On a late-summer night, three choreographers greeted friends at the New York opening of their latest show, exchanging hugs and chatting through masks over the blare of pop music. Neon projections in the theater, a nightclub-like space called the Red Room, exclaimed “Welcome to the Show!!” Cocktail servers wove efficiently through the crowd with trays of drinks, as nimble as the dancers who would soon take the stage.
It could have been one of the many clubs or theater spaces 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 its exuberant, open-to-all, party-meets-performance live events.
But a few features set this space apart: the screen outside the entrance beckoning “Sail Into Something Spectacular”; the fluorescent signs reading “PORT” and “STAR BOARD” to mark stage left and stage right; the enormous pink inflatable whale onstage.
How had the artists landed here, on a 2,770-passenger luxury cruise ship, which on this particular night was docked in Manhattan, en route to Miami? Among the three of them, they have choreographed for Broadway, television, opera, music videos, museums and other arenas. But as Taj said when they recently got together for a video interview, a foray into cruise ship entertainment was “not something any of us expected to be on the timeline of our careers.”
“We definitely had a moment of: A cruise ship — did they get the right people?” Pinkleton said, recalling his confusion when he and Taj, who are represented by ICM Partners, were invited by their agents to pitch a show to Virgin Voyages, a new adults-only cruise line founded by the British billionaire Richard Branson. “I think we had a very narrow idea of what making a show for a ship would mean.”
The words “cruise ship entertainment” might bring to mind a Broadway revue, a Vegas-style cabaret, or a sun-drenched deck filled with line-dancing vacationers. “I have seen 500 upscale Americans dance the Electric Slide,” David Foster Wallace wrote in the opening paragraph of his 1996 essay “Shipping Out,” about the week he spent on a Caribbean cruise. “I have (very briefly) joined a conga line.”
It seemed improbable 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 shows on cruise ships typically take place on proscenium stages, for seated, stationary audiences. (One current, high-profile example: the American Ballet Theater shows presented by Celebrity Cruises.) The Dance Cartel, by contrast, has always blasted through proscenium conventions. In the group’s first and signature work, “OntheFloor,” which Taj and Pinkleton directed, dancers maneuver around and among a standing audience, their irrepressible energy an invitation to join in.
The Cartel’s queer, glam, all-bodies-welcome aesthetic also seemed contrary to what Taj knew of cruise ship dancing — “heteronormative, straight-straight, musical theater dance stuff.” Still, she and Pinkleton answered the call for a pitch.
“We said, ‘Yeah, we’ll accept that challenge and come up with something that surely won’t fly,’” Taj said.
“We were like, ‘This seems like a fun exercise,’” Pinkleton added, “and dared ourselves to present a pretty authentic version of what we would like to make.”
That exercise, which began in 2017, has now become a full-fledged, hourlong production aboard the Scarlet Lady, the first Virgin ship to set sail for paying customers (or “sailors,” in the company’s lingo). When the boat departs for its inaugural Bahamas cruise on Oct. 6, passengers — who must be vaccinated and test negative for the coronavirus before embarking — will be able to wander into the Red Room and get swept up in 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-school variety show and a great night out at a club.” At a time when both the cruise industry and live performance have been buffeted by the pandemic and are just bouncing back, the creative team has plunged into the challenges of making a work at sea as part of a large corporate enterprise.
The show, for nine dancers and a vocalist, was nearing its debut when the pandemic struck, halting cruises worldwide and stranding some offshore. When the choreographers met virtually for an interview in late August, they were getting it back on its feet.
They had just finished a whirlwind week of rehearsals in Orlando, Fla.; the next day, they would fly to England, where the Scarlet Lady awaited them. After boarding in Portsmouth, they would spend 10 days crossing back on the Atlantic — time for tech rehearsals — with the “Untitled” cast and more than 1,000 other crew members.
Though just a few weeks away, their New York performances still seemed like a distant prospect. The last three months, Taj said, had brought “an acceleration into production” after a pandemic-induced lull, with a focus on “just getting the engine running again.”
“This bit about who’s going to see the show is suddenly upon us,” she said. (Once the ship’s Bahamas cruises begin, the show will be performed two or three times per four- or five-night excursion.)
Despite the hectic circumstances, the team spoke enthusiastically about the work they had been able to make, with what they described as a rare combination of creative freedom and financial resources afforded to them by Virgin.
“We’re actually getting to develop new work 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 that’s on a ship.”
As it turned out, they had been recruited precisely for their potential to break the cruise ship dance-show mold. Since its founding in 2014, Virgin Voyages has marketed itself as a kind of industry disrupter. (“We are bringing a sea change to cruise activities and experiences,” its website promises.) Richard Kilman, the company’s vice president of entertainment, said market research on “prospective sailors” revealed that when it came to live performance, people “wanted to be in on something new, groundbreaking, not in the mainstream yet.”
“We really paid attention to that,” he said, noting that the vessel’s flexible theater, configurable in three formats, was built to accommodate a range of possibilities.
In assembling what Virgin calls a “creative collective” for the cruise line, Kilman and his colleagues reviewed 70 show pitches, including one from Pinkleton and Taj. To the artists’ surprise, they stayed in the running through multiple cuts, even as they “refused to sanitize or cater to what we thought was wanted,” Taj said. (Other successful pitches came from PigPen Theater Co. and the 7 Fingers, a circus arts group, whose work can also be seen onboard.)
Jenny Gersten, who was hired by Virgin Voyages as a creative producer (she is also the producer of musical theater for New York City Center), said that upon seeing Taj and Pinkleton’s pitch, “you knew immediately that it was probably the right energy.”
“You knew there was nothing like it,” she said, “and that was the point.”
While “Untitled” is not officially a Dance Cartel project, it was developed with “a shared approach and a shared set of values,” Taj said. With its mash-up of club and concert dance styles — unleashed as the performers dart through the audience, gesture from the balconies and groove atop a moving stage — the show is almost a glossier, leveled-up version of “OntheFloor.”
Hitt, a dancer with the Cartel since 2013, said that what “Untitled” shares with the company’s work is a desire “to create something joyful and allow many inroads into that experience.”
The show on the ship, she added, includes “nods to experiences you might get on another cruise” — Broadway-inspired moments; participatory dances like the Macarena and, yes, a conga line — “but with a little bit of a left turn.” A group number designed to hype up the audience, under strobe lights and confetti, leads into a queer romantic duet. One minute, the whole room is doing the Wobble; the next, a soloist in Vegas-showgirl feathers is stealing the limelight.
In keeping with the Dance Cartel ethos, the team has also tried to highlight dancers’ individual strengths and quirks.
“We’re much more interested in how you get wild at a dance party or a jam session,” Taj said, “than if you can do the exact 5-6-7-8 we just gave you.”
For the British dancer Caine Sobers, 26, that approach was refreshing. Before auditioning for Virgin, he worked for three other cruise companies, where uniformity was prized. Most shows required him to cover his tattooed arms. And as a mixed-raced person in predominantly white casts, 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. “Different shapes, different sizes, identities — it was magic to me,” he said.
Other cast members are newer to nautical life. Devika Wickremesinghe, 37, has spent her career hopping from project to project in the experimental dance scenes of New York and Los Angeles. (She used to live in a small RV: good practice, she said, for her “cozy” shipboard cabin.) When she told her peers about her latest gig, she received “some responses of surprise, and even some gentle shade,” she said. “There is this sense that working on a cruise ship is selling out.”
But for her, the job provides a rare stability that she’s enjoying, at least for now.
“Not to say these conditions of working on a luxury cruise ship in 2021 are ideal,” she said. “There’s 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, too, said that news of their latest venture had elicited “a little bit of side-eye,” as Taj put it, from their land-based colleagues. But as artists well acquainted with the freelance hustle, having made do with much scrappier conditions, they are embracing the opportunity to connect dancers — and presumably themselves — to a steady paycheck. (Hitt said the dancers’ contracts are “very competitive with the other ones out there, from what I know.”)
“A lot of folks in theater are still like, ‘You’re doing a cruise ship show?’” Pinkleton said, imitating their reaction with a scoffing laugh. “And it’s like: Yeah, I’m doing a cruise ship show. And you know what? It’s fun, it’s joyous, and a lot of people get to do it as their job.”