You never know what to expect with Arthur Pita’s choreography. His adaptation of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis at The Royal Opera House had Edward Watson literally climbing the walls and covering himself with brown slime as he transformed from businessman to bug. There was a gothic Snow White in Black for Phoenix Dance Theatre, and his Dream within a Midsummer Night’s Dream, for Ballet Black, with tutus and pointe shoes. Pita tells his tales with great quirky humour and – often surprising – attention to detail, which always keeps the audience on the edge of their seat.

© Phil Conrad
© Phil Conrad
Now he has put his stamp on The Little Match Girl, Hans Christian Andersen’s short story about child poverty in the 19th century. And again, Pita’s anticipated surprises are here in abundance. His ballet is an absolute delight and, despite its often tough moral story, it makes a perfect performance for not only children, but all ages to enjoy.

The Little Match Girl tells the story of a poor child, on the freezing streets of a small town on Christmas Eve, attempting to sell matches to passers by. Hungry and shivering from the cold, she meets both kind and cruel people. Her boots are stolen; she is tied to a lamppost; and her single coin snatched. While one family is planning an extravagant Christmas with all its trimmings, they cruelly refuse to help her in any way. They even turn the lights off when she comes knocking for left over scraps. The child sees a shooting star and remembers what her beloved, now dead grandmother once told her– that it means someone was going to heaven. When the little girl eventually dies from starvation and the cold, the two are reunited, and here, Pita takes puckish poetic license for they set off, not for heaven, but on a trip to the large shining moon where they meet up with an astronaut and his moon buggy! After a sympathetic and gentle pas de deux, the astronaut realises that his sputnik spaceship won’t start for him to return to earth. So guess who comes to the rescue to make it go, with just one strike of a match! Andersen, known for his vivid imagination and also great love of ballet, would probably have been highly amused– the children in the darkened Studio certainly sat up in their seats in awe.

 This short – one hour long– action-packed children’s ballet captured the imagination of its young audience. Eyes were steadfastly pinned on the stage and no one moved, so intense was their concentration. Part of the fascination was the sole musician — and composer —of the work, Frank Moon. As we entered he, dressed in a long floor-length coat and tall top hat, was fiddling away to a mesmeric chant, which went on until the show started. Throughout, he was very much part of the action. He played a vast collection of instruments --violin, oud (Arabic lute) and music box-- and added electronic wind, static, and blowing sounds. With his wide-eyed pale face and costume, Moon was very much one of the ballet’s characters.

Pita has set his ballet in the imaginary town of Santo Stefano sul Tuscio, Italy, and the dancers also sing and shout in Italian. There are eleven roles in this contemporary work, and quite frankly, it was a surprise to discover at curtain call, that just four dancers had performed them all.

© Phil Conrad
© Phil Conrad
That meant, since the Match Girl remained in her role the whole time, that the other three were extra busy – not to mention there were a lot of quick changes into the outrageous costumes and make-up! One of the dancers, Angelo Smimmo, also trained as a singer and showed off his amazing countertenor voice as Fulvio, the father of the Donnarumma Family, and, more especially, as Grandmother, singing a loving and peaceful lullaby about the moon to her granddaughter.

Taking the lead role of Fiammetta Russo, the Match Girl, was Corey Annand. Being small and waif-like with an open face and child-like expressions, she was completely believable and appealed to the youngsters watching her. In her frilly bonnet and scruffy pinafore over a tatty jumper, she danced with lightness and fragility, showing naturally clean lines and technique.

Karl Fagerlund Brekke took on four roles – the kindly lamplighter, a bully-boy, the astronaut and the over-bearing Donnarumma wife, someone who, despite an air of comedy and jollity, would never deign to help anyone as poor and destitute as the Match Girl. Her own daughter Angelica Maria was the quintessential doted on, spoilt brat of a girl, all doled up in her fur cape and frilly petticoat.

© Phil Conrad
© Phil Conrad
Valentina Golfieri proved an excellent ‘nasty’ individual in this role, making the most awful grimaces and delighting the children.

The ballet had an enchanting ending. The now smiling Little Match Girl appeared on top of the huge moon and made all the stars light up. The story’s moral message about being kind to everyone and helping others out couldn’t have been clearer, and the production left its mark on each of the audience members. “It was wonderful’, said one granny... ‘I loved it and want to be the Match Girl,’ offered a bright-eyed 6 year old, while 7 year old twins, with stars in their eyes, said they wanted to see it again. Now that is recommendation enough!

****1