note: entire contents copyright 2012 by Sheila Barth
When explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton and crew embarked on his 1914 trans-Antarctic expedition from London on Aug. 1, 1914, World War I erupted two days later. As news blasted about the war, Shackleton’s trek became more treacherous than he’d imagined. His classified ad for hiring a crew, appeared tongue-in-cheek on the surface:
“Men Wanted - for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, honor and recognition in case of success. - Ernest Shackleton 4 Burlington St.
On Feb. 24, his ship, the Endurance, became trapped in pack ice, then sank on Nov. 21, at latitude 69°S. For seven months, the men marched in unimaginable freezing temperatures and blinding blizzards. They shlepped their lifeboats and equipment, hunting and seeking refuge from the elements, trying to reach the open sea, where they rowed for seven days to Elephant Island. Shackleton had to reach civilization to save his men’s lives, so he and five others traveled 800 miles, finally reaching a whaling station on South Georgia on May 10, 1916. After a few unsuccessful starts, they finally rescued the remaining crew on Aug. 30, 1916. Miraculously, everyone survived, and many claimed they felt a third, supernatural presence hovering nearby.
Married couple Jessica Grindstaff and Erik Sanko, founders of New York-based Phantom Limb Company, were so intrigued by Shackleton’s plight, they received a grant to study, then flew to Antarctica and the South Pole to experience, simulate, and record similar conditions.They read expedition member Thomas Orde-Lees’ 700-page diary, in which he recorded minutia, and peered at photos taken by expedition photographer Frank Hurley.
Then, they created “69°S, (The Shackleton Expedition),” a 65-minute, one-act multimedia “meditation” that incorporates theater, dance, puppetry, photography, and film in a wordless allegory. The world premiere has been touring the country and won distinction in San Francisco. Directed by Sophie Hunter, the production appeared last week at Boston’s ArtsEmerson Paramount Center Mainstage.
Under choreographer Andrea Miller, six dancers in red, skin-tight jumpsuits danced slowly across the stage, intertwining themselves, moving to Sanko’s original dramatic score recorded and performed by his band, Kronos Quartet, while accompanied live by Skeleton Key, wearing all-white suits. These few spectral musicians stood on both sides of the orchestra pit and in the first balcony, creating pulsating, booming surround-sounds throughout the performance.
Featuring nine tableaux,or scenes, the performance opened imaginatively with man’s return to earth after the Ice Age, the unrelenting landscape, then the dancing red figures, conjuring up each stage of Shackleton’s treacherous expedition.
Large, white looming figures on stilts, their faces shrouded with huge bonnet-shaped hoods, hovered over 4-foot marionettes made of paper and plaster molds, their clothing historic recreations. Another human white-clothed creature, probably symbolic of death’s constant presence, bore a black skeleton in front - a supernatural semblance of the black-ribbed, wrecked ship.
Tyvek-based icebergs rose from the stage floor, growing menacingly, locking in the Endurance’s collapsing black shell. Winds swirled, growling angrily around them, as the background shot images of white-walled fortresses and deep, arctic sea waves. Crack! Boom! Smash! Flashes of light, sometimes red-tinged, foretold disaster. During milder moments, a seal glided across the stage, and later, flocks of large seagulls nearby screeched above, flapping their wings.
As the men’s rescue grew closer, the icebergs blared images of politicians’ speeches, vestiges of battles, destruction, and ultimate hope.
Although many contemporary theatrical productions are combining video, technological and flamboyant stage effects with dance, music and dialogue, “The Shackleton Expedition” is a complex blend that leaves audiences wondering what they witnessed - man’s interaction with nature and severe conditions and his ability to survive - and whether these effects overpower the subject rather than capturing it.