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69°S.: The Shackleton Project

Post #1515 • February 10, 2012, 6:49 AM

[Image: Photo Credit: Phantom Limb]

Photo Credit: Phantom Limb

Tuesday evening I saw the production of 69°S.: The Shackleton Project, brought to the Paramount Mainstage here in Boston by ArtsEmerson. Part dance, part puppet show, it renders the voyage of the Endurance as a series of haunting tableaux.

Those unfamiliar with the story of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition ought to have a gander at the related Wikipedia article, which notes, among much else:

The march started on 30 October [1915], with two of the ship's lifeboats carried on sledges. Before it could begin, Shackleton had the unpleasant task of ordering the weakest animals to be shot, which included Mrs. Chippy, the carpenter Harry McNish's cat, and a pup which had become a pet of the surgeon Macklin. Problems quickly arose, as the condition of the sea ice around them worsened. According to Hurley the surface became "a labyrinth of hummocks and ridges," in which barely a square yard was smooth. In three days the party managed to travel barely two miles, and on 1 November Shackleton abandoned the march; they would make camp and await the break-up of the ice. They gave the name "Ocean Camp" to the flat and solid-looking floe on which their aborted march had ended, and settled down to wait. Parties continued to revisit the Endurance wreck, which was still drifting with the ice a short distance from the camp. More of the abandoned supplies were retrieved until, on 21 November 1915, the ship finally slipped beneath the ice.

The performance begins with Death personified, a life-size skeleton painted black and attached to a puppeteer front-to-back, commanding mountains of ice to rise out of the frozen ground by raising his bony hand. Dancers dressed in red enter the stage and execute a choreography blended from elements of Russian folk dance, animal movements, and butoh.

After they leave, puppeteers enter. Each is raised upon four-foot stilts and wimpled in ribbed veils that enclose their heads like gossamer igloos. They manipulate marionettes fashioned after Sir Ernest Shackleton and his crew, pallid, blank-eyed, and clothed in (approximations of) fur and leather.

[Image: Photo Credit: Phantom Limb]

Photo Credit: Phantom Limb

They remain on stage throughout the rest of the performance, until Death retakes it in a surprising (but not tragic) ending. In the meantime they retell the disasters that the crew encountered and Shackleton's bold plan to save them, but not literally. Instead, we get glimpses of distilled anxiety as the men suffer cold, hunger, and the constant threat of death. At times the puppets move with astonishing realism and expression. At other times, the puppeteers take advantage of their puppet-ness, such as in one affecting scene in which they lift them off the ground in curled-up poses in unison, in a gesture of utter helplessness and hopelessness.

69°S.: The Shackleton Project is a production of Phantom Limb, a collaboration of Erik Sanko and Jessica Grindstaff, whose backgrounds extend far beyond puppetry. Recorded music was supplied by The Kronos Quartet, and supplemented with disturbing live percussive performance by Skeleton Key (warning: sound). In other words, this is not an ordinary puppet show. This is a moving piece of art, in both senses of "moving." My exposure to contemporary dance took place around butoh, so as long as anything is detectably changing position onstage, I can endure it. Perhaps not everyone can, but everyone else ought to go see this remarkable production. The lack of allegiance to any one mode of presentation, and the energy behind the reconfigurations thereof, indicates to me that it exemplifies an important aspect of the future of performance.

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