The Little Match Girl - A story that moves

Dance news - Lucie Dercsényiová


Christmas time is associated with fairy tales. At least in our country, it happens very strongly. During Advent, there is perhaps no theatre that does not put on a repertoire The Nutcracker. And if they don't give it out or you can't get a ticket, you can try your luck in a cinema showing foreign productions. But not all fairy tales end with a happy ending like this one, and one of the saddest is The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Andersen.

Like her heroine - a poor little girl - the writer himself found himself on the edge of society as a child. His mother worked as a laundress, his father was a shoemaker, and his sister worked for a time as a prostitute. At the age of 14, as a naive boy, he went to Copenhagen and, thanks to a few supporters, graduated from high school. He began writing in Odense and his first book was published in 1822. Andersen's work includes plays, poetry, prose and fairy tales, which have made him famous all over the world (he wrote 156 of them). Little Mermaid, whose heroine is almost a national symbol for the Danes, which is why her statue sits on a stone on the Langeline promenade in Copenhagen. John Neumeier also paid tribute to her when he danced this poignant tale of unrequited love with original music by Lera Auerbach with the San Francisco Ballet in 2011. Last month it was performed by the National Theatre Ballet Prague, choreographed by Jan Kodet, with music by Zbyněk Matějů.


On the cruelty of the world

In addition to his own life, Andersen drew inspiration from the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and Danish folk tales. His origins remained something of a traumatic threat to him - which explains his almost eccentric need for social and artistic recognition, his hypersensitivity to criticism and his indomitable persistence in his quest for success. Andersen was passionate about literature throughout his childhood. He was known for knowing Shakespeare's entire plays by heart and reciting them using his wooden dolls as characters. He then put his own sorrows, fears and hopes into the ones he wrote, and yet most of his stories don't have happy endings.


These include The Little Match Girltelling the story of a very poor girl who is afraid to go home without the money she has earned from selling matches.

We are at the end of the year and the girl has been outside all day, in the cold, very scantily clad and barefoot. In a futile attempt to warm herself up a little, she lights the first, second, third match in succession, and it seems to her that all around her is warmth, the smell of roast goose, and that her beloved grandmother is back. In the last moment of her life, she strikes a whole bunch of matches and sees her grandmother taking her with her to the next world. In the morning, passers-by find the dead girl huddled against the wall.

This touching story can also be seen as a moralistic fable about the cruelty of the world, evoking compassion for suffering beings. Therein lies its still-vivid message, which is conveyed in the new version Alena Peshkova performed on the small stage of the Malostranská beseda (in 2009 The Little Match Girl performed by the Bohemia Ballet in collaboration with Kasai Dancing Company and Company Theatre Bungeiza, Japan). The choreographer finds the limited stage possibilities a challenge, as we could see in 2011 in the dance horror Jessie and Morgiana. She is aware of the close proximity of the viewer finding himself face to face to the performers. This requires capturing the exact degree of expression in physical and facial expressions.

In order to make the story more compatible with the needs of a dance production, Pešková adapts Andersen's story to better transpose it into the language of dance, thus maintaining the dramaturgical flow of the three-quarter-hour performance. Therefore, she presents a prologue in which the heroine picks up a book on the cover of which the title of Andersen's fairy tale appears. The little girl opens it and becomes part of the sad narrative, which, moreover, is continuously illuminated by the guides He (Thomas Kopecký) and She (Alena Pešková) changing in individual scenes into a mother, a father, a governess, a ballet master and an angel.


Saddened silence

The girl lives her story, each time she covers her face with her hands, she enters one of her dreams. She goes back to memories of living with her mother, happy, carefree; she remembers her father, who, after her mother's death, indulges in alcohol and sends his poor daughter to sell matches at Christmas time. The girl ticks them off one by one - the first time she sees them, she imagines a cosy home, friends and a governess. In the light of the second, she finds herself in a ballet hall and imagines herself dancing. At the last striking of a match, she meets her mother. In the epilogue, a black angel places her in her arms, finding her curled up on the floor, frozen.

Alena Pešková makes the most of the given area defined not only by the subject but also by the real scenic location. This does not limit her, but encourages her to fill both the small stage space and the inner experience of the heroine. The little girl dances graceful Julie Petanova, technically and expressively disposed. She can convince of her suffering, pain and joys. Her physiognomy gives the character an even greater vulnerability, fragility and in some moments only her big eyes speak. She admirably handles the acting experience and expression of an unhappy being, beautiful inside and out. She is in close proximity to the audience, so finding the depth of feeling, maintaining the authenticity of expression, is not at all easy. The young Petanova's expression disarms with naturalness and spontaneity. The other girls Charlotte Andelová, Lucie Görner are doing well with their dance entrances. They are also technically proficient and have an aptitude for expression.

The choreographer has used the talent of the students of the Prague Conservatory who dance with gusto, so you can forgive them minor hesitations in the classical weaves on the tips. They are also danced by the author Alena Pešková herself, moving from role to role together with her colleague Tomáš Kopecky. They too resist the pitfalls of limited space, their duets are danced in a more neoclassical spirit, with interesting partnering and high lifts.

Pešková's dramaturgically well-constructed concept of the entire production takes us to different environments - these are followed by three mobile sets in an artistic shortcut depicting the environment of the first half of the 19th century. The five dancers enter them in period dress (only their father's white, black-striped trousers do not fit the artistic conception); a nostalgic feeling is evoked by the silently flying tiny snowflakes made of paper, which at certain moments the dancers take in their hands and sprinkle on the ground. Moreover, the choreographer knows how to work with expressive, eloquent arm gestures, stopping the dancers, which intensifies the tension and atmosphere, supported by the chosen musical collage. This consists of a selection of songs from Oskar Nedbal, composition and singing Gabriela Vermelhowith whom Pešková often and gladly collaborates (most recently a year ago in To the housewife's slave in Liberec, where he has been the head of the local ballet since 2010).


Christmas dance fairy tale The Little Match Girl evokes compassion and emotion not only thanks to the character of the main heroine - a contorted being enduring suffering, but also thanks to the directorial and dance input of the author of the new production staged under the banner of the Ultra-minimal-ballet group.


Written from the performance on 11 December 2016, Malostranská beseda.



The Little Match Girl
Libretto, direction and choreography by Alena Pešková
Music by Oskar Nedbal
Sets: Richard Pešek jr.
Costumes: Monika Kletečková and Alena Pešková
Premiere: 8 June 2016

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