ago was that? Not to date
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:16:15] And 12, 13, 1456, 72, nine to 20. And that was nine years ago. So she was 90. Yeah.
Brett Stanley: [00:16:21] Wow. that’s pretty amazing. I mean, Esther Williams, I hadn’t heard of Esther Williams until maybe three or four years ago. When someone sent me a video of, of this woman in the fifties, basically doing a ballet dance under water. With some polls I shoot a lot of underwater poll dancers. So people thought, Oh, this is really interesting, Brett, here’s someone who did pole dancing back in the fifties.
And I watched this video and I was blown away because she was so comfortable. And so like in her element doing this ballet routine under the water with these two poles that I had to know more about her. And then I realized who she was and that she had, she was the. You like the, uh, the godmother of onscreen, synchronized swimming,
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:17:06] Yeah. And she, she would have been an Olympic athlete. She qualified for the 1934 Olympics, but that was the year that we boycotted them in Germany. So she wasn’t able to go. Um, so yeah, she’s, um, she is truly an Olympic level athlete and really, really amazing in what she does.
Brett Stanley: [00:17:24] Yeah. I mean, just before I spoke to you, I was, I had done a, like a bit of a Google search and I found some YouTube video of her in, and I think the movie’s called million dollar mermaid.
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:17:33] One of her classics.
Brett Stanley: [00:17:35] Yeah, it is intense. Like some of those scenes like put Cirque du Solei to shame
of people in the water and the acrobatics they’re doing.
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:17:44] yeah, just the sheer numbers are so shocking and the kaleidoscopic elements you can make with like 60 people. When you have that many people, everyone just looking up at the same time, it looks so impactful. So every moment of those scenes is just so incredibly exciting to watch.
Brett Stanley: [00:18:03] So how much of that inspires you guys now? I mean, I know the Aquila lays is, is very. Kind of fifties themed in terms of your, your look and costuming and stuff, are you taking a lot of those kind of choreography moves from then as well?
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:18:17] we are very inspired by that kind of look and feel. And we do want to kind of evoke a Voke, those moments from those old Busby, Berkeley, Esther Williams style, like huge ensemble films, but we’re also adding our. Kind of more modern, synchronized swimming perspective to it. Like we, if you look at those old films, you’re not going to see girls upside down with their legs out of the water for an extended period of time.
And the reason for that is because that’s, you know, that’s a skill that really developed from what Esther Williams did years after. Um, People who were really inspired by her, basically. Okay. We want to, we want to formalize and start the sport of synchronized swimming. And we, you know, over the last 20 or 30 years in synchronized swimming, we’ve learned a lot of sort of technical achievements on how to make, turn your body out of the water in a, in a, for longer periods of time, how to thrust your body out of the water higher and how to throw people out of the water and have them do these big acrobatic stunts in the air.
So we were inspired by the styling and sort of the, the glamor of those old films, but we’re also adding some of those more modern elements too, because we find that the audience really loves to see people flying out of the water and that kind of stuff.
Brett Stanley: [00:19:39] The more, more energetic it is. I think the more entertaining it is too.
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:19:43] Yeah. So I think, I think our sweet spot is sort of riding that line between vintage glamour, but also bringing in these modern athletic elements because, you know, we’re, we really are sort of trying to take a sport and bring it into the new age with, you know, diversity in our casting too. And like, you know, just bringing in the more modern, like athletic elements.
Um, Um, I think they’re a kind of, a lot of ways that scene is ready to be updated for 20, 20
Brett Stanley: [00:20:15] absolutely. And I think just recently, like the last couple of days you’ve had a project come out, which is, uh, beyoncÃ©’s black is King project and I think it’s, is it a short film?
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:20:25] Um, it’s a feature length film, um, on Disney plus. Yeah. So we were really excited to be part of Beyonce is black is King, which is a visual album feature length film that is being featured now on Disney plus.
And, um, This was a really interesting film because it was a celebration of black culture. And what she wanted to do was an all black synchronized swimming number, um, which is something that I don’t think anyone has ever seen on television before. Um, Um, I, I’ve never seen. That kind of diverse casting and in any kind of film or TV or music, video, project feature using synchronized swimming.
So, um, we were lucky enough to work with a team of performers from all over Southern California and also Jamaica synchro, which is a, a team of young competitive athletes based in port Antonio, Jamaica, that Beyonce flew out to feature kind of front and center and her project. Um, And it was, it was, it was just amazing to help bring that vision to life.
Um, my role was as the coach, I’m the person who coordinates the 26 athletes that we have. And also, so I’m the water choreographer assisting choreographer Jackwell Knight who, um, um, works with Beyonce on all her videos. And yeah, it was really exciting too. Just be the person to help bring this vision to life.
Like Beyonce knew exactly what she wanted. And she was definitely, definitely looking at those old Esther Williams movies as her reference. And it, it was not only exciting to create a scene with so many people, but also, you know, felt poignant and impactful to do that with black performers. When you look back at those old movies and they’re predominantly, if not all white casting,
Brett Stanley: [00:22:14] Yeah. I mean, you can definitely tell that there is no, no people of color in those old ones. Cause they would stand out so much too. It’s just this sea of free pale skin. The Beyonce one is, is it. Is it a narrative story or is it something, is it more kind of a, a feature length music video?
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:22:30] Um, I would call it more of a feature length music video. I think she describes it as a visual album, which I think is a good description.
Brett Stanley: [00:22:38] Yeah, so the, choreography, cause I haven’t seen it cause I don’t have Disney plus. Um, so I’m going to flying a little blind in this, but um, the choreography that was done for that was it. Was it, like you were saying, like a mix of the old and the new, where they kind of pushing the boundaries of synchro or artistic
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:22:55] So every, every time we work with choreography, we’re also, we’re always integrating some element of modern, synchronized swimming, like some moment where the legs come out of the water just to kind of break up. The formation and add some verticality, but this was more, um, more so than the other projects we’ve done.
This was a little bit more focused on that reference to the past, because I think, I think it was more impactful to make the update. To that scene about the diversity in the casting, then to make it feel like a really different number than those numbers. So we, we were very much attached to that kind of aesthetic and making sure that we were creating choreography that hearkens back to that.
Brett Stanley: [00:23:42] So it was like an update then like a, like a, a modern update of those routines with a more
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:23:47] Exactly. She, she became the modern Esther Williams.
Brett Stanley: [00:23:52] That’s amazing. And so she was front and center?
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:23:54] She is front and center and it is worth seeing just for that reason, she has is incredible with her screen presence.
Brett Stanley: [00:24:01] Yeah. What was it like teaching her, those, those movements? Did she already know how to do those sorts of things in the water?
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:24:07] Beyonce was a boss and did not need much teaching at all. Honestly, she, um, her role was less, um, She didn’t really have to do like the leg things and the layouts and that kind of stuff. Like she is the star in the center of the circle. And so her role is more like looking up and playing to the camera or, you know, in the line of girls diving in one after the other, she’s the one at the end, who’s the star who just stays there.
So she, she already knows how to play the camera and really did not need any guidance from us. And she clearly had thought. In a lot of detail about what she wanted these scenes to look like. Like they were bringing the monitor over to her after every shot for her to review. And she said when they had it, so she was a large part of obviously the in front of the camera stuff, but also the behind the scenes stuff as well.
Brett Stanley: [00:25:00] And was she, um, was she involved in sort of the, the camera work as well? Was she directing as she was performing?
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:25:08] I would say she, the director and the first aid were all kind of running the show together. Like she did give notes about the drone and the position of the camera, the timing. So she was part of the camera work as well.
Brett Stanley: [00:25:22] And that’s a good point. Cause like back in the fifties, you know, they had had to use cranes and stuff to get those overhead shots, but now we’ve got drones. I’m assuming that those, those shots must be just more way more Epic.
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:25:32] Yeah. You know, occasionally they still use cranes too. And actually this shoe had both a crane and a drone for different shots. Um, but yeah, you know, throughout it, all, Beyonce was very particular about, you know, knowing when she had gotten the shot she wanted.
Brett Stanley: [00:25:47] Right. Yeah. So she, she had a real vision of what she was after.
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:25:52] Exactly a very clear vision, which was really inspiring and easy for me because when people say this is exactly what I want, it’s easy for me to make it happen. It’s when people don’t know what they want. That’s a little bit more of a conversation. So.
Brett Stanley: [00:26:06] Yeah, well, that’s an interesting point. So how does that work for you as a, as a creative and as a, as a choreography yourself, do you prefer to be given the kind of carte blanche to do whatever you want or do you prefer to have some more direction from the client?
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:26:19] I like the carte blanche in theory, but it’s not typical to what we’re given. Like typically people have a really specific idea of what they want or they’re like, I want anything, but they still have a really specific idea of what they want. Um, and it’s one challenge for us is the visual references and the, um, you know, the video references that we’ll get at the beginning of the project are often videos.
Of us, like people have gotten really attached to something they’ve seen that we’ve already done. And it’s, I think, you know, for producers and advertisers, it’s a little bit harder to trust someone and make something that’s different. that’s going to work and be beautiful for them.
So, um, I, I do get a little frustrated when people think that we can sort of only do the things we’ve already done. Um, but I, I also so appreciate when someone has just a little bit of structure, like someone who says, okay, I want. I would really love legs out of the water for this section. And then I want like some underwater sequences.
That’s nice for me because I can at least know that I’m, I’m working along the lines of kind of what they’re thinking, and I’m going to be able to create something that’s, you know, in line with what they’re expecting, but I’m not boxed in to anything in particular.
Brett Stanley: [00:27:35] Right. So you get a little bit of room to move, to stretch and do some things that you haven’t done before.
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:27:39] Yeah. So for this project, we knew that beyond say one at a big Esther Williams style sequence. So to me, that immediately means circles. Like everyone loves those evolving kaleidoscopic circles. So that was a pretty obvious, um, You know, chunk of choreography we created, but we also created a lot of other types of things too.
Usually my process is to create, create a couple of sequences that I know are along the lines of what the client is looking for. And then also to create a couple of sequences that are just. Fun what I want, um, that I can either, you know, film to show someone later for a future project, or if I’m lucky, someone will see it get really excited and want it and in that project.
I usually create uh, some more specific stuff that I know that they’re going to want. And then some more fun stuff for me.
Brett Stanley: [00:28:29] Right. Which is good. Because as a creative, you got to kind of keep evolving. If you’re doing the same thing all the time, I feel you might get a little stagnant.
Was there any underwater stuff? Was there any underwater routine or was it all just above water?
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:28:39] there was only one underwater shot, but it’s one of the most Epic shots in the video. In my opinion, um, three of our girls are linking up to make a circle that revolves under water and then beyond say swims through it.
Brett Stanley: [00:28:52] Oh, yeah,
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:28:53] So again, Yeah, another scene that was lifted directly from an Esther Williams film. I can’t remember which one, but that’s a, an exact shot she does.
So again, just like harkening back in a really specific way to that era.
Brett Stanley: [00:29:07] That’s such a beautiful homage to, to her work and the choreographers that she worked with as well. I guess, um, the, the work of yours that I’ve seen the most of, I think is most of your underwater stuff. And I think it’s like a few music videos you’ve done. Maybe some, some commercials, I think as well.
What percentage of, of your commercial work? Becomes underwater as opposed to just the above water stuff.
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:29:32] I would say maybe 25%. Um, we have some projects that are shot entirely underwater. Those are a little bit more rare. Mostly it will be like a section that shot underwater. Um, Or they’ll be doing some kind of split thing where they’re showing us above and then they also want to show us underneath. So I would say I’m between the projects that are just underwater and the pieces of the projects we do that have underwater scenes, maybe about 25%.
Brett Stanley: [00:30:01] Okay. And do you prefer the Underwood? I mean, not prefer, but do you enjoy the underwater scenes as much as the above order ones?
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:30:08] I, you know, I, I, I won’t say I prefer them, but I really, really love them. Um, because the underwater world is less limiting. There’s, there’s just no gravity. There’s, there’s so much you can do. Like I, and I love, you know, obviously it depends on the tank structure or the pool space or wherever shooting, but like playing with that concept of no gravity, like somebody’s looking like they’re standing on the bottom and the launching off.
For, you know, um, kind of staying connected and this sort of elaborate human chandelier position and then rotating, um, you know, and maintaining their buoyancy underwater. Like I find those things really inspiring. And personally, as a performer, like performing underwater was my favorite thing. So it was shooting under, I, I find it, um, really, really calming, um, under there.
Brett Stanley: [00:31:01] Yeah, absolutely. Do you find that it’s a, it’s a very different technique. Like I assume when you’re on the surface, you’re working really hard to stay at the surface, whereas underwater, you could probably relax a little more.
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:31:10] I would say that there are two big elements in common. One is time dang, like when we’re on the surface or when we’re underwater, obviously we’re always trying to hit certain musical cues or marks. So that is an element that is similar between the two. Um, I think. Particularly the challenge with underwater comes in, not floating out of frame.
It’s just really easy to sort of float away, especially if you have a little current or anything in the water. Um, and so my problem with the performers will typically be, you know, I have a line of people and I need just their toe. Like they’re very. Bottom of their big toe is what’s touching the surface.
And then I have one girl who’s got one her whole ankle out. Cause she can’t quite feel it. And she’s floating up just a little bit. So it’s, um, it’s a different set of challenges. I think.
Brett Stanley: [00:32:00] Yeah, cause I guess the precision is a lot harder as well. Like it’s saying, like trying to get everyone’s toes just to touch the surface
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:32:06] Yeah. Decision is very hard underwater. And I, luckily I think underwater choreography sometimes lends itself to being a little bit more freeform. Like people swimming in and out of frame and differences can be really beautiful underwater. Um, but yeah, if you’re looking for everything to be exactly.
You know, crisp and perfect and exactly the same angles. It’s definitely challenging to do that.
Brett Stanley: [00:32:30] absolutely. And I think just from my point of view, as a, as a photographer, when I’m dealing with more than one person in the water, and I’m usually telling them not to, not to aim for symmetry. Cause if you don’t get it exactly right, it doesn’t look great. Whereas
if you’re purposely purposely asymmetrical, it looks amazing.
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:32:45] I agree with you on that.
Brett Stanley: [00:32:47] How is it doing these underwater, you know, these big, formations and not really being able to see very well. How does that work for you guys?
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:32:56] I think that’s really where I come in as the coach part of my role is to watch monitor from outside of the water with a microphone and say, you know, Alex, you need to move a little bit to your left, um, page or too high. Like I it’s, it becomes my responsibility to make that perfect. Because when you’re in the pool, you can’t feel it.
Brett Stanley: [00:33:18] Oh, so you’re actually, you are directing them when you’re under the water. You’ve got a, uh, uh, a speaker under the water to be able to communicate with them.
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:33:24] Yes. So on show day aren’t shoot day. I am typically in video village watching the monitor. I have a microphone that connects underwater, where I communicate with talent and, and talk to them through the shots too. Um, and then I also work with the director to translate any notes they might have, like the note will be something like, Oh, we really like that part.
We want, um, We want like a leg up there, you know? And then I’m the person who says, okay, after the crane, you guys are going to do a one 80 turn, you’re going to hit a helicopter, a Heron vertical slot, you know, and then I’m, I’m speaking in the terms they know to make that change.
Brett Stanley: [00:34:00] Yeah. You’re speaking the language. Yeah. Um, would that must, that must make things a lot easier. I was picturing everyone having to, you know, work, you know, discuss it at the surface and then go down and just hope for the best. But if you’re being able to communicate instantly, then that’s, that makes things a lot easier.
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:34:14] It is a really essential part of the process. And early on when we get these jobs in a lot of my job is to explain why that’s needed. Um, because people, you know, synchronized swimming is, is so offbeat to what people are usually doing in production. Um, and you don’t necessarily always have that.
Coaching figure outside of the water. So I have to explain to people, okay. Not only do we do choreography, we’re also there on shoot day to make sure that the girls are in the right place and that if they’re floating away, they come back into frame and that we, you know, we can give them the notes that you need to get the shot.
Brett Stanley: [00:34:48] Right. Do you ever get pushback on that? Do you ever have to really fight to get yourself on set that day?
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:34:53] um, um, I do sometimes. Yeah. I, um, A lot of the time, if we’re working on a big film, there were already be a choreographer on the project because they’re the choreographer for the whole film. Um, and so production will be like, Oh, we don’t need that. And then I have to explain, Oh, our job is not only to assist with making that water choreography happened because someone who doesn’t have this background doesn’t necessarily know how to speak in the terms we need.
It’s also to be there on shoot day and just, you know, implement any changes you need and correct things. And 99% of the time, people understand that. If we just explain, you know, this is the part of our process that makes it work.
Brett Stanley: [00:35:32] yeah, it’s going to save you more time in the long run by having you there to be able to
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:35:38] more you know, having better leadership results in fewer takes needed
Brett Stanley: [00:35:42] Yeah. Which is that’s, that’s like magic words to, to producers, I
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:35:46] exactly that’s money. So that, so that’s usually what, what gets me past it.
Brett Stanley: [00:35:51] So what other projects have you done in terms of, um, big budget stuff? Like the Beyonce feature, um, was recently bevy you been featured in other movies as well?
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:36:00] Yeah, I mean, our, the biggest project we’ve done is the Cohen brothers hail Caesar, which was not only the biggest in terms of. It’s the Cohen brothers, how exciting, but also the biggest, just in terms of number of people. Well, um, we had 32 performers in the water for that film, um, and it was a big Esther Williams style water ballet sequence, um, with Scarlett Johanson as the Esther Williams character.
And it was actually shot at Sony stage 30, which is that scene, same tank that Esther Williams shot million dollar mermaid in. And a lot of her films. Um, so just getting to shoot in that same space was so emotional and exciting for me.
Brett Stanley: [00:36:40] I can imagine. How was Scala? Did you have to train her to do anything?
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:36:44] I did. I actually worked with her to train her, to swim in a mermaid tail. And she is, I mean, she’s, she’s very down for anything easygoing. Um, An easy person to work with and picked it up pretty fast. I think with, with learning to swim in a tail, it really depends on how comfortable of a swimmer you are to start with.
And she was a very comfortable swimmer. So, you know, getting her used to that mermaid kick wasn’t too difficult. Um, but we work, we worked with her on that, and then we also work with talent like that on like, How to keep your eyes open underwater, how to hold your air in your chest, but not puff up your cheeks, like notes like that.
Brett Stanley: [00:37:24] Right.
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:37:24] But she was great.
Brett Stanley: [00:37:25] Oh, good. Yeah, I think, I think from memory she’s done some other underwater stuff. I think she might’ve done a, like a perfume commercial.
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:37:32] yeah. I seem to remember that. Yeah, but just very positive and game, which is what you need to do. Water shots.
Brett Stanley: [00:37:39] Yeah. And I guess that’s, that was the same with Beyonce as well. I think, cause she did lemonade, um, a few years ago, which was underwater as well, and she’s done the underwater pregnancy shots. And so having that experience of just having at least done it once must, must help a lot.
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:37:52] I’m sure, sure. I, I can’t even remember a time where I hadn’t done an underwater shoot, but I know when I work with talent, like, you know, give it a couple of takes and they start to feel more comfortable.
Brett Stanley: [00:38:04] Yeah. Have you guys done anything in open water or are you mostly in tanks?
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:38:08] We are mostly in tanks or pools. We have done things in open water. Um, I think were think of a. We, you know, we, we actually have a team in Europe as well. Um, and we have a bunch of performers who are based in Marsay and Marsay is coastal. And we, they shot this beautiful video where they like dive off the coastal rocks into the water and did our routine, um, in the ocean.
So that was incredibly beautiful, but a little bit abnormal for us. Yeah. Just because. I think that open water makes things a little bit more difficult in terms of drifting and then just like, like production needs. So most of the time they have a shooting at a pool
Brett Stanley: [00:38:51] Yeah. And are you working primarily with females? Is, is a very, it seems like a very female dominated sport.
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:38:58] yeah. So historically it has been a female dominated sport, but actually there are men in synchronized swimming. Artistic swimming, excuse. I’m going to continue to make that message. But yeah, there actually are men in artistics swimming now, um, a few years ago, uh, Thena introduced a new competition category called mixed duets, which is a lot like mixed pairs and figure skating.
A man and a woman. Um, and it’s it’s that has really brought men more to the forefront of synchronized swimming, um, competitively. It’s been this interesting situation where all of a sudden, all of the countries now have to all have a great male swimmer to compete in this category. Um, and right now that like the female.
Partners in the duet are typically stronger than the male partners in the duet, because they’re kind of having to find men now who were like former water polo players or dancers, and try to teach them like to rise up to this level. Um, and then of course there are some anomalies there, there are men who have done this for many years.
Um, bill may, it’s sort of the most famous guy in synchronized swimming. Um, he is. The best male synchronized swimmer in the world recently retired. Um, but he has been a competitive synchronized swimmer since maybe the nineties. So they do exist. Um, but it’s, it’s starting to come more of a, a big thing within the sport itself.
And then on the performance side, it’s definitely something that has been requested a lot, I think because people are interested in this more like gender bending. World of seeing people in roles that are unexpected. Um, so we actually have a group called the Aqua Willie’s, which is our, our brother team of male performers.
And Um, you know, they, they do music videos and, uh, live performances and all of that kind of stuff. And it was the process of finding them and casting them was definitely interesting because. You know, as I mentioned, there really aren’t very many males, synchronized swimmers. And if you know, the five that exists, there’s like one in Russia, one in China, one in Japan.
but my background is, is as a synchronized swimming coach. even while I was a synchronized swimmer, I was always also a coach. Um, I, and I, they were sort of things that I. Like passions that were parallel. I loved them both. Um, and so I, I have a lot of experience with teaching synchronized swimming and not only teaching it, but knowing what.
People will be able to do really well and what we will be able to make look great. And then what just will never look great. Um, and so yeah, the, the routines we’ve put together for them have a lot of synchronized swimming elements. They have dance elements and then a lot of acrobatic elements because a lot of these guys are tumblers twos.
There’s lots of big flips into the water and throwing people out and that kind of stuff. But yeah, the process of putting together an all male synchronized swimming team has definitely been, you know, has it’s had its own challenges, but it’s been really fun and interesting, and the public loves it.
Brett Stanley: [00:42:00] Oh, I’m sure. is there a, how do I word this from a photography point of view? Working with men underwater is very different to working with females underwater and women underwater because, you know, it’s, it’s that. Trying to get across different kinds of things. Like women are very feminine. And for me, it’s very easy to, to, to direct someone to move into a feminine pose, because I know what that looks like.
Whereas a male or a masculine pose is a little harder for me, cause I’m not as, I guess, not as obey with what those look like,
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:42:32] Well, we don’t see it as much in media.
Brett Stanley: [00:42:34] No, and I think that’s what it is. I I’ve said this in other episodes where, as a male, I’m very to know what poses look good on a female, but not so much on a male.
Is it the same when you were putting the equal willis’ together? Was there a kind of a relearning of how to, how to coach someone?
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:42:49] There was a little bit of a relearning in the sense that my sort of normal GoTo moves read differently men. so in, What I turned to was actually like, I would say, okay, I have an idea, something like this. And then I would let the guys all try something. And one of them would always try something that felt more natural to them, whether that’s like holding their hands in a fist or like hitting the water in a kind of different angle.
Um, I think I had to let go of like the way that I do things, quote unquote and let. Them show me the things that feel natural to them so that I could then tweak them to work. But yeah, like the, in terms of just the movements they do, the routines we have for the guys are very different than the ones we have for the girls, because I think the groups feel better doing, you know, movements that are a little bit different.
Brett Stanley: [00:43:43] that’s great. And, and so what’s coming up for you guys in the future. I mean, I’m, I’m assuming covert has kind of put a bit of a dampener on a lot of these performances. have you got plans to kind of pick things back up again, once things open up.
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:43:57] Yeah. In terms of live performances, we’re not really expecting very much until next year because of COVID, but you know, which is disappointing. Obviously we’re excited to be performing live. Like most of the time we’re doing maybe five to eight live performances per month and then a shoot every couple of months.
So, um, you know, this is a big change for us. But I think it’s a time to get creative, which is a little bit yeah. Exciting. Um, one thing that talking about is virtual shows. so on, on August 8th, which may be passed by the time this releases, but every year on August 8th, we do a big show in honor of Esther Williams.
Um, August 8th, her birthday. So that’s why we do it on that date every year. Um, Yeah. And this year we’re, we’re bringing the show virtual because we can’t meet in person, but we still want to celebrate. So it’s going to be like an hour long ish compilation of Aqua lilies performances from the past.
Um, you know, some of Esther Williams, best films, and then, you know, interviews with our performers around the world. So that’s something we’re really excited about. Um, and we’re also just interested into moving into virtual shows in general. Like we’re, um, um, we’ve been doing a lot of research on, you know, when we can have a shoot again, how can we shoot things to make the audience feel like they’re there?
Because we think that. The type of entertainment experiences people want through their computer are like, people don’t want to just go on YouTube and watch a normal video. Right? Like they want to feel like their experience things, something, um, yeah, so we’re kind of exploring like how can we take what we do and film it in this way.
That feels really exciting for people. Um, and I think that, that, you know, in the upcoming months is going to be our primary focus just because we can’t be in person this year very much.
Brett Stanley: [00:45:46] Right. And what are your kind of thoughts on that? Are you thinking like, like virtual reality or like three 60 cameras or.
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:45:53] Yeah. I mean, we’ve done a little bit with VR and three 60 cameras before, and I would love to explore those things in more detail. I think what we’re thinking, just because of the logistics of like getting people headsets and all of that. You know, our business in a normal year is primarily events.
So we do a lot of weddings, corporate parties, that kind of stuff. Um, and those things are still happening right now, just in different ways and looking for different kinds of contents. Yeah. So I think that we’re, yeah, we’re interested in instill creating what would be a two dimensional video, but making it like more personalized people, like, for example, maybe working with musical artists to have a swim to a song that has lyrics that are specific to, you know, your life and what you’re celebrating.
Um, Um, Yeah. And then also just like, you know, straight up having moments where the performers come up and interact with the camera in a way you wouldn’t in a normal show, but in a way you need to, because your audience is behind that camera.
Brett Stanley: [00:46:54] that’s pretty cool. I mean, that’s really targeted as well and very, very personal.
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:46:58] Yeah, exactly. So it’s something that we’re kind of just starting to explore, but, um, I think that’s where our energy and focus will be during this COVID time.
Brett Stanley: [00:47:07] Yeah. you need to be creative at the moment, I think. And that’s definitely a good example of it.
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:47:11] Yeah, it does feel like we have to try new things right now, then it, you know, you don’t know what’s going to hit or what’s going to work, but, um, we can’t just sit around and do nothing during this time. So it’s worth a shot.
Brett Stanley: [00:47:23] Yeah, exactly. I mean, you might evolve in your world might get back to normal, but you might’ve found a whole new direction to go in. So I
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:47:29] Yeah, exactly. and it’s a fun opportunity to show our show to people around the world. I mean, obviously it’s it’s site specific, right? Like the Aqua laser in LA or Miami or New York. So if you’re not booking a show there, you can’t always see us. So the nice thing about this is that everyone around the world, you see our performance.
Brett Stanley: [00:47:47] Absolutely. Yeah, yeah. Sharing it to a wider audience. That’s great, Mary, thanks so much. This has been awesome. Just to hear some stories from, you know, that very thin surface of the water, rather than all just underneath it. It’s been really cool.
Mary Jeanette Ramsey: [00:47:59] Yeah, thank you. Um, this was super fun. Thanks a lot, Brett.