In ‘Dancing in the Water,’ Wayne Ewing captures a one-of-a-kind swim
November 20, 2015
On film, endurance athletes often come off as stoic, tough types — turned quiet, often boring, by all the hours and miles they've logged. But Boulder-based swimmer Matt Moseley wants his aquatic feats to be more exuberant, more like carnivals — they're part Mardi Gras, part Burning Man, with musical accompaniment and historic swims as their centerpiece.
When Moseley — a Louisiana native — became the first person to officially swim across Lake Ponchartrain in New Orleans last year, his support team included two boats filled with an eclectic and artistic cast of characters. The 84-year-old jazz and folk legend David Amram, who has collaborated with the likes of Dizzie Gillespie, Jack Kerouac and Thelonious Monk, played and composed music on a keyboard all night and through the pre-dawn hours. New Orleans guitarist Papa Mali and conga player Uganda Roberts hopped on board for a morning shift and brought the swimmer to shore with "Iko Iko." Moseley's Burning Man friends made a surreal merman sculpture to follow him on the water. Author and former Aspenite Curtis Robinson was on board as an official observer.
Local filmmaker Wayne Ewing was on board, too, documenting Moseley's swim and the music and mayhem for what would become his new documentary "Dancing in the Water."
"Being from New Orleans, you can't just go swimming," Moseley says in the film. "You've got to make it a moveable, fun experience."
Moseley hops in the water shortly after 9 p.m. and crawls on shore (just after an alligator does) on the other side of Ponchartrain, 25 miles and 15 hours later, greeted by a cheering crowd and a bottle of Champagne. As Moseley makes his way from shore to shore, the 85-minute film captures performances on the water of songs like "Go Down Water" and "I Shall Not Be Moved" and a string of improvisational Amram pieces composed on the spot about the swim (including the jazzy call-and-response number "Dancing in the Water," which gave the film its title).
Ewing's film and Moseley's swim also celebrate the lake itself, highlighting the efforts that have cleaned it up and, in recent years, made it swimmable. Ewing sketches the lake's history, and its degradation through six decades of shell dredging that continued until the practice was halted in 1992. Dr. John pops in to recall its dirty days as a trash dumping ground and as a make-out spot for local teens. John Lopez, of the Lake Ponchartrain Basin Foundation, explains the water quality issues and the lake's recovery over the past two decades.
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"I think it's crazy," Papa Mali quips in the documentary, referring to the long swim. "But I think it's a beautiful thing that everybody knows they can get back in the water out here."
Ewing, based in Carbondale and best known for his films about Hunter S. Thompson, went on the water with Moseley not expecting to have a feature film on his hands. "He asked me to just film this event, which I agreed to do, and it was so interesting that it became a movie for me," Ewing said in a recent interview.
The pair met through Thompson in 2001, when Moseley helped organize a rally with Thompson on the steps of the Colorado State Capitol Building in Denver, calling for the release of Lisl Auman, a young woman wrongly convicted of felony murder and sentenced to life in prison. Thompson's crusade to get Auman out of prison was later the subject of Ewing's 2007 film "Free Lisl" and Moseley's 2010 book "Dear Dr. Thompson." Moseley also served as a Thompson family spokesperson and for the production of the writer's 2005 memorial service at Owl Farm in Woody Creek (also the subject of a Ewing Film: "When I Die.")
Ewing began filming "Dancing in the Water" in Aspen in late 2013, when Moseley spent time training in the outdoor pool at Aspen Meadows.
The following spring, Ewing accompanied him on a tour of Lake Ponchartrain, to learn more about the health of the lake and related coastal restoration issues. In June 2014, they returned for the big swim.
The film proved a test of endurance for the musicians and the filmmaker as well as the swimmer, Ewing recalled. He started setting up his filming rig on the support boat at noon, nine hours before Moseley hopped in the water and about 24 hours before he stopped filming.
"It was the hardest shoot I've done in my life," he said. "I mean, I've been on the road with The Eagles. I was Hunter Thompson's road manager. And this was the hardest physical thing I've ever done."
The moment when Ewing realized he had a feature documentary on his hands came around dawn, eight or so hours into Moseley's swim, when Amram stepped away from the keys, pulled out a Native American flute and began serenading the swimmer and his crew.
"Every film I've ever made, I have a moment of real electricity and magic that's happening right in front of me and I'm lucky enough to capture it," he said. "If that doesn't happen, then I know I'm in real trouble. That moment, at 5 a.m. on the lake with the sun rising and moon setting and David Amram playing his flute, I thought, 'This really is magic.' Maybe I was just sleep deprived, but I think the film testifies to its magic."
"Dancing in the Water" lets that moment, and many songs, play out in full. Now available on DVD, the film premiered earlier this year in New Orleans during its Jazz and Heritage Festival, where Ewing got many pats on the back for not chopping up the performances.
"I let the music really play, which you would normally never do in a movie and in this sound bite culture," he said.
Ewing is currently at work on a film about polo, returning him to the equestrian subject matter of his 2013 feature "Playing with Magic."
Last year, Moseley also swam the Colorado River from Moab to the Green River and from the Caribbean island of Culebra to Puerto Rico — both also to raise awareness about water issues. The trio of swims has earned him a nomination for Performance of the Year from the World Open Water Swimming Association. Moseley will be in Aspen to discuss his swims and conservation efforts at an American Rivers event at the Gonzo Gallery on Dec. 11.
Ewing admits now that he was doubtful Moseley would make it all the way across Lake Ponchartrain, but was pleased to be proven wrong.
"What he produced out there in the middle of the night and in the blazing sun was amazing," he said. "What Matt achieved is unbelievable."