In “69° S. (The Shackleton Project),’’ the New York-based Phantom Limb Company combines theater, dance, photography, film, an original score, live musicians, and 4-foot-tall marionettes operated by puppeteers on stilts to re-create the 1914 Antarctic expedition in which Anglo-Irish explorer Ernest Shackleton’s ship, Endurance, was crushed by pack ice and he led his crew to safety.
The title of the show, which ArtsEmerson brings to the Paramount Center Tuesday through Feb. 12, refers to the latitude at which Endurance sank. The inspiration for the piece, Phantom Limb cofounders Erik Sanko and Jessica Grindstaff say, came to them on a 90-degree day in New York.
“Erik had this really interesting idea to put puppeteers on stilts,’’ Grindstaff recalls by phone, “so they could have the full range of the stage. And for some reason we were both picturing this all in white. And I had been wanting to make a ship, which was kind of a transformation puppet. So we said, ‘Where is it always white, with just one isolated black ship?’ And then we remembered these iconic images [taken by photographer] Frank Hurley from the Shackleton expedition.’’
The pair’s research took them to Dartmouth College, where they spent weeks poring over the 700-page diary that expedition member Thomas Orde-Lees kept - “everything from the temperature and wind direction that day to what they ate to what was happening with the ship mechanically, and then his emotional experience of what was happening,’’ says Grindstaff.
Soon they were making a grant application for an expedition of their own to Antarctica.
“It took me six months to fill it out,’’ Grindstaff remembers. “We went in January 2010, for about three weeks. We were stationed on the coast, at McMurdo [Station], but we went to the geographic South Pole as well, and it was about 18 below, which they said was unseasonably warm. But we did go in an underground ice tunnel, and it was 68 below there, and at that point you could feel the liquid on your eyeballs freeze, so you quickly put your goggles back on.’’
For visitors, Sanko explains, all clothing is issued by the US government, “because it’s so cold, you couldn’t possibly dress yourself. But think about the original explorers, who had only cotton and wool. They were wearing their tweeds.’’
While there, Sanko and Grindstaff collected ambient sounds: Adélie penguins on Beaufort Island, a C-130 airplane taxiing, a glacier sliding down the face of Mount Erebus, the hydraulic fluid in the 10-meter telescope at South Pole Station, the wind at Building 208. Back home in the studio, they collaborated with Kronos Quartet on the soundscape, incorporating the Antarctica material with the string-quartet score Sanko had composed. “And at some point,’’ he says, “Jessica suggested that my band get involved. Skeleton Key is kind of the polar opposite of Kronos, an angry little rock band with two wonderful and crazy drummers. They’ll be playing live with the Kronos recording.’’
That’s the soundtrack for “69° S.’’; there’s no script or text. Six of the marionettes - which are made completely out of paper - represent members of the Endurance crew; there’s also a seal, and a black skeleton puppet that may represent death. “And the puppeteers are also dancers,’’ Sanko explains. “We’ve found that dancers take really quickly to puppetry because they’re in such good shape and they’re in such great contact with their own bodies, which is a big part of what operating a marionette is.
“The original idea of putting the puppeteers on stilts,’’ he continues, “was to get them away from the marionettes so that they wouldn’t be distracting. But we noticed that there’s a beautiful, very delicate relationship between the puppeteer and the puppet.’’
Grindstaff adds, “There are parts in the show where it’s very striking that the puppets and the puppeteer are doing the same thing, and you’re meant to look at the whole picture.’’
That stage picture includes Endurance and the icebergs. Grindstaff describes the ship as “actually more of a skeleton of a ship. The idea is that the ship is already dead, and what’s left for them is to separate themselves from it. I kind of likened the design drawings to skeletons of whales. The ship is just like a carcass on the stage, and it has a bunch of motors designed into it, and it collapses in three stages and then is dragged off.’’
And the icebergs are designed by Grindstaff and made of Tyvek, the construction material. “They are in their own way kind of puppeted,’’ the show’s director, Sophie Hunter, says by phone. “They come to life during the piece.’’
Hunter came onboard a year ago and has overseen “69° S.’’ from its development in the Netherlands city of Groningen through American performances at Dartmouth College; in Troy, N.Y.; and at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Sanko and Grindstaff agree that Shackleton’s actions were heroic.
“If you read about polar exploration in that time period,’’ says Grindstaff, “every single story is fraught with disasters, and every single time they just go on. They’d often presold the press rights, or the photo rights, and there was so much money invested in every single one of these expeditions that they just kept going, and obviously lives were lost. And Shackleton was famous for putting his men’s lives before the glory or the expedition, always.’’