On a late summer party, three choreographers welcomed friends to the opening of their latest show in New York City, exchanging hugs and chatting through masks to the sound of pop music. Neon projections in the theater, a nightclub-like space called the Red Room, exclaimed “Welcome to the show !!” The cocktail waiters effectively weaved their way through the crowd with trays of drinks, as nimble as the dancers who would soon take the stage.
This could have been one of the many clubs or theaters where the choreographers – Ani Taj, Sam Pinkleton and Sunny Min-Sook Hitt – had performed and presented their work over the past decade, as members of the Dance Cartel. , a group founded by Taj in 2012 and known for their exuberant, open-to-all, party and performance live events.
But a few features distinguish this space: the screen outside the entrance inviting to âSail Into Something Spectacularâ; fluorescent signs indicating “PORT” and “STAR BOARD” to mark the left and right of the stage; the huge pink inflatable whale on stage.
How did the performers end up here, on a 2,770-passenger luxury cruise ship, which that night was docked in Manhattan en route to Miami? Among them, they have choreographed for Broadway, television, opera, music videos, museums and other arenas. But as Taj said when they recently reunited for a video interview, a foray into cruise ship entertainment was “not something we didn’t expect to see in our career timeline.” .
“We definitely had a moment of: A cruise ship – did they have the right people?” Pinkleton said, recalling his confusion when he and Taj, who are represented by ICM Partners, were invited by their agents to put on a show at Virgin Voyages, a new adult-only cruise line founded by British billionaire Richard Branson. “I think we had a very narrow idea of ââwhat it would mean to put on a show for a ship.”
The words âcruise ship entertainmentâ can conjure up a Broadway revue, a Vegas-style cabaret, or a sun terrace filled with vacationers dancing in line. “I saw 500 high-end Americans dancing the electric toboggan,” David Foster Wallace wrote in the opening paragraph of his 1996 essay “Shipping Out,” of the week he spent cruising in the Caribbean. “I (very briefly) joined a conga line.”
It seemed unlikely to Taj and Pinkleton that Virgin Voyages, a joint venture of Bain Capital and Branson’s Virgin Group, would want what they had to offer. Dance performances on cruise ships usually take place on front stages, for a seated and motionless audience. (A current, high-profile example: the American Ballet Theater shows presented by Celebrity Cruises.) The Dance Cartel, on the other hand, has always blown up front-stage conventions. In the group’s first and signature, âOntheFloorâ, directed by Taj and Pinkleton, the dancers move around and among a standing audience, their irrepressible energy being an invitation to join us.
The weird, glam, and all-bodily welcoming Cartel aesthetic also seemed contrary to what Taj knew about cruise ship dancing – “heteronormative musical theater dance stuff, straight on”. Still, she and Pinkleton have answered the call for a pitch.
âWe said, ‘Yes, we’ll take this challenge and come up with something that sure won’t fly,'” Taj said.
âWe thought, ‘This sounds like a fun exercise,’â Pinkleton added, âand we challenged ourselves to come up with a pretty authentic version of what we’d like to do.â
The exercise, which began in 2017, has now grown into a full-fledged hour-long production aboard the Scarlet Lady, the first Virgin ship to set sail for paying customers (or ‘sailors’, in the lingo of the ship). ‘business). When the boat departs for its inaugural Bahamas cruise on October 6, passengers – who must be vaccinated and tested negative for coronavirus before boarding – will be able to wander the red room and get carried away by the pulse of “Untitled DanceShowPartyThing . “
Created by Taj and Pinkleton, with Hitt joining them in 2018 as associate director and choreographer, the production is what Pinkleton calls “something between an old-fashioned variety show and a good night out at a club.” At a time when the cruise industry and the performing arts have been rocked by the pandemic and are only rebounding, the creative team immersed themselves in the challenges of making a work at sea as part of a large corporation. .
The show, for nine dancers and one singer, was nearing its debut when the pandemic struck, halting cruises around the world and stranding some offshore. When the choreographers virtually met for an interview at the end of August, they were getting things back on track.
They had just completed a week of lightning rehearsals in Orlando, Florida; the next day they would fly to England, where the Scarlet Lady was waiting for them. After embarking at Portsmouth, they would spend 10 days crossing the Atlantic – time for technical rehearsals – with the cast of “Untitled” and over 1,000 other crew members.
Although in just a few short weeks, their performances in New York still seemed to be a distant prospect. The past three months, Taj said, had brought “an acceleration in production” after a pandemic-induced lull, with an emphasis on “just restarting the engine.”
âThis little question of who’s going to see the show is suddenly upon us,â she said. (Once the ship’s Bahamas cruises begin, the show will run two or three times per four or five night excursion.)
Despite the turbulent circumstances, the team spoke enthusiastically about the job they were able to do, with what they described as a rare combination of creative freedom and financial resources that Virgin bestowed upon them.
“We’re developing new works in a way we’ve always wanted to,” said Pinkleton, whose credits include a Tony nomination for Best Choreography for “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812” ( in which Taj danced). “How weird that it is on a ship.”
As it turned out, they were recruited precisely for their potential to break the mold of cruise ship dance performances. Since its founding in 2014, Virgin Voyages has presented itself as something of an industry disruptor. (âWe are making a radical change in the activities and experiences of cruising,â its website promises.) Richard Kilman, vice president of entertainment for the company, said market research on âpotential sailorsâ revealed that when it came to live performances, people “wanted to be into something new, revolutionary, not yet mainstream.” “
âWe really paid attention to that,â he said, noting that the ship’s flexible theater, configurable in three formats, was built to accommodate a range of possibilities.
Putting together what Virgin calls a âcreative collectiveâ for the cruise line, Kilman and his colleagues examined 70 show locations, including one from Pinkleton and Taj. To the artists’ surprise, they stuck with the race through multiple cuts, even though they “refused to sanitize or respond to what we thought was wanted,” Taj said. (Other successful presentations came from PigPen Theater Co. and the 7 Fingers, a circus arts group, whose work can also be seen on board.)
Jenny Gersten, who was hired by Virgin Voyages as a creative producer (she is also a musical theater producer for the New York City Center), said that seeing Taj and Pinkleton’s pitch, âyou got it right away. knew it was probably the right energy. “
“You knew there was nothing like it,” she said, “and that was the point.”
Although âUntitledâ is not officially a Dance Cartel project, it was developed with âa shared approach and a shared set of values,â Taj said. With its mix of club and concert dance styles – unleashed as performers walk through audiences, gesture from balconies, and groove atop a moving stage – the show is almost a brighter, leveled version of “OntheFloor. “.
Hitt, a Cartel dancer since 2013, said what “Untitled” shares with the company’s work is a desire “to create something joyful and allow many forays into that experience.”
The show on the ship, she added, includes “nods to experiences you might have on another cruise” – Broadway-inspired moments; participatory dances like the Macarena and, yes, a conga line – “but with a little left turn”. A group act designed to thrill audiences, under strobe lights and confetti, leads to a romantic queer duet. Wait a minute, the whole room is doing the Wobble; next, a feathered Vegas showgirl soloist steals the show.
True to the Dance Cartel philosophy, the team also tried to highlight the individual strengths and quirks of the dancers.
âWe’re a lot more interested in how you go wild at a dance party or jam session,â Taj said, âthan if you can do the exact 5-6-7-8 that we just did. give you.”
For British dancer Caine Sobers, 26, this approach was refreshing. Prior to auditioning for Virgin, he worked for three other cruise lines, where consistency was valued. Most shows required him to cover his tattooed arms. And as a mestizo in predominantly white distributions, he often felt like “that token,” he said, “that person who just ticks the boxes.”
He first saw “Untitled” while rehearsing for another Virgin show and eventually joined the cast. âDifferent shapes, different sizes, identities – it was magic for me,â he said.
Other cast members are newer to nautical life. Devika Wickremesinghe, 37, has spent her career jumping from project to project in the experimental dance stages of New York and Los Angeles. (She lived in a small motorhome: a good practice, she said, for her âcomfortableâ cabin.) She said. “There is this feeling that working on a cruise ship is sold.”
But for her, the job offers a rare stability that she appreciates, at least for now.
âNot to say that these working conditions on a luxury cruise ship in 2021 are ideal,â she said. âThere is a lot of complexity to that. But this thing of a roof over my head, food, an amazing group of people to work with, it’s really exciting.
The choreographers also said the news of their latest venture elicited âa bit of a sidelong glance,â as Taj put it, from their earthly colleagues. But as artists familiar with the hustle and bustle of the independents, having been content with much more difficult conditions, they seize the opportunity to connect the dancers – and probably themselves – to a regular salary. (Hitt said the dancers’ contracts are “very competitive with others, as far as I know.”)
âA lot of people in the theater are still like, ‘Are you doing a cruise ship show? “” Pinkleton said, mimicking their reaction with a mocking laugh. âAnd it’s like: Yeah, I’m doing a cruise ship show. And you know what? It’s fun, it’s joyful, and a lot of people make it their job.