How four artists working at McMurdo Station created a ballet on the southernmost continent
While Isa Braun slogged through her workday on January 10, she kept overhearing people asking each other if they were going to the ballet later that night. Ordinarily, this would have been normal for Braun; until October of 2021, she was a freelance dancer living in New York City and working in an administrative position at School of American Ballet. But in January, Braun’s job was that of a dishwasher—and her residence? McMurdo Station, Antarctica.
That evening, despite an arctic snowstorm uncharacteristic given the summer season, nearly 250 residents of the United States research station lined up outside the community’s gym to see “The McMurdo Nutcracker,” a one-night-only, 40-minute long version of the holiday classic co-conceived of and choreographed by Braun and collaborators Ashley Goverman and Clarissa Sprague. Boasting a cast of 51 scientists, firemen, janitors, and more—nearly none of whom had any dance training whatsoever—the production was custom made for McMurdo.
In the trio’s reimagining, Clara is a support worker travelling to Antarctica for the first time. She receives her “Big Red” arctic parka and falls asleep clutching it on a military plane from New Zealand. Dreaming, she watches as her coat turns into a strapping young man who defends her against a collection of rats. He guides her to a new kingdom—McMurdo—where she’s welcomed by the station’s many departments, including a Mother Ginger-like researcher housing dancing sea creatures under her skirt and two begowned benevolent Sugar Plum Fairies who distribute bottles of alcohol to the residents and perform a heartfelt pas de deux. At the end, Clara wakes up as the plane lands, staring at her parka, which is, once again, just a coat. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would find ballet in Antarctica,” says Sprague, a recent college graduate and former dance student from Eugene, Oregon who played the role of Clara. “It was the last thing I thought I would be reconnected with. And it was amazing.”
Braun and Goverman—longtime partners who met studying theater in college—floated the idea of bringing the Nutcracker to McMurdo before they left for their four-month-long adventure on the ice. Goverman had spent a season as a dishwasher at McMurdo (the station’s quintessential entry level job) five years earlier, and having put on a devised theater show then, was confident she could pull it off again. But it wasn’t until Braun and Sprague realized their mutual upbringing in ballet while working in the kitchen that the idea started its path from spark to reality. The three creatives fell into a craze of brainstorming, and organized an informational meeting. It was there that Jaden Pan, a Los Angeles-based television producer working at McMurdo’s retail store, joined the team. “My first thought was that this was never going to happen,” he says. “The ideas were just so big and fast and furious, they seemed impossible. I knew immediately they would need some sort of organizing force.”
But for the creators, workshopping the project proved the perfect antidote to the monotony of life on the southernmost continent. In the summer months, it’s light out 24 hours a day. And with employees at the station working ten hour shifts six days a week, there are few opportunities for new stimulants. “It was pretty mind-numbing work, but we were able to turn our brains into creative mode by thinking about Nutcracker,” says Sprague. “It’s a very repetitive lifestyle, and it’s easy to lose some of your cognitive function,” adds Braun, who says that since leaving Antarctica a few weeks ago she’s been feeling her brain waking back up. But all of the hours spent blasting Tchaikovsky’s score while scrubbing pots certainly paid off. Once their ideas for the production started to coalesce, the group faced two obstacles to getting it onstage: bodies, and resources.
Though they’d posted flyers and tried to recruit performers by word of mouth, the team soon realized that what was getting in their way was ballet’s intimidation factor. “I kind of assumed that everyone had a relationship to the Nutcracker, but I realized that was not true,” says Braun. “People kept saying, ‘Oh no, I don’t dance ballet, I’m not a dancer,’” adds Sprague. When offered the chance to perform a teaser for the show at a community concert, Goverman, who sees herself as an “outsider to ballet,” devised the perfect way to make the art form approachable. In a comedic skit, she taught the audience a handful of pantomime vocabulary, like pushing two fingers forward to say “I swear” or rotating both hands above one’s head to ask “shall we dance?” And it worked—the numbers of interested cast members immediately grew. “We showed that ballet isn’t an elitist art form; it’s another language in which to express yourself,” explains Braun.
The next challenge—which Pan boils down to a lack of both time and resources—required even more ingenuity to overcome. In terms of time, the performers’ schedules were impossible to coordinate. Braun, Goverman, and Sprague took turns working with each scene’s cast based on who was available, and created choreography based on how comfortable each group was with movement. Many of the divertissements focus on concept and coordinated steps, while some scenes, like the grand pas de deux, featuring Sprague, and the “Waltz of the Flowers” dishwashing dance, starring Braun, were much more intricate.
As for the set and costume elements, Pan describes it as “a step beyond no budget.” With such limited resources in Antarctica, the only place the team could cull materials from was the garbage. But dozens of community members rallied to come up with workarounds. When looking for orange fabric from which to build a giant duffle bag to stand in for the customary growing Christmas tree, a cargo worker involved in the production found a used parachute in just the right shade used at a field camp on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet hundreds of miles away. Mother Ginger’s skirt was made from a piece of NASA foam that had been used to package equipment sent into space. And two practiced ice-climbers employed a system of carabineers to string up the piece of black velvet used as a backdrop. As Braun puts it, “Everything was created by people who aren’t supposed to be making theater.”
At the end of the show, when the lights came up for the curtain call, the team of four were surprised to be handed bouquets of brightly colored flowers. “There are no flowers at McMurdo. Nothing grows,” says Braun, explaining that cast members had dipped coffee filters into paint and attached them to wires to create the effect. For Braun, that was the moment when the tears started to flow; and she wasn’t alone. The audience response was overwhelming. “A helicopter pilot who’d been coming down for 30 seasons was laughing and crying. A few people came up to me and said they’d never been to a live show before, had never seen that moment when the lights go down,” says Sprague. “It was an emotionally inspiring experience for this group of people,” reflects Braun, now stateside. “And that’s what going to the ballet is; for dancers to convey a story and a piece of life to the audience. In that way, it was inherently balletic.”
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