A routine inspired by clockwork toys and macabre fairytales took world champions Russia to the top of the synchronised swimming scoreboard on Monday, leading a group of 12 duets that qualified for Tuesday's final and a shot at Olympic gold.
Natalia Ishchenko and Svetlana Romashina scored 98.6 points out of a possible 100 with their near-perfect execution in a "free" routine that drew cheers from the crowd.
Their series of syncopated, puppet-like movements, all flexed feet and sharp elbows, was set to the music of films playing on a ghoulish theme, including Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow.
The routine took them to a total of 196.8 points, after Sunday's technical round, topping the rankings, almost four points clear of challenger China.
"The coach said we had a few little mistakes, so these are the things we will work on for the final," Romashina said.
Russia broke the dominance of the United States and Canada in synchronised swimming over a decade ago and has since outshone its competitors in a sport that is as famous for its glittering costumes, excessive make-up and nose clips as it is for the ballet moves and acrobatics executed in a 3-metre deep pool.
Russia took home all seven titles at the 2011 world championships in Shanghai. Ishchenko, known for her seamless execution and precision, has won every technical solo event since the 2007 world championships.
China's Huang Xuechen and Liu Ou with 192.81 points were the second-highest scoring qualifiers for the final after Monday's free routine, which unlike the prescribed technical sequence is a set of the duo's own choice, on which teams are graded for execution and synchronisation as well as presentation and choreography.
Spain grabbed 192.59 points with a fluid and dramatic tango-based routine, coming third out of the top 12.
"We were one of the best teams until now. China are getting stronger," Spanish swimmer Ona Carbonell Ballestero said.
Tuesday's duet displays at London's Aquatics Centre ranged from a human body-inspired choreography from Brazil, complete with "brain" embroidered swimming caps, to a more traditional Swan Lake-themed dance from the French.
Others going through to the final and battling for a spot on the podium are pairs representing Canada, Japan, Ukraine, Italy, Greece, Great Britain and the United States.
Monday's free routine came after a technical round executed on Sunday. Both routines are added to produce a ranking, out of which the top 12 of 24 teams can compete in the final stage for the duet gold medal.
Russia had already topped the scoreboard with its technical routine on Sunday, followed by China, Spain and Canada.
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