The performance troupe Phantom Limb is set to combine puppetry, dance and music to recount the Antarctic adventures of Ernest Shackleton in the show “69 Degrees South: The Shackleton Project.”
Following a developmental residency at Mass MoCA, the show will premiere at the museum Saturday, March 13, at 8 p.m.
The troupe is lead by Erik Sanko, a former member of the Lounge Lizards, and installation artist Jessica Grindstaff. Music for the piece will be the result of a collaboration with the Kronos Quartet.
Shackleton famously set out to conquer the continent of Antarctica in the early 20th century and met with a disaster that was all the more remarkable for the fact that no one died, but he was part of several expeditions approaching the South Pole and gathering scientific data.
Phantom Limb’s interest in the expedition was to examine both the site of the exploration and the nature of that act, especially in context of the human reaction to disaster.
“Obviously the moment of crisis for Ernest Shackleton was, the moment when he tried to cross the continent of Antarctica, there was an early freeze and his ship was stuck in the ice and ultimately crushed by the ice and it sank,” Grindstaff said during an interview this week. “We’re looking at what is the moment of crisis now, and climate change is what we’re looking at, among many other things, like the financial crisis.
“There are many things going on in the world, but even in the past month or two months, even as we started working on this, there are these natural disasters happening all over,” she added. “We can argue whether they’re related or not related, but what we’re really interested in is the way people come together around a crisis and how you react to it and what you bring — and what is gained from it, rather than what is lost from it.”
The duo is also fascinated by the juxtaposition of exploration a century ago and currently — it still requires the same amount of bravery, but the method and intent has changed. Previously, exploration was an act of discovery, often for the purpose of mapping an area. Nowadays, Antarctic exploration centers on research, much of it in regard to climate change. Once the providence of hardy adventurers, it’s now a field dominated by scientists.
“Physically, the nature of exploration has changed because of advancements in technology, and during the era of Shackleton, the explorers were out there in the environment they were interested in — as much as they could be without causing themselves physical harm — and collecting data,” Sanko said. “Now the scientists are certainly excited to be in the environment as much as they can, but they can access the data remotely, so their relationship becomes one step removed from the actual physical environment. They set up probes and monitors in these much more inaccessible spots than men of Shackleton’s era could reach. For instance, under the sea ice or in the volcanoes. The scientists now have a relationship with the technology as well as the environment — and they can do this year round, depending on the weather conditions.”
Part of the duo’s development for the show involved a visit to Antarctica, through a grant from the National Science Foundation, which offers artists and writers the opportunity to work alongside scientists. It took Grindstaff six months to fill out the application — its complexity is largely due to the fact that artists need to fill out the same information as the scientists who apply.
“I thought to myself, first, that there’s no way I’m going to get it because it’s so difficult, but I also thought that if I don’t get this, then I have to give up in general, because I gave it everything I had, and if I gave it everything I had and it wasn’t good enough, then it was going to be pretty upsetting,” said Grindstaff.
Sanko and Grindstaff were required to go for the Antarctic summer, which is roughly October through February, making their way to New Zealand and then taking an Air Force cargo plane down to McMurdo Station, where they would stay for three weeks.
“I felt it would actually be helpful for me to go and see the topography in person, and particularly to see the light, and also, though it sounds kind of hippie, to feel the energy of the space,” Grindstaff said.
She had read not only Shackleton’s firsthand account of visits but also those of other Antarctic explorers, and found that they always mention an “otherness” that they felt, as if another figure were there with them. She wanted to encounter this for herself and do her best to translate that for the stage.
“These guys were walking across this continent, and on their death bed they always mentioned that they felt another presence,” Grindstaff said. “You can interpret that in a lot of ways — I’m not a particularly religious person, so I didn’t go the God route, but I wanted to go see if I could see what that was or feel what that was and get a sense of what was happening. Almost from the point I got off the airplane, I got it. It’s very indescribable and hard to put into words, so it’s a good thing that I’m an artist, but it’s probably going to be hard to translate onstage.”
Another purpose for their visit was for Sanko to record the sounds of the continent in order to incorporate them into the musical performance. Eventually, they hope to include a turntablist in the performance to play the sounds live with the music. More immediately, the Kronos Quartet wants to replicate the sounds with its instruments.
Sanko has synesthesia, a disorder in which the senses are confused, and this helped him experience Antarctica very differently from the way others might. For him, as well as other people with the condition, colors are perceived as sounds.
“In being a musician, this was a great advantage, or disadvantage, depending on how you look at it,” Sanko said. “Visual palettes, to me, are very immediately translated into this audio palette, and it helps me very much in guiding the tonality. Even though people think of Antarctica as mostly white with some speckled dark spots, it’s a really rich, nuanced color scheme there. Because it’s so narrow, in one respect, you start to see so many subtleties and variations in there, both texturally and from a hue perspective. To me, that’s super rich and cool to draw from, harmonically.”
Sanko said the condition has become less pronounced as he has aged — experiences for him were far more intense as a child — and his years living with it have created an ease of use for him. Capturing the colors that he hears still takes a lot of work.
“A lot of it is just ‘Oh it has to sound just like this’ — from the way that the colors move and the way that the landscape is shaped, it writes itself,” he said. “Having said that, there’s definitely a lot of work that I have to do shaping that. It’s not easily translatable. It’s very vague. It’s very pronounced in a way, but it’s very amorphous. It’s more like a feeling than a specific group of notes.”
During their stay in Antarctica, the duo got to meet firsthand the modern-day explorers they had been giving so much thought to in their work. McMurdo’s population is composed of military in charge of facilitating the station, scientists doing research and a large support crew. Sanko and Grindstaff found them all inspiring.
“We met all of these people, all totally brilliant and interesting, from the janitors to the scientists,” Grindstaff said, “because most of the people who are there are interested in science, and that’s why they chose to be a cook there or whatever.”
The visit gave Sanko and Grindstaff the opportunity to learn firsthand about the subjects of research, which yielded a lot of information about the landscape beyond their initial experience. They were also able to observe the movements of scientists in order to incorporate those into the choreography of the dancers in the performance.
For Grindstaff, it was also an opportunity to come to terms with some prejudice she had about the current state of exploration, but she returned with feelings that will only add to the performance as it takes shape.
“I went down there with a little bit of an attitude — ‘Oh, humans, we always have to explore everywhere and be up in everyone’s business, whether it’s the penguins in the ice or the Afghanis’ — and I left with a totally different feeling about it,” she said. “There’s just so much respect for the continent down there. Their goal is to leave zero imprint on the land. People are so serious about what they are doing that there is nothing recreational happening down there, though I guess there is a little bit of a bar that sometimes people go to. But it’s serious business, and there’s fascinating work being done.”