No Ordinary Mermaids: An Interview with Zoe Parker from Yorkshire Life Aquatic

On Friday 30th August 2013, the Mandela Gardens outside The Civic, Barnsley, will be taken over by Mermaids.


To make things stranger still, these mermaids will be swimming on dry land! For these are no ordinary mermaids but the members of Yorkshire Life Aquatic, a new ‘dry land synchronised swimming team’ and this is their ‘Million Dollar Mermaid’ Gala.


The event is part of the Civic Artistic Residency Programme and will include all sorts of activities throughout the afternoon. However, the highlight will undoubtedly be two site-specific performances by Yorkshire Life Aquatic themselves, set against the backdrop of the Mandela Gardens’ water feature.


I’m pleased to say that I’ll be reviewing the Gala for this website.


Ahead of this event, I’ve interviewed choreographer and founder member of the team, Zoe Parker. I was interested to discover what had inspired such an unusual project. I also wanted to find out about the specific challenges it posed for a choreographer.


As you will see, Zoe’s answers are very enlightening. They reveal the thinking behind the project as well as the challenges and joys of being a Yorkshire Life Aquatic performer.



Picture: 'MERMAIDS - 01' by Lizzie Coombes
© Lizzie Coombes






James Holden: The Yorkshire Life Aquatic group will be holding their ‘Million Dollar Mermaid’ Gala at The Civic in Barnsley on 30th August 2013 as part of the Civic Artistic Residency Programme. How have you approached this residency?


Zoe Parker: We have named the project after Esther Williams’ most famous musical film, Million Dollar Mermaid. Williams’ films were Hollywood water ballets. Originally a swimmer, Esther was known for her ‘wholesome’ natural look and was nicknamed ‘the mermaid’. Since she died this year on 6th June, this is an aptly timed homage to her legacy. We particularly wanted to look at vintage synchronised swimming which is much more elegant and highlights grace and prettiness rather than the more athletic modern synchronised swimming style, which is faster and more gymnastic in its look.


Initially, I had a vision of photographs in the wall of water located at the bottom of Mandela Gardens and immediately thought about collaborating with photographer Lizzie Coombes, as I had seen her underwater photography exhibition Submerged which had featured women, water and vintage swimming hats. Synchronised swimming just fitted perfectly with this idea and location. Then I met with Lucy Meredith, an ex-synchronised swimmer who was also exploring ‘dry land synchronised swimming’, and we decided to collaborate (she’s co-producer and also one of the performers of Yorkshire Life Aquatic).


What was emerging was a collaboration across different creative disciplines. We met Jamie, our sound designer, at a swim-along cinema event in Bramley Baths (he was dressed as a shark at the time). His sense of play and creativity really came across so we got him on board. I then approached Sarah Spanton, a very skilled artist and facilitator, and we started developing how the audience might experience this event and what other elements we could include to support that experience. So the ‘Million Dollar Mermaid’ Gala is a kind of ‘fete’ with performance, sound, photography, fun activities to get involved in - all with a vintage flavour.


As the event at Barnsley is mainly on dry land (there is about 3 inches of water) the ideas and concepts I started to work with for CARP [Civic Artistic Residency Programme] revolve around the vintage pin-up girl images of stars from Hollywood films in the 1950s. Esther Williams had very little dance or acting training. Also, she wasn’t the traditional petite brand of Hollywood leading lady of the time, being quite tall. This supports the notion that the aesthetic of beauty comes in non-traditional shapes and sizes.


JH: You combine a number of different influences in your work. How will you bring these together during your performances with Yorkshire Life Aquatic?


ZP: This is a collaborative process so each element had an influence on the other elements. Photographs will feature in the wall of water. Music will play through the space, and there will be a sound installation created by Jamie Fletcher, featuring stories and memories around the themes of swimming, family and mermaids. There will also be a mermaid ‘face-in-hole’ photo booth created by Helen Bootle and UPLIFT Barnsley, a roaming mermaid face painting booth and a vintage hula hoop workshop run by local group PSS Fitmums and leader Stephanie Crossland.


JH: You have written about the celebratory aspects of the project. Could you say a little more about this? What are you looking to celebrate through your work? How will this be achieved?


ZP: The idea is to celebrate people and places in and around water features – in this case, Mandela Gardens and women. We hope to highlight the ‘beauty in the ordinary’. Lizzie Coombe’s photographs are inspiring and vibrant and capture this kind of everyday beauty. For instance, one of the pictures is of a line of women under the water where one is quite clearly bobbing up, quite out of line. There’s a natural charm in this. It has character and a sense of fun and reminds me that imperfections or flaws are actually what make us beautiful.



Picture: 'MERMAIDS - 04' by Lizzie Coombes
© Lizzie Coombes


JH: The idea of dry land synchronised swimming is, on the face of it, quite unusual. Have you found it difficult to persuade people to support the project at any point? What have people’s reactions been to the idea?


ZP: No. I have found people to be very supportive and they have found the idea appealing. I think the idea of mermaids and synchronised swimming really captures the imagination, and we have had a lot of fun with it on social media. We are working with fantastic partners like Barnsley Civic and Bramley Baths, and have had input from other people including Spin Arts, MAAP, and have had other support from organisations such as Leeds Inspired and Yorkshire Dance. The West Yorkshire Playhouse and Leeds Pilates Place have also supported us with space. A number of other artists have been involved in the making of things including Katie Jane Hill and Lynnette Willoughby, who we have funded through Leeds Creative Timebank.


JH: How did you find your ‘mermaids’?


ZP: Initially, prior to any funding, a few of us had a similar desire to develop performance work with a synchronised swimming theme, so this is how the Yorkshire Life Aquatic team was first formed. Then, after we had secured funding, we did a call out for mermaids during our residency as part of the summer sublets at West Yorkshire Playhouse and got our final two mermaids. As we were just starting out, it was very important for us that the team were committed to the concepts of the project and prepared to be committed to the project on a longer term basis.


JH: How have you had to adapt your approach to choreography for this project?


ZP: For this project I am working with six theatre performers as opposed to dancers. Working with performers who are not dance trained did initially take me out of my comfort zone so I had to alter my approach, thinking less in terms of steps and more in terms of stories and characters to build the choreography.


I also wanted the choreography to be born from the concept rather than the other way around. I wanted to work with a photographer in a more integrated way so that the photography would inform the choreography and then, in turn, the choreography would inform the photography. This isn’t a process I have used before, but so far I am finding it really helpful. We will do a few more photo shoots before the end of the project. We’ll also have extended the concept into other areas of the project, such as the pin up board and our mermaid memory book.


JH: Some of the movements in synchronised swimming – particularly the transitional passages – are hidden, or at least partly obscured from view, by the water itself. This allows poses to appear fully formed, as it were. On dry land you are denied this luxury. How are you handling this difference?


ZP: Good Question. One of the interesting things about synchronised swimming is the contrast between beauty and chaos: under the water there’s a ‘gaggle’ of legs, arms and contorted faces, whilst on the surface it is all smiles and grace. This correlates with things we do as women: conforming to an idea of external attractiveness – like wearing high heels, which can look very beautiful and at other times very ugly (think staggering bent legs tottering down stairs). I thought this tied in nicely with some of the mermaid stories I have read too – this idea of things we are prepared to ‘give up’ to be accepted or attract a mate (in mermaid stories it’s their tails). The choreography looks at these contrasts: ugly and beautiful, grace and clumsiness, body confidence and awkwardness.


JH: What other challenges have you faced when translating the movements of synchronised swimming to dry land?


ZP: The flow and ease of moving through water isn’t naturally there on land and it is harder to show the patterns because of where the audience view ‘land’ work from. However, there is something very comical about synchronised swimming movement on dry land because, as you say, the transitions are not hidden and there is that running joke: ‘Where is the water?’ I like that a lot. It’s quirky and so we are working with that.


JH: What attracted you to the Mandela Gardens outside The Civic in Barnsley?


ZP: When I saw the CARP residency call out, I remembered how amazing I had found that wall of water in Mandela Gardens on a previous visit to The Civic. I watched a friend’s son splashing around in the water and he was so delighted. I wanted to do something that featured that wall and playfulness with water.  


JH: To what extent will your performances at the ‘Million Dollar Mermaid’ Gala be site specific?


ZP: It will be entirely site specific – our residency at Barnsley will be spent adapting the movement material to work with this site and highlight its features.  I liked the idea of giving the audience a choice of how to watch the performance or experience the Gala, so we created three viewing points: one is on the balcony of The Civic, one is around the edge of the grass and the third is a close-up ‘picnic blanket’ view. All three views will be considered when adapting the movement to this site. I want each person to have their own individual experience of the performance, and participate as they choose.


JH: The ‘Million Dollar Mermaid’ Gala isn’t just about dry land synchronised swimming. What other things will be happening on the day and how do they relate to the performances themselves?


ZP: 1) There will be a sound installation created by sound designer Jamie Fletcher. This will include stories of people alive in the late 1940s. This gives a context and foundation to the characters we present (some of the performance has been influenced by the people we talked with and their stories).


2) There will be a vintage swimmer pin-up board and a special ‘mermaid tail book’ designed by artist Lynnette Willoughby, which will feature photographs contributed by people we talked with, and audiences via social media and/or live events.


3) There’ll be a sensory area located on the balcony, including a telescope, opera glasses, shells (to listen to the sea) and the shell-shaped sound installations already mentioned.


This aspect came from a memory I had of the theatre when I was a child, when looking through opera glasses was my favourite thing to do. And the telescope? Well, what I really wanted was one of those slot operated viewing scopes you get at the seaside, but budget and logistics prevented that so this was the next best thing!


4) There will also be a hula hoop workshop run by PSS Fitmums, who work with women across Barnsley. Hula hoops feature in the performance and so hoops seemed a lovely way to offer the opportunity of involvement for those who want it. Also, there will be stalls with a vintage, well-being and/or local connection. And a range of activities for children to get involved in.


5) Finally, there’ll be a ‘Meet the Mermaids’ session. At around 5.00 pm people can meet and chat with the mermaids.


JH: What’s in store for the Yorkshire Life Aquatic team after your CARP residency at The Civic?


ZP: After the CARP residency, we have a performance at Bramley Baths in Leeds. This will combine dry land and water-based synchronised swimming movement and will feature as part of their September open day on 29th September at 1pm. The performance will be adapted to this very different venue but, much like the Barnsley Gala, the performance will highlight the beautiful space and there will be three viewing points from which audiences can watch the performance (the balcony, the side of the pool or in the shallow end of the pool on water seats). There’ll be the option of using opera glasses and a telescope from the balcony. We will also feature as part of BISH BASH BOSH at Yorkshire Dance on Light Night on 4th October 2013.


Next year… who knows?! But I have a vision of lots of water and fountains and maybe a hundred people synchronised!




For more information about Yorkshire Life Aquatic’s ‘Million Dollar Mermaid’ Gala at The Civic, Barnsley, please see The Civic’s own website by clicking here.


For more information about the Civic Artistic Residency Programme at The Civic, Barnsley, please see The Civic’s own website by clicking here.


You can find more information about Yorkshire Life Aquatic on their blog, here:


You can also read Yorkshire Life Aquatic’s tweets here:


For more information about Bramley Baths, Leeds, see their blog here:





This interview with Zoe Parker was conducted via email in August 2013. The text published here is an edited version of the original text.

The details of the 'Gala' were correct at the time of publication. Please see The Civic's own website for up-to-date information about the event.

I’d like to thank Zoe Parker for her time and willingness to answer my questions. I’d also like to thank Lizzie Coombes for permission to use her photographs.






Pictures © Lizzie Coombes


Published Wednesday 21st August 2013