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

Performance: 13 December 2014 - 4 January 2015
Reviewed by Jeffrey Gordon Baker - Thursday 18 December 2014

Arthur Pita's 'The Little Match Girl' Photo: Ambra Vernuccio

The Little Match Girl is a bittersweet fable to be sure. Hans Christian Andersen’s original story is short and bleak, with its heroine saved from complete misery only by the visions of her grandmother she experiences in delirium just before she freezes to death out in the cold. Arthur Pita’s dance version exploits this dreamy detail to extra-terrestrial effect; his Little Match Girl finds an afterlife for herself and granny on the moon! She ends up dancing with an astronaut and using her matches to ignite the starry sky in a whimsically hopeful, magical realist finale. This isn’t the only liberty Pita and company take with the story. Setting the tale in a fictional Italian town, conflict is added to the narrative by way of garish, hollow-eyed Dickensian tormentors in the form of a well-to-do family and rival match-selling thugs who respectively exclude and abuse the little waif.

These narrative inventions provide a scenographic journey through which our Match Girl flutters and prances, her fingers like snowflakes, hop-stepping to puckish rhythms and quirky soundscapes provided by onstage musician/composer Frank Moon. Moon’s contribution is indispensable throughout, providing much of the piece’s defining colouration. The choreography is infused with the style and passionate urgency of folk dance with inventive shapes and visual metaphors; matchsticks become drumsticks and cat’s claws. The Match Girl dances like a survivor with an alternately spritely briskness and a flat-footed grounded quality, to thumping beats that contrast with the lacy snowy landscape. The sequences of pure dance held young audience attention more than any of the storied bits or special effects, and my little one was bouncing in his seat to the music, dancing along with the performers.

The cast are energetic and funny, many of them appearing in drag; Angelo Smimmo’s grandmother is at once tender and pantomime silly, and Corey Claire Annand’s white-faced Match Girl is plucky and pathetic in appropriate measure to inspire audience empathy. The themes of Andersen’s iconic story about poverty and the pathos of childhood fantasy aren’t embellished much by Pita’s fabricated alterations to the text, but the dance is captivating and original, capable of standing on its own without the superfluous Italian utterances and song lyrics.

Continues at Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadlers Wells until 4 January

Photos: Ambra Vernuccio

Jeffrey Gordon Baker is a transplanted New Yorker living in London; an artist and writer who has studied art, performance and aesthetics at New York University, Central St Martins and Birkbeck College. Find him on Twitter @jeffreyGordonB

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