DanceXchange – Arthur Pita’s The Little Match Girl at the Birmingham Hippodrome

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The season of festive shows is now well and truly upon us, with Arthur Pita’s The Little Match Girl following hot (or should that be cold?) on the heels of the recent run of Slava’s Snowshow at the Birmingham Hippodrome. Presented by DanceXchange, Pita’s production is a beautiful, enchanting and surprisingly funny adaptation of the classic Hans Christian Andersen story that sees the little match girl (here named Fiammetta) transported to an unnamed Italian town where Christmas festivities are well underway.

The show is in large part an exploration of the meaning of Christmas, bringing together an eclectic mishmash of traditions with the kind of sombre, poignant reflections that tend to creep up on us on long winter nights towards the end of the year. Fiammetta’s own joy and wonder at the the beauty of her surroundings reminds us of the happiness of any young child anticipating presents and games on Christmas Eve. Then there’s the mouth-watering, Neapolitan-style Christmas food list rattled off by the wealthy and gluttonous Donnarumma family. The flamboyance and grotesqueness of that little trio, complete with its own ridiculous dame of a mother, is obviously inspired by a long history of British pantomime. Nevertheless, as self-absorbed as they are, the Donnarummas also on some level communicate the idea of Christmas as a time for family, a theme more sensitively dealt with in Fiammetta’s visit to her grandmother’s grave, where she, like many others at this time of year, spares some time to think of absent loved ones (that “auld acquaintance” that we so often toast on New Year’s Eve).

The_Little_Match_Girl_-_Bayes_1889Sensitively, Pita opens up both the meaningful and the shallow sides of Christmas, like two sides of Fiammetta’s single shiny penny, highlighting the hypocrisy of much of what goes on. While the Donnarumma family and others like them give gifts and eat together, the notion of Christmas as a time for sharing does not extend as far as poor Fiammetta, left barefoot and empty-handed in the cold. Rather than simply allowing her to drift by, ghostlike and unnoticed, however, Pita brings her into direct conflict with a jealous pair of rival match-sellers, as well as with the obnoxious Donnarummas.

The design of the show is utterly gorgeous, from the giant full moon hanging low in the inky sky to the rows of little houses that disappear and reappear onstage. The lighting is also beautifully atmospheric, with pools of streetlamp glow highlighting little patches of falling snow. Even more crucial to maintaining the mood is Frank Moon’s fantastic music. Performing onstage, Moon is drawn in to the world of the show, sometimes as a kind of incidental street musician, other times as a more direct part of the story, in a role he aptly described in the post-show discussion as something akin to that of a narrator. Interestingly, his music evolved symbiotically with with the movement, rather than being set to the dancing or the action being choreographed to a ready-made score, a process which has worked fantastically well. Moon attended creative sessions with the cast and director throughout the development of the production, and the result is a wonderful meeting of violins and theremins, haunting, Danny Elfman-esque sounds and jolly Christmas tunes.

The little cast of four is utterly brilliant all round, with Corey Annand convincingly innocent and vulnerable as Fiammetta (though with a surprising strength and determination when necessary), and Angelo Smimmo, Karl Fagerlund Brekke and Valentina Golfieri hilarious in show’s various other roles. The one thing that let the show down, however, was an apparent reluctance to allow the darkness in the story room to breathe and to sink in with its audience. It’s understandable that for a festive family show, something a little more light-hearted was called for than Andersen’s almost unbearably bleak tale, which is enough to reduce grown-ups, let alone children, to blubbering wrecks. Nevertheless, the fact of the match girl’s death was so lightly skimmed over that at least one of my fellow audience members was left confused and unaware of what had actually happened. Shifting a single scene to a point a little later in the show would probably have been enough to resolve this lack of clarity. Another, related issue was Smimmo’s semi-comedic take on Fiammetta’s grandmother who, like Clementina De Magistis Donarumma, is played by a male cast member in drag. For me, her heightened singing and pantomime dame qualities took away too much from the emotional resonance of her reunion with the little girl, a touching moment in the story that should have been more joyous, as well as more sad.

That said, the show gets an excellent and powerful ending when we are transported to a more contemporary town where, over a century later, another young girl attempts to sell cigarette lighters on the streets, which left me feeling as though there should have been some kind of charity collection on the way out.

Overall, what this production loses in Andersen’s devastating emotional blows, it makes up for in irresistible charm and a sense of genuine magic. Guaranteed to warm your heart like a handful of matches in a snowstorm, it’s a perfect Christmas treat for kids and adults of all ages.

Requiem: Ex Cathedra and Cas Public in Concert Dansé

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It may well be my Catholic upbringing, but to me, fast-paced, energetic and often noisy dancing doesn’t quite seem a natural fit for a solemn religious requiem. While watching Concert Dansé at Symphony Hall last night, I can’t deny that there was a part of me that felt like the show itself answered choreographer and DanceXchange director David Massingham’s question (discussed in the programme) as to why there haven’t been more dance productions set to organ music.

Criticisms aside, however, Concert Dansé was nothing short of spectacular. Though I’m still not convinced they weren’t mismatched, the show combined what were by far the most incredible dancing and some of the most beautiful singing that I have ever had the privilege of experiencing.

After organist Alexander Mason and cellist Andrew Skidmore opened the production with a gentle, instrumental prayer by Camille Saint-Saëns, mezzo soprano Martha McLorinan led the singing with a breathtaking solo rendition of Jules Massenet’s Pie Jesu. The full Ex Cathedra choir then took to the stage for an uplifting performance of Aaron Copland’s In The Beginning. Described by conductor and Ex Cathedra founder Jeffrey Skidmore as “one of the great choral works of the 20th century”, In the Beginning was delivered with perfect clarity, while sparse yet powerful lighting evoked the initial darkness and creation of light detailed in the lyrics.

It was not until after the interval that Cas Public emerged onto the dramatically lit stage, to dance alongside Duruflés Requiem, magnificently sung by Ex Cathedra and accompanied by organ and cello. From the outset, the dancers’ outfits seemed strangely out of place in the context of a Mass of remembrance for the dead, and once the movement began, the strangeness of the combination was only confirmed. Though the performers’ skill was quite astounding, blending the skill and discipline of traditional ballet with the speed and energy of more contemporary styles, it largely failed to match the gravity and emotional resonance of the sung Requiem.

The highlights of the performance were guest appearances from ballet dancers Karla Doorbar and Max Maslen, as well as acclaimed Kathak and Bharatnatyam dancer Aakash Odedra, all of whose movements were much quieter and more restrained than Cas Public’s. Odedra’s fluid, graceful motion in particular seemed to respond directly to the music, reflecting its tone and momentousness rather than simply following its rhythms. Sadly though, his turn onstage was but brief.

Despite my reservations, this was a fascinating show, and one I felt was pitched well for the International Dance Festival: although dance is generally a little out of my comfort zone as far as art forms go, I was truly blown away by some of the performers in this production, which were definitely enough to persuade me to see more.