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Dining stewards perform in The McMurdo Nutcracker.
Photo by Robin DeLong.
Dining stewards perform in The McMurdo Nutcracker.

'The Nutcracker' comes to McMurdo

Station staff reinvent the classic Christmas ballet with an Antarctic twist

Residents of McMurdo Station experienced a one-of-a-kind performance earlier this year: a reimagining of The Nutcracker ballet.

A crowd forms outside McMurdo Station's gymnasium waiting to see the performance of The McMurdo Nutcracker.
Photo Credit: Jaden Pan.
A crowd forms outside McMurdo Station's gymnasium waiting to see the performance of The McMurdo Nutcracker.

Four artists working at McMurdo Station during the 2021-22 austral summer season planned and directed the two-act ballet dubbed The McMurdo Nutcracker. A cast of more than 50 people performed to an audience of more than 200 in the station's Big Gym on January 10. The one-night-only performance was a labor of love that brought the McMurdo community closer together.

“I think it made people really see that they're a part of a community, and that everyone has something to give, even if it's in unconventional ways,” said Ashley Goverman, one of the artists who envisioned and directed the show. “I really do feel like I saw that for the rest of the season. I saw people taking ownership of it like, 'This is my Nutcracker.'”

“The simplest language for our intention of the whole thing is just like, this was a love letter to the McMurdo community,” said Isa Braun, another of the directors. “All of the creativity that is a part of it is what we're celebrating.”

Performances and social activities are common at McMurdo. Yearly events like the Thanksgiving Turkey Trot and New Year's Day IceStock music festival allow station residents to express their creativity and bond with their fellow Antarcticans. Music performances are frequent, and residents often form bands together, but a ballet like The Nutcracker had never been done before.

It all started when Goverman first came to McMurdo in 2016, working as a steward in the galley. During that season she directed a monologue show called Relationshipwrecked. The show featured monologues about relationships of all kinds and was an instant hit with the McMurdo community.

“It was just the most powerful theatrical experience that I had ever had,” Goverman said. “Seeing people just say 'yes' to the idea of creating something - it was so beautiful and connective.”

Goverman decided to return to McMurdo in 2021 with Braun, her partner and employee of the School of American Ballet. The pair knew they wanted to create another piece of theater but didn't know what it would be. When they met Clarissa “Lari” Sprague, another dining steward, the idea of The Nutcracker came up and stuck with them. It made sense, since residents would be on station during the Christmas holiday. They soon brought on Jaden Pan, a television producer based in Los Angeles who was running McMurdo's retail store, and the planning took off.

Reinventing a classic

The Nutcracker debuted in St. Petersburg in 1892 and has been wildly popular in the United States since the 1960s. The ballet is performed frequently during the Christmas season, as it takes place on Christmas Eve. The score, created by Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, has become a famous and instantly recognizable piece of classical music.

The janitorial staff perform in The McMurdo Nutcracker.
Photo Credit: Robin DeLong
The janitorial staff perform in The McMurdo Nutcracker.

The show follows a young Russian girl named Clara as her family hosts a party on Christmas Eve. Clara receives a nutcracker shaped like a man as a gift from her godfather. When Clara falls asleep under the Christmas tree with the nutcracker in her arms, she dreams the tree grows to an alarming height and the nutcracker becomes a human man. In Clara's dream, the nutcracker man leads gingerbread soldiers against an army of mice and their mouse king. Later, the nutcracker transforms into a handsome prince who takes Clara on a journey to a land of sweets, where candies come to life and dance for her amusement.

In the McMurdo quartet's reimagining, Clara is a first-time U.S. Antarctic Program employee on her way to Antarctica to work as a dining steward. She falls asleep on the flight from New Zealand to McMurdo, holding her big red parka in her arms. As she dreams, the orange bag that holds her extreme cold weather gear grows to a dizzying size and out of the bag emerges a rat king: a tangle of rats whose tails have become entwined. It's a strange but very real phenomenon seen in New York City where Braun and Goverman lived before venturing to McMurdo.

In their show, a nutcracker defeats the rat king and takes Clara on a journey through a snowstorm to McMurdo, where the various station departments put on a show for her. The candies that dance for Clara in the original ballet are now the firefighters, fuelies, and janitors of McMurdo. Mother Ginger became Mother Crary, after McMurdo's Albert P. Crary Science and Engineering Center, the largest science laboratory on the continent. Out of Mother Crary's skirt come various Antarctic creatures: a penguin, a sea spider, a tardigrade. At the end, Clara wakes up holding her parka as the plane boomerangs back to New Zealand due to bad weather. McMurdo station residents come out and wave to her, knowing she'll make it there someday.

Staging a play with a budget of zero

Dozens of residents signed on to be part of the show's cast and crew when the directors put out the call. With only what was on hand at the station to make the various costumes and set pieces, the cast and crew rose to the occasion, using all their ingenuity to create an elaborate set and interesting costumes.

The flyer advertising The McMurdo Nutcracker.
Photo Credit: Katie Kerpel.
The flyer advertising The McMurdo Nutcracker.

“If you give residents something at McMurdo, even if it's completely out of their wheelhouse or what they think their wheelhouse is, they will say, 'Sure, let me make what I can, do it in my own way,'” Braun said.

To create Clara's orange extreme cold weather gear bag that grows to an incredible size, the crew found a used airdrop parachute that had landed in West Antarctica and been shipped back to McMurdo as waste. The rat king was made from a Halloween costume used earlier in the year. Mountaineers from the Field Support and Training team used carabiners to hang a piece of black velvet used as a backdrop.

All the production and planning had to be done in everyone's off hours, and the cast and crew did only two full rehearsals as they had to work around dozens of busy schedules. But the house was packed on the night of the performance and the show came together beautifully in the end. The neighboring residents of New Zealand's Scott Base were in attendance and the McMurdo chefs even cooked up a Nutcracker-themed pizza for dinner.

“It's crazy that it worked, and the only reason it worked is because of the people that were there,” Braun said. “We had the idea, but everyone had so much ownership over it. People were so willing to help out, like running pizza down from the galley for the dress rehearsal.”

“After the show, people came up and were really, really, genuinely moved by it,” Goverman said. “Our makeup artist Scout was like, 'I cried through the whole thing.' And people even sent emails saying how moved they were. I think that that in and of itself is evidence of an engaged community that feels connected.”