The thumping bass of Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj’s Swish Swish blasts out of a room at Kick It Dance Studio as 11 female dancers tackle some new choreography at an open call.
They jump with pointed toes, kick their legs high in the air and attempt to master intricate hand movements thrown at them by Nicole Swain, the 25-year-old dance captain running the audition on behalf of Norwegian Cruise Line.
The world’s third-largest cruise company — only Carnival and Royal Caribbean are bigger — has come to Winnipeg for the first time in the company’s 53-year history to audition dancers and vocalists for upcoming on-board shows.
After a brief 30 minutes, the dancers break off into small groups to perform the 30-second combination. In a few minutes, they will learn another set of more difficult moves as they continue the audition process. A crew of vocalists (who also must dance a little bit) will audition later in the day.
Swain, a Winnipegger, had a much different experience when she decided to audition for the cruise line around seven years ago. She had to travel to New York City and participate in a three-day audition process with about 600 other dancers. She was offered her first contract shortly after, in 2013, and has since worked her way up to the role of dance captain while also picking up some skills in aerial arts along the way.
She says she was shocked when she found out Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings — the parent company of Norwegian Cruise Lines, Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises — chose to include Winnipeg among its audition stops in Canada.
"I know a lot of dancers when they saw the poster for it they were also kind of shocked. Just because it’s not super common for these kinds of companies to come to Winnipeg. But it’s also really cool for the city and the performing arts community, because it means we are starting to get on the map a little bit and hopefully more companies will start coming here."
Brian Baez, a casting director with Norwegian who was on site for the Winnipeg auditions, says the company is always looking for the "best and freshest" talent, and because of that, have started expanding the locations of their auditions.
"In our experience, we have found that there is untapped talent in places outside of major arts communities and 'dance-hubs,' " said Baez in an email to the Free Press.
"We understand that it can be expensive for dancers to travel constantly to larger cities for auditions, so we always make it an effort to try and come them. Canada has proven to be a great source of local talent so we always make it a point to come at least once a year."
In general, the number of people choosing to take cruise vacations are consistently increasing year over year. An annual state of the industry report by Cruise Lines International Association says more than 28 million passengers worldwide went on cruises in 2018, with a projected 30 million passengers expected to cruise in 2019.
And most those passengers want some entertainment on board. That’s where Swain and her team come in.
The performers typically sign with a cruise ship company on a contract-to-contract basis, with Swain saying her average contract is anywhere from five to seven months. The first six weeks to two months are spent in rehearsal at Norwegian’s massive studio space in Tampa, Fla., where she and the other dancers learn choreography for eight hours a day, six days a week, trying to nail down three or four new 45-minute shows in their entirety before heading out to sea.
They perform adaptations of Broadway shows, reviews tied to a certain era of music and even some aerial routines in the vein of Cirque du Soleil.
On board, depending on the length of the cruise, Swain says the shows often run every other day — but they perform twice on show days — and the performers’ costs, including flights, room and board (in addition to their salary) are covered by the company.
There was, and continues to be, a stigma when it comes to cruise-ship entertainment, with many thinking it’s a lesser form of production with a lesser quality of performer. And while that may have been true at some point, Swain says the on-board entertainment industry has really put high expectations on itself over the past decade.
"I think there will always be a bit of a stigma about cruise ships in that way, but definitely since I started, and even before that, the cruise ship entertainment has really stepped it up a lot," says Swain.
"We get the chance to work with choreographers that actually choreographed the original Broadway musicals or the original Las Vegas shows so I think they’ve really stepped it up because there’s so much competition in the cruise ship world now, there’s so many companies and so many people go cruising now that they really have step up the entertainment so people want to choose their cruise line. I personally think the shows are really challenging."
Swain spends around six or seven months a year at sea, and while that may sound like an enormous amount of time to spend on a boat, she’s grateful she has the chance to do what she loves and see the world at the same time.
"I’ve been to the Caribbean, Alaska, all over the Mediterranean and Europe," says Swain.
"I love it, personally. I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I love the shows, I enjoy what I do, I love performing and getting to travel is a huge perk."
Erin Lebar is a multimedia producer who spends most of her time writing music- and culture-related stories for the Arts & Life section. She also co-hosts the Winnipeg Free Press's weekly pop-culture podcast, Bury the Lede.
Updated on Wednesday, May 8, 2019 at 9:48 AM CDT: Adds to quote from Baez.