When Seattle resident Jody Poth signed her first circus contract late last year, with Cirque du Soleil at Sea, it felt like nearly a decade of training as an aerialist had finally paid off.
She left her day job as a private investigator and flew to Montreal to learn two shows from what some consider the top traveling circus in the world. At the time, she said, she was excited by the prospect of performing for the next seven months aboard the MSC Bellissima, a 4,000-passenger cruise ship, as it visited the Middle East and Asia.
“This was what I always wanted to do,” said Poth, who Seattle denizens may know from her Sunday-night gig at the Pink Door twirling above diners’ heads in a hoop suspended from the ceiling.
But Poth got to perform for just two weeks before precautions to control the spread of the novel coronavirus trapped her and roughly 1,400 other crew members aboard a ship docked in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. Many have been awaiting a way out for more than a month.
Initially, the crew members had free run of the ship, she said. But as days progressed into weeks, MSC began restricting their access to the pool, the theater and other amenities. Soon, the company turned off lights in parts of the boat and regulated how many crew members were in the mess hall at any one time.
And earlier this week, MSC announced a lockdown and restricted crew members to their cabins. A letter sent to Poth and other crew members outlining the new regime warned they “may have been in contact with people infected with COVID-19.”
Poth said she wasn’t sure what that meant, but she and neighbors are “trying to keep our spirits high” by playing music and shouting to each other across the balconies.
MSC, which is based in Geneva, did not respond to calls or emails requesting comment.
Cruise ships have gained swift prominence as floating epicenters of the disease. A major outbreak on the Diamond Princess in February sickened nearly 700 passengers after what was supposed to be a quarantine instead allowed the virus to incubate and spread on board. At least 10 ships in recent weeks have reported crew members or passengers who tested positive for coronavirus or experienced symptoms.
Efforts to control the spread of the virus have resulted in a near-global shutdown of the industry. In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention decreed late Thursday that cruise ships are not allowed to arrive or depart from American ports until late April, extending an earlier moratorium on cruising.
The U.A.E. took similar steps March 12, suspending all cruise operations to control the spread of the coronavirus.
That left seven ships docked at Port Rashid in Dubai, including the MSC Bellissima, scrambling to disembark passengers. But the ship’s stewards, cooks, mariners, entertainers and other crew members stayed aboard — only to hear a week later that the U.A.E. had closed its borders to foreign citizens.
The same day, the company announced it would cease all cruise operations until the end of April — leaving crew members marooned on what Poth called a “floating entity” with no clear status.
“If I’m not in the country, I’m really in limbo,” she said. “We are under the discretion of the company that runs the cruise ship. Is the company prepared enough to repatriate and take care of X number of people in a short amount of time? Do they have enough resources?”
The former dancer has been practicing circus arts since 2011. To have her aerial skills acknowledged by Cirque du Soleil was, she said, intensely gratifying — and to perform for such a short time especially wrenching.
“Being two weeks into a contract we worked really hard for has been really defeating,” she said.
The biggest worry, for Poth, has been maintaining her art. She exercises on the balcony of her cabin. But, she said, she’s largely at a loss because she doesn’t have access to the equipment she’s used to performing with.
Some crew members have left the ship in the past month, including 334 Indonesian sailors from the MSC Bellissima and another ship who returned to Indonesia on Wednesday, Gulf News reported.
Poth heard rumors midweek that MSC may be in the process of repatriating her and the other Cirque du Soleil at Sea members — including one other Seattleite and two former residents of the city. So far, she said, she’s spent most of her days on lockdown trying to find a way back home.
But the aerialist said even if she had known before she left this was how her first-ever circus gig would turn out, “I would still choose to come. My passion is my passion. All risk for the reward.”