The story of The Little Match Girl, written by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, has touched the hearts of readers, young and old, for centuries.
In the original, a poor girl, who tried to sell matches to earn a living, died of cold and hunger one Christmas Eve while rich people are enjoying dinner inside their warm, comfortable homes.
Arthur Pita, a Portuguese choreographer, has given the old story a new ending for local audiences of Shanghai International Dance Center (SIDC). In his version, Pita has done away with the serious, sad mood of Andersen's original, using upbeat props, dances, songs and original music to encourage people to offer their help to others.
Made for both kids and adults, it has surprised local audiences with fantastic makeup and elaborate costumes. According to Valentina Golfieri, deputy art director of the show, it was Pita's idea to set this piece in Italy and use the Italian language. She said Pita believes that Italians do Christmas better than anyone else, with rich foods and extravagant gifts.
"In his mind, whenever he thinks about Christmas, he thinks about Italy," she said. "So when we were developing the show six years ago, he decided the cast should be half Italian."
Golfieri said that Pita wanted them to use as much Italian language as possible in the show, because he thinks Italian can best create the atmosphere in which the piece is set. "The audience doesn't have to understand all the language, they get the feelings, emotions and images of it," said Golfieri.
Presenting a pure soul
One of Pita's inspirations was Federico Fellini, the famous Italian director. Many elements in this show, including the white face makeup on performers, are meant to create a situation where audiences can feel it without understanding each and every word.
"We are used to understanding everything through language. But for Pita, one of the important things is the idea that we are performing a whole story, including light, dance and costumes," said Matthew Jones, the producer of the show.
"We first made this show in England, where most audiences don't understand Italian, but all of them understand the story and emotions in it," said Jones. "I think the decision he made is partly the reason we are here now."
As the performers are all grown-ups, one of the challenges for them was how to touch kids with their performance. Jones contends that, to impress the young audiences, it is very important to let them see themselves on the stage.
"It doesn't mean that performers have to be childish, but they need to empathize with children, to think about what they were like when they were kids. And then children will respond to that," said Jones, who thinks presenting a pure soul on the stage is a must.
Jones believes that fun is another important factor. "It is not patronizing fun, but shared fun that everybody in the whole space could enjoy it," said Jones.
"And that includes the performance," added Golfieri. "If performers have a good time ostage, it really travels to the audience, so that all the people in the space can have fun."
In a delicate way
Golfieri said that this show was very hard for everybody involved, including performers and the technical team, with many role changes and complicated settings.
According to Jones and Golfieri, the ending has not changed per se, but the story has been handled "in a delicate way," which plays down the tragic plot and opens a door to new possibilities.
Jones usually sits among the audience during the show. They said they can hear the kids asking questions: "Did she just die?" "Did she fall asleep?" Everyone knows something has happened to the little girl, but they have different guesses.
"For us, it is very important to open up possibilities and experiences for audiences, instead of something in the box. We don't say directly that this is how you should feel and how you should think. People can think all things about it," said Jones, "We just say: here it is."
Stage photo of The Little Match Girl
Cast of the play pose with local children who attended the performance in Shanghai. Photos: Chen Shasha/GT