The Little Match Girl
London, Lillian Baylis Studio
12 December 2016
Gallery of pictures (2015) by Foteini Christofilopoulou
Hans Christian Andersen was not afraid to kill his darlings, so to speak. “The Little Mermaid,” famously condemns its protagonist to dissolve into sea foam, while the titular character in “The Little Match Girl” ends up freezing to death in an alley. It’s a testament to Arthur Pita’s wit that he’s found a way to bring cheer to this latter fable, a dark parable about greed and inequality in which Fiammetta, a penniless young match seller, has only the memory of her loving grandmother to keep her warm on a an icy Christmas Eve.
The Portuguese choreographer, once dubbed “the David Lynch of the stage,” is known for infusing his work with fanciful quirks and a surrealist sheen. For The Little Match Girl, created in 2014 and now in its third seasonal run at the Lilian Baylis, he’s transplanted the story to Italy, integrated comic opera elements and added a wacky epilogue set on the moon, complete with a zero-gravity romp. The result is a whimsical hour of dance and theatre, enchanting for children and adults alike.
The imaginative set greets us with a low-slung moon and lashings of snow, a wintry landscape Fiammetta (Corey Annand) navigates with warm candlelight from her dwindling supply of matches. Over the story she encounters a procession of characters, deftly shared between three dancers: Angelo Smimmo, Karl Fagerlund Brekke, and Valentina Golfieri. Dark figures abound, from talon-wielding rival vendors to the nasty Donnarumma family, who greedily gobble panettone amid the cries of the hungry underclass, their flamboyant antics and attire gestures to both Italy’s commedia dell’arte and the long-held British pantomime tradition.
Pita’s choreography is a charming tangle of contemporary dance, song and comedy, with well-portioned dashes of farce and oddity. Fiammetta’s adversaries manhandle, jab and bind her by turn, but there are plenty of light-hearted moments too, including comic chase scenes, silly ditties and a spirited frolic with a giant matchstick. Annand delivers the same emotional nuance she mastered as Grete in Pita’s The Metamorphosis in 2013, matching wide-eyed youth with a mature deportment, her girlish twittering buttressed with pretty poses and long-legged extensions. Her cosmic duet with Hank the astronaut (Brekke) is a highlight – a languid, winding, light-footed gambol – as is her square-off with one of the Donnarumma sisters (Golfieri), an unsettling spar that underscores Fiammetta’s powerlessness.
The show lays it on a bit thick at times, particularly when Fiammetta reunites with her grandmother (Smimmo), who delivers an overlong, syrupy opera number, but its structure is tight enough that it never loses its audience. Composer and instrumentalist Frank Moon – a one-man music box on the side of the stage, churning out eccentric jingles, tinkles, strings, vocal effects and more – plays no minor role in the overall appeal.
The Little Match Girl is small-scale, but it’s pretty spectacular all the same – a sweet and witty alternative to the typical Christmas family fare.