Spanning the gaps between a dance performance, puppet show, concert, and art installation, ArtsEmerson’s most recent import 69°S (The Shackleton Project) abstracts Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition into a visually stunning performance piece. This expedition to cross Antarctica was a failure; Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance, got trapped in ice early on and sank, thus beginning the expedition’s real legend and popular appeal–the crew’s journey home. In nine “tableaux” of puppetry, dance, and other audiovisual stimuli, the show, conceived and performed by Phantom Limb–a talented husband and wife team that specialize in marionettes and all sorts of other hip arty things– traces the crew’s nine month journey to, and rescue from, a remote island off the Antarctic Coast.
Against all odds, the entire Shackleton party survived (although the dogs did not). It’s the fact that everyone survived that the expedition is known and has been popularized. There’s actually very little action to the events themselves. For most of the nine months 69°S follows the Endurance’s crew spent waiting; drifting on floes to reach the open sea from the position where their ship wrecked, and waiting for Shackleton to return with help, after he set out with a small party to find it in a re-rigged whaling boat. (It’s this journey that’s probably the superior adventure story.) Since there is so little story to convey, it’s the perfect material for puppets and abstract performance that communicates an overall pathos rather than a dramatized historical record.
So, there’s really not much for these beautifully crafted three-foot-tall marionettes to do on stage besides strut around and look cold, as this isn’t the dazzling puppetry of Basil Twist. Even the seal clubbing happens offstage. The puppeteers, who move about on stout stilts, are actually dancers who’ve had a crash course in puppetry. And while the results are wonderfully elegant, the show relies heavily on its audiovisual elements: A thrilling soundscape recorded by the Kronos Quartet overlaid with historical recordings, rusty music ripped from old 78s, and live music from three percussionists; rich lighting; and a well directed montage of archive footage and other historic, cartographic, and abstract imagery that serves as a dynamic backdrop. The cumulative effect of all this is absolutely riveting, creating a loud and imposing atmosphere that, remarkably, never seems to dwarf the small marionettes on stage.
The historical narrative is framed by an expressive prelude and epilogue where the cast of dancers perform without their marionettes, conjuring up new bodily forms in paced and sometimes acrobatic choreography. Wearing jumpsuits the color of the red Canada Goose parkas today’s researchers are issued, they seem like Antarctic forest nymphs or some kind of silent Greek chorus that presides over the expedition. Oh, and there’s a skeleton that closes the show with its rendition of “You Broke My Heart to Pass the Time Away.” I’m not sure what to make of that.
Words simply can’t describe how striking 69°S is, and since its spectacle is its greatest merit, I can’t help but rely on these beautiful photos.