Review: Arthur Pita - The Little Match Girl - Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadler's Wells

Performance: 12 December 2015 - 3 January 2016
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Wednesday 16 December 2015

Arthur Pita's 'The Little Match Girl'. Photo: Phil Conrad

Performance reviewed: 14 December

“Give me lucky Generals”, implored Napoleon Bonaparte (one assumes, rhetorically); I don’t know much about Generals but, if we could go back two centuries, I could give him a lucky choreographer! The only part of Arthur Pita’s show that doesn’t work for me is a fantasy sequence with an astronaut (by the name of Hank), but the choreographer’s slice of luck comes in winning the golden ticket of immediate topicality, with this press night happening on the same day that many British eyes (and all our news channels) were turned skywards to a real-life astronaut becoming the first Brit on the International Space Station.

Theatrical success is often as much to do with great timing as it is with outstanding creativity and with this iteration of The Little Match Girl, Pita combines the good fortune of a coincidental expediency linking space fantasy and fact with his unmitigated talent as a showman extraordinaire.

He is the real deal, the whole hog: a choreographer who brings characters we have known from childhood into a reality that is always subtly different from the scenarios we may have imagined; a director unafraid to take risks in order to place a unique interpretation on popular stories; and an integrator who draws the very best from his many contributors and adds a value to the whole that seems always to be something more than just the sum of their parts.

In this case, his biggest risk was to take a well-known fable by the Danish story-teller, Hans Christian Andersen, and present it in an imaginary Italian city. His characters speak and sing in Italian and although at first it is difficult to understand them (a problem of amplification rather than pronunciation), one quickly gets used to the language and somehow it sets an authentic mood for the story’s context.

An atmospheric stage environment for this drama is captured in the colourful costume and set designs of former dancer, Yann Seabra; and in the charmingly effective musical composition by Frank Moon, largely played live on stage by the composer utilising a wide range of instruments and digital effects. There was a smidgeon of things not being quite in sync on this press night, with moving bodies visible behind the set and a brief collision in the first group dance where one dancer turned left instead of right, or vice-versa!

The term “group” is perhaps an exaggeration since Pita squeezes eleven characters from a cast of just four dancers; a feat he achieves by mixing genders and the artists accomplish through lightning-fast costume transformations. Karl Fagerland Brekke (recently seen in Sally Marie’s I Loved You and I Loved You) plays four roles, while Angelo Smimmo and Valentina Golfieri manage three apiece.

Each of these three performers has to cross genders once; Fagerland Brekke, utterly hilarious as the tall mother in the uncaring, materialistic Donnarumma family; the uber-expressive Golfieri as the rival match boy, Carletto; and Smimmo as the spirit of the match girl’s grandmother, Nonna Luna, a role further enlivened by his outstanding countertenor singing (a mellifluous vocal quality already familiar to dance theatre aficionados, via his long association with the Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre of Michael Keegan-Dolan). Smimmo is also notable as the Donnarumma father gluttonously salivating at the prospect of capitone (conger eel) and panetone in his Christmas feast. Golfieri also gives an uproarious account of the Donnarumma’s spoilt child, ironically named Angelica Maria!

The only performer not to double-up is Corey Annand, reprising her role as La Fiammetta Russo by dancing and acting with all the vulnerable, child-like qualities that the story’s sentimentality requires. Like Andersen, in spirit, if not at all in delivery, Pita turns the story of a child, dying of hypothermia, ignored by rich passers-by intent on nothing but their own enjoyment, into an uplifting experience. Not just by transferring her dreams, hopes and unfailing optimism to the audience but in literally lifting her up; not to heaven, as Andersen intended, but to the moon and that bizarre encounter with spaceman Hank. The lunar spaceship landing followed by a miniature ‘Action Man’ astronaut whizzing across the moon’s surface in a space buggy, caused chuckling in the audience. But, for me, replacing one fantasy period mood with an altogether different other, just didn’t work, even with the unintentional intervention of Major Tim Peake’s real-life voyage into space, earlier in the day.

Nonetheless, Pita’s highly original take on this well-known story is evocatively realised and hugely entertaining while it retains and emphasises the core, humanist message that we should care more for those unable to care for themselves. It was a fable inspired by the poverty Andersen saw in 1845 and it is surely yet more relevant in these challenging times. Pita makes us laugh and – even while deflecting the natural sentimentality of this story into a space adventure – he makes us think, too.

Continues at Lilian Baylis Studio Sadler’s Wells until 3 January 2016

Photos: Phil Conrad

Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He is a regular contributor to Dancing Times and also writes for, and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is chairman of the dance section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK and of the National Dance Awards. Twitter: @gwdancewriter

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