Back in May I got an email from English National Ballet that prompted me to tweet the following:
OMG @ENBallet on a SHIP crossing the ATLANTIC.
My love of ballet is matched by a love of all things nautical, so the thought of spending an entire week at sea with ENB dancers was pretty much a dream opportunity tailor-made for me. But it was also just that: a dream, something so extravagant that it didn’t warrant serious consideration. I glanced at the Dance the Atlantic pages on the Cunard website, noted that the dates of the crossing did actually fit with when we needed to be in the States for various events this summer, and then closed the site and went about my day.
At the end of the day, Jeremy came home from work and we had a conversation that went something like this:
Jeremy: “So, I was looking at that ballet cruise…”
Me: “Oh yeah, that’s wild, right?”
Jeremy: “…and the dates would actually work for us…”
Me: “Wait, are we really talking about this?”
We were really talking about it. We talked about it for a few more days, and then Jeremy talked to a woman at Cunard, and the woman booked us a stateroom with a balcony and an 8:30 dinner seating, and that was that. We were off on a grand adventure!
Sunday, 11 August 2019
Our grand adventure started like so many of our grand adventures: with a headache. I woke up Sunday morning with the faintest twinge on the left side of my head, the usual harbinger of an impending migraine. There was nothing for it but to pop a bunch of pills and hope for the best, because I refused to let anything mar my excitement at embarking on this trip (not that such determination has ever stopped a migraine before).
We lugged our multiple bags (filled with normal travel gear as well as several gala gowns and high heels for me, and a suit and tux for Jeremy) onto a packed train to Southampton, where we arrived just after 1. A cab whisked us to the Queen Elizabeth II Terminal at the docks, which was definitely not the glamorous bit of the trip. The registration hall felt a bit like an airport, but once we were through the check-in, the excitement mounted as a series of walkways took us onto the ship, our last steps on solid land for a week.
We found our cabin on the 8th floor, and my heart leapt when we opened the door. Although we had booked a room with an “obstructed” view, it was only partially obstructed because our balcony was perfectly positioned between two lifeboats. I could lie on the bed and peer straight out to sea, which is what we did every morning when we first woke up (“Do you want the ocean?”—“Yes!”—and the curtains would be pulled back).
Our departure day was somewhat special because all three Cunard ships were assembled in Southampton, a “Meeting of the Queens” that only happens about once a year. The Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria pulled out ahead of us, and all the ships sounded their tremendous horns at each other as we set sail. It was so loud and grand that I started to get teary-eyed, big nautical dork that I am. We wended our way down the Solent, with sailboats, motorboats, jet skis and racing yachts weaving around us in the evening sun; it was the start of the Cowes Week regatta, so the water was busy. We sat on the breezy deck for a long time, after most people had taken shelter inside, watching the Isle of Wight drift past, and the boats, and the seagulls. We didn’t want to miss a minute.
My nagging headache wasn’t improving, and I didn’t fancy having to socialize with strangers over a three-course dinner (we had requested a dinner table for two but didn’t know if we’d actually gotten one), so we opted for the Kings Court buffet instead. The word “buffet” can often fill one with dread, but this just filled us with surprisingly good food. We savored some juicy roast pork, creamy mash, and multiple desserts, all at a quiet table right by a window, watching the sun expand and intensify as it sunk into the ocean to the west.
The headache decided to go into full-force migraine mode after dinner, so we retreated to our stateroom, where I got straight into PJs and collapsed into the extremely comfortable bed, the thrum of the ship sending me to sleep.
Monday, 12 August 2019
A morning without a migraine—hallelujah! We woke up at the crack of dawn (6 a.m., which actually would have been 7, but the clocks are set back an hour every night so you’re on Eastern Standard Time when you get to New York) and immediately pulled open the curtains to the watch the dark blue sea gliding past.
We enjoyed a very relaxed breakfast in the Carinthia Lounge, where we scored another seat by the window and a decent cup of coffee. And then it was off to our first event of the crossing: a lecture by Steven Rivellino about the scandals at the Bolshoi Theater. After that, there wasn’t much time to kill before our second event: a half-hour planetarium show, which was marred only by the fact that one of the projectors wasn’t working so we didn’t get a full-dome experience. But really, getting any planetarium dome experience when you’re on a ship is pretty remarkable.
Lunch was back at the buffet, where there were endless choices and a lot more people than the evening before. We still managed to get a window seat, which is really prime real estate on board. But again there was no time to linger, because that afternoon was the registration for the participatory ballet workshops that would run throughout the week. ENB were offering five workshops with a total of 30 participants each, and we were initially told that we could sign up for any or all of them. The sign-ups were supposed to start at 3, so Jeremy and I wandered down to the desk at around 2 to scope out the situation. I had no idea how popular the workshops would be, but I figured that if even a fraction of the 2,500 passengers on board wanted to sign up, there might be a bit of a scramble for spots.
There was more than a bit of a scramble. When we reached the hospitality desk, we saw that a line had already started forming—a good two hours earlier. I joined it and waited as more and more people appeared over the course of the hour, looking crestfallen when they spotted the line now stretching down the hall and around the corner. The organizers spontaneously decided to limit this registration to the first two workshops (which were straightforward ballet classes), and to additionally limit each person in line to only one of the two sessions. I was able to sign up for a ballet technique class, and I figured that if that was the only dancing I got to do (because I wasn’t sure I could bring myself to stand in another endless line two days later for the remaining workshops), it would still be okay—after all, there were plenty of other ballet activities taking place during the crossing.
After the sign-up stress, I caught the end of a “needlework social” in the Carinthia Lounge, where many women and a few men sat around knitting, crocheting, embroidering, sewing, and chatting. I met a friendly crochet designer named Jo and finished about two rows on my endless shawl before Jeremy and I were running off yet again, this time to the Golden Lion pub for a pub quiz (of course). We got 10 questions right out of 20 and came in third place, which won us no prizes but a good deal of personal satisfaction.
That night was our first “gala evening”: a black and white ball, preceded by a cocktail reception with the captain and our first proper dinner. Instead of waiting in line to meet the captain, we just went straight through to the ballroom, where we took glasses of champagne and people-watched for a while, admiring everyone dressed up in their tuxes and black-and-white gowns. We snagged some seats by the captain’s receiving line just in time to just in time to see the six English National Ballet dancers stroll in and have their picture taken with the captain. Jeremy recognized the dancers even before I did, but I was the one giddily squirming and trying to grab sneaky pictures of them like the creepy ballet stalker that I am.
Eventually it was time to go off to the restaurant to find out who we would be forced to interact with over dinner for the next six nights. But when we gave our stateroom number to the maitre d’, he checked his computer and said, “Ah, a lovely table for two!” Jeremy and I silently made big eyes at each other, and the hope I hadn’t dared harbor bubbled to the surface: maybe we’d be dining à deux after all? And indeed, we were shown to a lovely (if somewhat vibrating) table for two on the upper level of the dining room. Not only that, we were seated at our table just as all the ENB dancers were taking their seats at tables on the mezzanine right above us. I did NOT spy on them at dinner every night (though I COULD have), but I was delighted to be so close to them each evening, as if their talent would rain down on me like crumbs. (They didn’t drop any crumbs. I wouldn’t have minded if they did.)
Following a pleasant dinner and a good bottle of Chablis, we wandered back to the Queen’s Room to watch people ballroom dancing. The ENB dancers came in after a while, and they seemed to appreciate the spectacle too. They were taking pictures and videos, and what struck me most about seeing them “in the wild” was just how young most of them are. I mean, of course they’re young: they’re professional ballet dancers, and that’s generally a young person’s world. But out of their costumes, not on stage, just dressed up all fancy for dinner like the rest of us, some of them looked like kids playing grown-up. It was equally disconcerting and reassuring.
As the evening wound down, Jeremy and I found a delightful seat in the Chart Room cocktail bar and had a nightcap: a tasty pale ale for Jeremy, and an excellent cocktail called the “Little King” (Regulus) for me, made with Campari and two spirits I’d never heard of: a birch eau-de-vie and something called Roots Rakomelo, which I now know is a raki-based liqueur from Greece. The cocktail was bitter and aromatic and a bit spicy and just perfect. The waiter came by later to ask what I thought of it, and when I said I loved it, he admitted a lot of people would never order it because it was unfamiliar and somewhat unusual. I took this as an endorsement of my taste in cocktails. He also recommended another cocktail on the list, but I figured cognac on top of raki on top of Chablis on top of champagne was probably not a good idea, so I would have to try the “Scorching-something-or-other” cocktail another evening.
And so to bed.
Tuesday, 13 August 2019
I woke up 3 a.m. feeling like I’d had too much food and alcohol (surprise!), and with a faint stirring in my head. Not good. The ship was gently rocking and rolling, more than I’d felt it do before, and it eventually rocked me back to sleep. I woke up again at 6 to the lowing of the ship’s horn and what sounded like the horn of another ship in return. And when we pulled back the curtains, we discovered why: we were in a fog bank.
We lazed around a while before finally dragging ourselves to breakfast at the Carinthia Lounge again. I was moving kind of slow and not feeling great, experiencing what felt like the echoes of the migraine from Sunday, and I desperately hoped that the stupid headache wasn’t on its way back. A quick constitutional around the deck helped blow out the cobwebs, as did a spell sitting by a window in the quiet champagne bar. I finished the onboard crossword puzzle and started on the day’s 20-question trivia sheet (each morning, a new trivia sheet and crossword/sudoku sheet would be placed outside the library, and there were prizes to be won for the highest trivia scores—Jeremy and I were in our element). I also did some solid gazing-out-the-window; the wind had picked up outside, and the ocean was dotted with small whitecaps. There was a good spray blowing off the waves generated by the ship, and it was beautiful and hypnotic.
You could easily have a crossing on the Queen Mary 2 that consisted solely of staring out the window, with a bit of reading and napping thrown in for good measure. That was not the crossing we had, at least not this time around. For this time around, there were ballet dancers to watch! There was an ENB company class in the theater every day, a dress rehearsal every few days, and an hour-long performance held three times during the week-long voyage. Amazingly, the passengers were allowed to watch and even film during the company class. I thought that was incredibly gracious on the part of the dancers; they really had enough to deal with just trying to stay upright while the ship swayed beneath them, never mind having a theater full of people staring at them as they went about their business in this strange environment. You could identify the hardcore ballet fans on the ship: they (ahem—we) were the ones who sat through the full company class every single day, not wanting to miss a minute of dancing.
I was able to watch the whole class on this particular day and about half of the first dress rehearsal, which thrilled me no end. I love seeing all the effort behind a show, how choreography is hashed out, how the mechanics of dance are picked apart and put back together, how a move is practiced over and over again until it looks and feels right. I guess you could argue that you’re getting “spoilers” for the performance, but I actually think it enriches the performance to see what’s gone on behind the scenes. If I’m being totally honest, I sometimes enjoy the insights of a rehearsal more than the performance itself.
In the afternoon we did another round of pub trivia and came in third yet again. Considering we were just a team of two, that didn’t seem too shabby. And after so much indoor time we figured we should get some fresh air, so we went up to deck 12 to visit the doggies. The QM2 now has 24 kennels, and they were all filled on this crossing. You can’t go into the kennel area unless you have a dog in there, but you can stand by the gate and ogle any dogs that happen to be wandering around outside. We got to meet a sweet, mopey pup named Dillinger who had been spared the indignity of flying to North America in the cargo hold of a plane, but who also did not seem to be particularly thrilled to be on a ship in the middle of the ocean.
We cautiously walked around the ferociously windy observation deck at the very top of the ship, which was actually quite terrifying. When I tried to take a few pictures, I thought my phone was going to fly right out of my hands, so I mostly clung to the handrail and wondered how strong the wind would have to be to pick me up and blow me into the sea. In the interest of not finding out, we retreated to the calm and safety of our stateroom, dressed “smartly” for dinner (no gala that evening), and had an early night.
Wednesday, 14 August 2019
It was a day full of ballet, starting with a pre-breakfast sprint from one end of the ship to the other to sign up for the second lot of ENB workshops. The registration time had been misprinted in the schedule we received in our stateroom each evening, so when a ship’s announcement was made at 8:45 that signups would be starting at 9, we dropped everything and ran for it. Maybe lots of other people didn’t know about the signup time either, or maybe lots of people had been put off by the scrum two days before and couldn’t be bothered lining up again; either way, the line wasn’t too bad this time around, and I got to sign up for the Le Corsaire workshop and put my name on the waiting list for the Dust workshop.
I really needed coffee by that point, so Jeremy and I grabbed a quick breakfast before attending our first lecture of the day, “Physics on Pointe” by Dr. Merritt Moore, a ballerina, quantum physicist and astronaut trainee. She gave an overview of her life trajectory and the mutual benefits she’d experienced between dance and science, and it all got me primed for my first dance workshop of the voyage: ballet technique!
When I arrived in the ballroom for the class, I was surprised to see some women in the traditional black leotard, pink tights, black skirt get-up. I had taken the safe route and opted for my “neutral” ballet uniform of black capri leggings and a black t-shirt, but I admired the dedication of the women who brought their full dance kit on board. The class was open to everyone, even folks who had never danced before, but it was by no means easy. I had to work hard to keep up, and I at least kind of half know what I’m doing already. It was great fun: just a lively ballet class…in a ballroom…on a ship crossing the ocean. Afterwards I got Jeremy to take my picture with the two dancers who led the class, and then I ran off to the ENB company class to see how it’s all really done. I was the first one in the theatre and felt a bit like a weird ballet stalker again, but other people eventually drifted in, and Jeremy joined me too following his astronomy lecture.
After lunch I had intended to catch the last of the dress rehearsal, but it ended right after I sat down, so I hustled off to find Jeremy at another lecture on Elizabeth I and the Roanoke colony. Jeremy said at the time that the crossing was a lot like a conference, just running from one talk to another. I thought it was like being at a very interdisciplinary university. That might not be most people’s idea of a fun vacation, but I guess that’s how we roll. We continued in the same vein by hustling back to the library afterwards to do some frantic research on our trivia questions so we could hand in our library quiz sheet by 4 p.m. This time we came in second place—only by one point!
Our second gala dinner was that night, but it was preceded by a champagne reception and then the most exciting thing of all: the first ballet performance! Jeremy and I got all dolled up and strolled to the center of the ship, descended the grand staircase, acquired some champagne, had our picture taken, played a round of blackjack in the casino(!) (Jeremy felt he had to because he was wearing a tux. He lost $20.), and then got to the theater to nab some great seats close to the stage, complete with a little table on which to rest our champagne flutes. It was all very civilized.
The performance consisted of six short pieces: the White Swan pas de deux from Swan Lake, the grand pas de deux from Nutcracker, the Black Swan pas de deux and Odette/Siegfried variations, a contemporary piece danced by Daniel McCormick called Leatherwing Bat (which I wound up seeing several times on the ship and liked more and more every time), the pas de deux from Akram Khan’s Dust, and the Le Corsaire pas de deux.
I was happy as a clam, loving all the classical stuff, dazzled by the sparkly tutus, grinning from ear to ear—and then James Streeter and Erina Takahashi danced the excerpt from Dust, and it was just…stunning. It’s so gripping and deep that I was completely transfixed. Though we’d seen the full work last year in London, I’d forgotten how powerful and strange and entrancing it is. The audience was dead silent until the end, as if we were all holding our breath, and then we erupted in applause. Jeremy and I glanced at each other in the dark, and I immediately knew he felt the same way I did: Dust is on a whole other level. It was brilliant.
It was followed by the frothy La Corsaire pas de deux and two virtuoso solos, which were quite an abrupt transition from the darkness of Dust. They initially felt a bit flimsy in comparison, but the pieces were exciting and crowd-pleasing and actually a perfect way to end the performance.
We had half an hour to kill before dinner, so we grabbed a drink in the Chart Room. I had a martini with Queen Victoria gin and felt very much like I was in a Bond movie, surrounded as I was by so many elegantly dressed folks. Then: dinner, and a big band in the ballroom, and a brief stint in the “nightclub” for a drink before we made our way back to the Chart Room again for a nightcap—by which time I could barely keep my eyes open. So we retreated to our stateroom, set our clocks back by an hour, as usual, and called it a night.
Thursday, 15 August 2019
We woke up early with a solid plan for the morning: we would pick up the day’s library quiz, grab breakfast, get tickets at 9 a.m. for the live planetarium show later that day, then I would go to my Le Corsaire workshop at 10, we’d both watch company class, we’d go to the planetarium show, we’d have lunch…and then we’d relax.
We finished breakfast fast, so Jeremy went down to get the planetarium tickets while I went back to the library to get a head start on the trivia research before my workshop. I had my nose buried in the Encyclopedia Britannica when Jeremy came running in and gasped that the current time was not, in fact, 9:15, it was actually 10:15—the clocks hadn’t gone back the previous night after all, so while I was nerding out in the library, I was also missing my dance class (and the planetarium tickets were long gone by then as well). Poor Jeremy was so upset on my behalf. We ran down to the ballroom, but it was clear that the class was full and already well underway, so I couldn’t really jump in. We got seats on the side of the ballroom to watch, and though I had a few moments of feeling very sorry for myself, I couldn’t stay sad for long because it was so joyful to see a big and varied crowd of folks learning classical ballet choreography.
We left the class early to catch an on-stage conversation with James Streeter, who was exceptionally talkative and entertaining. That done, we had some time to finish off our library quiz, and then I changed out of my pointless ballet clothes and we went back to theater AGAIN for MORE company class. We could really feel the ship rocking that day, and the dancers were working hard to stay upright. They all seemed very good-natured about the challenges, though; there was a lot of sympathetic giggling amongst themselves as they found themselves having to grab the barre while doing exercises they literally could have done with their eyes closed while on solid land.
After a buffet lunch we walked around the deck. We were just south of the Grand Banks, and we had been in a fog bank since the morning. The sea was flat and grey, the fog was closed in all around like ship, and there was no sound other than the low hum of the engines and the wind from our passage. The ship occasionally blasted its mournful horn, as is apparently regulation procedure in this part of the sea when it’s so foggy. We went to the bow and were gazing quietly into the silent white world around us—when the ship’s horn sounded right next to us, a tremendous honking that made me jump and shriek and wonder if anyone was looking down from the bridge to see me freak out. Aside from the startle, I loved, loved, loved the atmosphere, our sleek liner gliding through the pewter water and luminous sky, leaving a soft, frothy wake behind us. It was like being in a dream, or on a ghost ship.
In the mid-afternoon we decided to try our first onboard afternoon tea in the Queen’s Room. We filed in with the rest of the crowd and got a perfect little table right by the window. The onboard string trio launched into Vivaldi, two lines of servers came out with silver platters and silver teapots, and the sun burst through the fog, which rolled away to reveal glittering blue waves and a bright blue sky. I had a little sandwich and a delicious macaron with dark chocolate and a warm scone with clotted cream, and we downed a few cups of tea before dashing off to another astronomy lecture. This one was all about eclipses; the astronomer, Charles Barclay, had seen his first eclipse two years previously in Wyoming, and his recollection of the event brought back memories of our last wild, random adventure, when we flew off to Sun Valley for that same eclipse and BALLET. Space and ballet, ships and ballet—our interests have aligned wonderfully these past few years.
On our way back to the cabin we picked up our “graded” library quiz—and we were number one, baby! Then it was chill-out time, followed by pre-dinner drinks time. We took our laptops to the Chart Room, where we got another perfect seat by the window, and I ordered another Little King, and the fog rolled back in, and there was no place else in the world I wanted to be.
And best of all, when we got back to our room after our final cocktails of the evening, there was a card waiting on the bed: my invitation to take part in the Dust workshop the next day. Score! They didn’t put a black mark next to my name for being a no-show at the Le Corsaire workshop after all! I went to bed very excited for the next morning.
Friday, 16 August 2019
After breakfast, Jeremy went to get tickets for the live planetarium show (again) and I ran to the library (again) to get a start on the day’s quiz (where a lady, who was very stylish herself, looked at me and said she liked my style—my rather unremarkable style being a long skirt thrown on over ballet clothes and a pair of Birkenstocks). We answered all of the quiz questions we could and handed our sheet in before zipping down to the Queen’s Room for the Dust workshop.
The Dust workshop. Oh my gosh, I don’t have words to describe how amazing the workshop was. Jennie, the dancer running the workshop, started off by demonstrating some bits of choreography. She also played an audio recording she had made during ENB’s initial rehearsal of piece, with Akram Khan verbalizing the beats in the very minimal and percussive music (“DUM dum DUM dum DUM caDum caDum dum”). Then we started learning the choreography ourselves, dancing to the actual score of Dust—and reader, when those ominous strings came in amidst all the percussion while we were dancing away, I got chills. I couldn’t believe I was doing this choreography to this music, being taught by a ballet dancer who danced in Dust herself. We did a drumming bit, and we even did the remarkable double-helix chain bit, and we did a tricky hand/arm bit inspired by classical Indian dance, and when the hour was up none of us could quite believe it. It went by in a flash, and I think all of us, Jennie included, could have gone on much longer.
Jeremy got lots of pictures and video of the workshop, and when I joined him at the side of the room after class, I was exhilarated and quite emotional. And then I realized that James Streeter had been standing at the back of the room watching us all for a while, which just added to the surreal intensity of the whole thing. It was a precious experience and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
I quickly freshened up and composed myself back in the room afterwards while Jeremy played tunes on the salt-rimed balcony in the mild, mild air (it got warmer and warmer as we approached land). Then it was—wait for it—company class time! After having watched the six ENB dancers for nearly a week, I almost felt like I kind of knew them by then. I didn’t and don’t know them at all, obviously, but seeing how they acted and interacted before and during class, and in the dress rehearsals day after day, I started to get a feel for their personalities outside of their roles onstage, and I realized I’d miss “hanging out” with them every day when the trip was over.
We grabbed a fast, early lunch and then nipped back to the theater for the last dress rehearsal of the journey. We got to see the whole rehearsal this time, which was like a mini-performance. It was intriguing and odd to see a piece as intense and seemingly all-encompassing as Dust being marked at least part of the time, but it was still engrossing for all that. Running from the rehearsal, we caught the last five minutes of the astronomer taking questions in the Chart Room, and I joined the needlework circle again in the Carinthia Lounge, where everyone was very impressed by my Afternoon in Lisbon shawl (which honestly kind of made me feel like a cheat because the pattern looks much more complicated than it is—but I was pleased all the same).
We finally got to see the live planetarium show with Charles Barclay in the late afternoon, which was educational and quite immersive. And this time all the projectors worked and my chair went all the way back, so there was no neck crick afterwards. A win on all counts.
Then it was time to relax in the cabin and get ready for our last gala dinner: Roaring 20s night! I was very pleased with the get-up I had managed to assemble, and Jeremy gave me the best compliment: he said I didn’t look like I was dressed up like the 1920s, I looked like I was actually from the 1920s. We ambled through the ship in our gladrags, admiring everyones’ outfits. We had our picture taken in the Art Deco hallway and I drank a martini at the bar, feeling oh so classy. We enjoyed an indulgent dinner (even though my feathery headband kept wanting to fall in my face) and then retired to the Queen’s Room to watch the ballroom dancing.
A “parade of costumes” was getting under way for everyone who had dressed up, and I spontaneously joined it, because why not? Anything goes on an ocean liner. I felt a bit silly, but I also gave in to the moment and did a little Charleston as we circled the room in a long, sparkly line. I didn’t win a prize, much to the disbelief of a friendly lady who admired my outfit later on. And as I was doing my costume circuit, Jeremy ordered me a Negroni because he is the best husband ever. So we sat and sipped and smiled and it was pure fun. We ended the evening in the “nightclub” watching people disco in their vintage duds—quite a sight.
After spending so many days on the ship, I realized that even though it was a very big vessel with thousands of people on it, you often wound up seeing the same folks over and over. We started referring to them by nickname: Shoes Lady (who was getting good use out of a striking pair of gladiator sandals, and who looked great in a flowy white dress on 20s Night), Tall Dancer (a young woman who was in my first dance workshop, and who was such a lovely dancer with such a warm presence that I had to compliment her after the class), Dance Mom and Dance Daughter (pretty self-explanatory), Posh Mom (also self-explanatory). I wonder if anyone had nicknames for us…?
Saturday, 17 August 2019
Our last full day on the ship. I couldn’t comprehend how it was almost over. Even though our adventure would continue after the crossing (with trips to Florida, Chicago and Boston before finally flying home), and even though 7 days is quite a long time to be eating the same food and living in the same enclosed environment, I had already started feeling sad about disembarking—not least because I had spent the whole crossing in a blissful ballet bubble, watching professional dancers every single day and even getting to dance a bit myself. It was magical.
With that in mind, I intended to maximize my dance time on this last day. So after breakfast I sat in on the choreography and performance workshop that ENB was running for the passengers. As we came down the hall towards the Queen’s Room, I heard the music they were dancing to: “Cygnets!” The workshop was learning a version of the cygnets dance from Swan Lake, and then the dancers were divided into groups and asked to come up with their own variations on the piece, which they performed for each other. It was a delight to watch, and there was such a good, happy atmosphere in the room. At the end, Jennie the dancer invited everyone to join a group photo, including folks like me who had been in previous classes in the week. She said she’d post the pictures online, but I have yet to find them…
I went from watching the choreography workshop to watching the last company class. I felt a bit melancholy when it wrapped up, knowing that my ballet-filled days were almost over, but I still had the 2:30 matinee performance to look forward to. We lined up early after lunch to get (almost) front and center seats for it, and I’m so glad we did. The dancers all really went for it, and the crowd was clapping and cheering for the virtuoso turns and leaps in the pieces. Once again, Dust seemed to particularly resonate with the audience, and the applause was fierce and sustained afterwards. And at the end of the whole show, we all leapt to our feet for yet another standing ovation. The dancers were beaming, the crowd was beaming, it was perfect.
We had realized the day before that the coffee machines down on deck 2 were a good place for dancer-spotting, as there seemed to be some dressing rooms back there. So after the performance and before our last astronomy lecture, we wandered down to get a cup of tea and potentially spot some dancers. And lo, as Jeremy was making his brew, who should come ambling towards us but Rina Kanehara and Francesca Velicu with their bouquets in their arms. I plucked up the courage to say “You were wonderful, thank you!” and they smiled and thanked me in return as they passed.
A minute later, James Streeter and Erina Takahashi ALSO appeared, and again I said “That was fabulous, thank you so much, Dust is just magnificent”—and they not only smiled and thanked me, they STOPPED TO CHAT. They were both so patient and warm and friendly. I’m sure they just wanted to go get comfortable and chill out, but they gave no indication that they were in any rush to get anywhere. We talked about Dust, and James Streeter pointed out that “you can see the whole thing on YouTube”. I excitedly burst out: “We saw it at Sadler’s Wells last year and it was amazing!”. He was surprised, so I admitted that I was huge ballet nerd and we were kind of only on the ship because of them. Jeremy thanked them for allowing us to watch the company class every day, and I said I hoped it wasn’t weird having people staring at them when they just wanted to do their tendus or whatever. They both laughed and said it was just that they wanted everything to be perfect on the ship, but they had to keep grabbing the barre whenever the ship moved—which was, like, all the time. We all agreed that ballet on an ocean liner was a unique challenge, but also a fabulous opportunity for the dancers and the fans alike.
Another fan came along then and animatedly joined the conversation, so—aware of not wanting to monopolize their time—Jeremy and I quickly thanked them again and went back upstairs for the astronomy lecture. I was just aglow. The lecture (about asteroid impacts—terrifying) was very engaging, but I’ll admit that I spent much of the start of it in a happy daze, just thinking “OMG, I talked to James Streeter and Erina Takahashi!”
The afternoon wound down with a casual “meet the lecturers” get-together in the champagne bar, where Jeremy got to chat to the astronomer a bit, and then we descended into the very bowels of the ship to redeem the stickers we had gotten for winning two library trivia quizzes. I got a Cunard mousemat, which seems very funny and 1990s—but I’m also using it right now as a replacement for my old mousemat, which I think is actually from the 1990s.
Knowing that it would be an early start the next day, we figured it would be good to get as much of our stuff packed as possible, so we spent some time in the stateroom gathering our bits and bobs to make sure the next morning was stress-free. Instead of having our bags taken off the ship for us, we had decided to “self-disembark”, which would mean gathering downstairs from about 6:40 a.m. to start disembarking at 7. That sounded early, but we were actually planning to get up at 4:15 a.m. anyway so we could be on deck when the QM2 (barely!) passed under the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge and into New York Harbor.
With that in mind, an early night seemed reasonable—but we ended the trip in style. We dressed in our smart clothing before dinner and went up to the one bar we hadn’t yet spent any time in: the Commodore Club, at the bow of the ship right beneath the bridge, with pretty much the best window seats in the house. It had been packed every other time we strolled through, but on this night we hit it just right: there was a table for two in the windows at the front, and the clouds had cleared, and we sat and nursed our pre-dinner drinks (a pale ale for Jeremy, a prosecco cocktail for me) as the sky blushed and the sun set and the ship cruised on towards New York. It was the perfect end to the voyage.
Sunday, 18 August 2019
Except it wasn’t quite the end, of course, because when our alarm clocks went off at 4:15, we had another fabulous few hours ahead of us.
We were hoping beyond hope that there would be a functioning coffee machine somewhere between us and deck 13, but alas, at 4:30 in the morning, every coffee machine was still in “cleaning mode”. We seemed to be the only people awake on the ship, but in the midst of our fruitless search for caffeine we encountered a lovely older woman who was also planning to catch the first glimpse of New York. Like us, she had gotten up before dawn, even though (or perhaps because) she had done this crossing countless times before and actually lives in Manhattan.
We went together to the top deck, where a few folks had already started to assemble, particularly along the port side to see the Statue of Liberty. We snagged a good spot at the railing and peered into the darkness at the twinkle of the city up ahead. A few minutes later, James Streeter and Erina Takahashi walked by. After they’d passed, I grabbed Jeremy and whispered “James Streeter and Erina Takahashi just walked by!!”. And then James Streeter and Erina Takahashi walked back, and James (as I shall now refer to him) asked if they could squeeze in next us, and I had to do my very best to not go totally fangirl and instead just say, in a totally normal manner, like a totally normal human being, “Sure, of course!”. I kind of wanted to chat with them some more, even if just to thank them again, but I also didn’t want to be the annoying superfan who distracted them as they were trying to enjoy our stunning arrival in New York. So aside from a few friendly quips about our fears of dropping our phones over the side of the ship, I left them alone. But it was HARD.
The closer we got to the city, the more people gathered on deck (though not as many as I would have expected, to be honest). The QM2 was constructed to be just low enough to skirt under the Verrazzano Bridge when the tide is right, but as you’re approaching the bridge in the dark, it really, really doesn’t look like you’re going to make it. I could just imagine the comms tower being sheared off as we passed under. Clearly everyone else could, too, because as we started to glide beneath the bridge, everyone on deck kind of gasped, and once we were through there was applause. We made it! We were rewarded with a great view of the Statue of Liberty illuminated up ahead, the light from her crown and torch casting a golden shimmer out onto the dark water and up into the foggy dawn. And after that, the sparkle of Manhattan grew brighter along with the sky as the ship made a sharp turn to slowly, slowly dock in Red Hook.
Before we had fully docked, Jeremy and I headed back to our stateroom by way of the buffet (open, and serving coffee!) to gather our belongings, say goodbye to the cozy cabin that had housed us at sea for a week, and trundle down to the gangway to disembark. We joined the line of other “self-disembarkers” and, when the doors opened on schedule at 7, we filed out of the ship and onto solid land again. The self-disembarkers were the very first people off the ship, and since we had all our luggage with us, we just strolled right into the empty customs hall, breezed through passport control, and walked out the door of the terminal and straight into a taxi, which zipped us over the Brooklyn Bridge and into Manhattan, to the Roxy Hotel in Tribeca, where—against all odds—there was a room already available for us. We had made it from the door of the ship to the door of our hotel room in about 45 minutes. Unbelievable.
And so the first part of our adventure came to a close. There were other adventures to come, but the grand and unprecedented adventure, the sea adventure, was over. And it was only once we were back on land that the experience started to sink in. We took a SHIP across the ATLANTIC with BALLET DANCERS. When I got that email from English National Ballet months ago, I never, ever imagined that we would actually be making that crossing. And even now, having just done it, it seems impossible that it was an actual thing we did. Not just a dream, but a dream come true.