From somewhere in the middle of the Mediterranean, a 25-year-old Sydneysider tells me, “I consider it quite a privileged life. The fact that I can do this job and nothing else, that I don’t even have to teach, although I love teaching, and I don’t have to look for freelance work, that’s a big deal. I have so much free time because of that, so I can work on as many skills as I want.”
The life that Brent Street graduate, Phly Crew dancer and now Cirque du Soleil cast member Neven Connolly is referring to is that of the cruise ship performer. He is one of an increasing number of dancers who are looking to augment their land-based careers with stints on one of the world’s many cruise liners. Indeed, as the cruising industry has evolved, so, too, the world of on-board entertainment has become more sophisticated, meaning that a wider range of performers can find work at sea.
From the outside, it sounds alluring. Fully catered, well paid, plenty of spare time, not to mention travel; but what is life really like for a cruise ship dancer?
“It can be hard without your usual people around you,” Connolly admits. “I’m sure many dancers have gone on a boat without knowing a single other soul. My cast and crew are from about 10 different countries, and there are a lot of communication issues. Maybe not issues, but we just don’t understand one another that well sometimes. So yeah, it can be a lot to deal with and a bit isolating.”
However, it is clear that Connolly is relishing his role in Cirque du Soleil at Sea on board the MSC Grandiosa. He is contracted to do two shows a night, six days a week, for six months. Five months in, and he is learning the ropes fast, adjusting to his new life. “You have to be mentally prepared for it, though,” he says.
The core of that, he argues, is discipline. “It’s important on cruise ships that a cast motivates one another, because you could easily just wait until show call, put on your makeup, do the show and then sit on the boat for the rest of the time. It’s very tempting to just take it as a cruise ship during the day. You know, I enjoy the buffet as a passenger would.”
Working with Cirque has also created an opportunity for Connolly to upskill. Since setting sail, he has been adding to his already wide range of theatrical talents. (Apparently, he’s a much better juggler now.) Point is, performers can either ‘cruise’ or use the simpler lifestyle afforded them to refine their act.
“The other part is loving the show,” Connolly adds. “You have to enjoy what you’re doing, which I don’t find difficult. We do 12 shows a week, which I think is pretty standard for cruise shows. So, it can be a lot; but luckily, these shows are incredible.”
Aside from discipline and motivation, there are technical and staging aspects that can make ocean-bound performance challenging. “The rocking [of the ship] is a big deal,” Connolly says. “Usually, dancers have both feet on the ground. I usually do. But if you’re doing highly technical stuff, jumps, kicks, leg up in the air trying for balance, it can be very difficult. We’ve had our share of injuries already. Like, you can do this massive flip, and by the time you’re ready to land, the ship has maybe moved a few degrees.”
Then there are the audiences. As Connolly reveals, “A lot of cruise shows are not ticketed, and so audiences don’t value it in anticipation as much because it’s just, ‘Oh, let’s go watch a show.’ But our audiences are good. We haven’t had a quiet one yet, but I know that can happen. And sometimes people fall asleep because they go on adventures during the day and they come back and sit down in this comfortable chair and, if they’re 80 years old, they might just have a sleep. It’s always cute to see.”
Life on board also comes with unique health challenges. The advent of coronavirus (Covid19) has served to underscore this. Living in close quarters, with thousands of people sharing the aircon, presents a clear infection risk. “People are always scared of sickness,” Connolly confirms, “especially at the moment.” His advice is to be especially prudent around hygiene.
When moving stages, sleeping punters and bugs are added to cabin fever and the sheer length of show runs, the life of a cruise ship dancer, although lucrative, can obviously be a strain, physically and mentally.
“Perspective is a big deal,” Connolly muses. “Remembering where you’ve come from and how much you wanted it is pretty important when it comes to doing this job. Sometimes, all it takes is to see how much someone enjoys the show to validate the experience. For me, I still watch the show side stage. Some of the artists in my show I find so inspiring, and to watch them go full out means I cannot half arse anything.”
Having been on the MSC Grandiosa since late last year, he is now a few weeks from being back in Sydney, where he will have a minimum of six months ashore before being permitted to re-join the cast of Cirque du Soleil at Sea. (This, it seems, is standard policy, doubtless to avoid burn out and allow people to stay connected with loved ones.)
On being back on dry land, Connolly speculates, “Maybe I’ll get home and something will start happening, and that’s something that everyone struggles with as a dancer, I think. There’s a couple of things that I kind of got lined up and it depends what’s happening; but if not much does, then I guess I’ll probably come back to this ship.”
With his show contracted to run for a whopping 10 years, Connolly may very well find himself getting serious sea legs.
By Paul Ransom of Dance Informa.