Marionettes and music tell story of Antarctic expedition

Marionette puppets are a great metaphor for surviving the harsh conditions of Antarctica, as Erik Sa

Marionette puppets are a great metaphor for surviving the harsh conditions of Antarctica, as Erik Sanko and Jessica Grindstaff have discovered.

The husband-and-wife team, who together are the marionette theater company Phantom Limb, have been working on their latest project, “69˚ S.: The Shackleton Project,” for the past four years. A retelling of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 Antarctic expedition, the production combines Sanko’s marionettes and Grindstaff’s installation sets and artwork with dancing, live music from Sanko’s band Skeleton Key, a recorded score from chamber group The Kronos Quartet and video and sound elements from Antarctica.

The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, as the expedition came to be known, set out in 1914. By early 1915 the ship Endurance became frozen in an ice floe, eventually sinking at 69 degrees south latitude (from which the Phantom Limb production derives its name). At this point, Shackleton focused on saving as much of his crew as he could, eventually setting out with one of his lifeboats, the James Caird, to find aid on the island of South Georgia.

Phantom Limb’s ‘69˚S.: The Shackleton Project’

When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Where: The Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC), 110 Eighth St., Troy

How Much: $18; $13 for students and seniors

More Info: 276-3921,

Mysterious presence

Phantom Limb’s preparation for the project included a trip to Antarctica — sponsored by a National Science Foundation artists grant — where the duo recorded the sound and video being used in the production. It’s also where they discovered that the relationship between their puppets and the puppeteers was much like that between the landscape and themselves — a nurturing, yet controlling presence.

“When [Shackleton] was in the final leg of his attempt to get help, he and his colleagues, his fellow crewmen, all sensed that there was another member of their party — so they would all get ready to go and they would say, ‘Where’s . . . oh, we’re all here,’ ” Sanko said during a break in rehearsals at The Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, where “69˚ S.” is having its last workshop performances Friday and Saturday.

“So when we went to Antarctica, we were very keen to see if we could sense whatever this thing was, and we both thought it was really, undeniably the landscape itself. . . . And so we suddenly realized that with this relationship we had between the puppet and the puppeteer, that these guys kind of — the puppeteers sort of represent that sensation, where they’re guiding and being very caring towards the puppet, but also completely controlling.”

It’s not just this aspect of the production — the entire show is a symbolic affair, with no dialogue or text at all. The set, rather than re-creating the Antarctic landscape perfectly, is also stylized, with three iceberg set pieces that are also puppets.

“We work very collaboratively, and we want to make sure that all of the elements that are included in the piece feel the same — all of our noses are pointed in the same direction, as they say,” Sanko said. “So we’re all — all of the elements are serving to fortify the image that we’re trying to create, so this means sometimes the video projection is kind of just dominant, sometimes the lighting is, sometimes the music comes to the foreground, and sometimes the puppetry or the action comes to the foreground.”

Original goals

The New York City-based duo originally only had a few goals in mind for their next production. They wanted to put their puppeteers on stilts, to give them a larger area to work in, and they wanted a set with a ship.

“I thought that these puppets would look amazing just in a big white field,” Sanko said. “And I thought, where do you see a lot of white and a boat?”

The two were drawn to the photographs that Frank Hurley took of the Endurance’s shipwreck. As they researched the project, Grindstaff learned about the grant through the National Science Foundation and applied. The two ended up spending three weeks in Antarctica, an experience they both described as “mind-blowing.”

“They say it was kind of like going to outer space, or being on the moon, the amount of preparation to get there, and you have to have special clothing; you can’t wear your own,” Grindstaff said. “I went to Patagonia and got a bunch of stuff, and then got there and they were just like, no, you can’t wear that. So you’re issued all this gear, and you’re — it was like being on the moon or something. Your sense of, all the things that you use in your brain to understand something, aren’t there. Your sense of scale doesn’t exist, because there are no plants or trees or animals or man-made structures, once you get away from the base.”

In the production, Shackleton, his crew and even his ship the Endurance are all marionettes, while dancers tell a concurrent story set 600,000 years in the future framing the rest of the action.

Multiple levels

“We started to look at this juxtaposition of what is 69 degrees south now; like, what is the moment of crisis now in our culture?” Grindstaff said. “And we, for us — and I think our audiences can look at many different levels — but for us it’s climate change, and that’s obviously a hot topic in Antarctica and in the world, and in politics and elections and things like that.”

At the beginning of the production, the dancers, or “red men,” as Grindstaff referred to them, are divided into warring factions. A figure eventually comes out and “summons the story of Shackleton.”

“To put it simply, if there’s a story to choose where humanity came together and made a choice in the face of crisis to change their course and save themselves through camaraderie and intensely beautiful leadership, remember this story,” Grindstaff said.

“So the idea is that the red men witness the story, and they come back and they’re somehow kind of changed. And so climate change is not directly in the show, except that the icebergs are rising and falling in correlation to these red figures and this other figure that’s kind of hurled in the story.”

Categories: Life and Arts

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