Underlying Carlo Collodi’s 19th century tale about a puppet boy with a habit of lying one finds an urgent political message. Collodi was a political satirist and activist who argued passionately for Italian unification, who sought to shape a national identity and common values for a fractured society. Throughout Collodi’s serialized Adventures of Pinocchio, the citizen-in-training was censured for his irresponsibility and hedonism.
Disney stripped Collodi’s tale of its bloodier, more gruesome travails, and whittled his brash, hot-tempered protagonist into a softhearted, happy-go-lucky young hero. But the final message endured: rewards come to children who show respect for their elders, while suffering awaits those who hang out with the wrong crowd.
Director and choreographer Johane Casabene, together with Sarah Jane Zrinzo, Alison Bird, Deborah McNamara and Warren Bonello and other collaborators – Simona Mamo, Tracey Wisdom Galea, Alexander Spiteri, Delina Abdilla, Pauline Vella (costumes), Frank Boffa (set), Godfrey Mallia (props), Castillo hair for the hair, makeup by Mariella Aquilina, Rachel Gilford and Charmaine Pulis Hopkins and Nexos (lighting) – deliver a stunning production that deftly avoids the pablum of Disney and the extreme violence of Collodi, while retaining some of the darker elements of the story.
In Collodi’s original tale, for example, when Pinocchio first encounters the Cricket, he is annoyed by the Cricket’s moralizing and smashes him dead with a mallet. The Cricket’s ghost later surfaces to serve as Pinocchio’s conscience.
Casabene portrays the Cricket as a delightful gender reversal by the enchanting Francesca Cassar who acts as Pinocchio’s guardian, a duty assigned to her by the Fata Turchina.
This is a sophisticated retelling that succeeds where many ballet adaptations of fairy tales fail – captivating children with stage magic and engaging adults with nuanced portrayals of character and conflict.
One can simply be dazzled at the visual spectacle of the ensemble in full commedia finery, tethered by cables that hang from the flies. Or one can search for a deeper meaning as the commedia performers play out their petty trials, under the grip of Mangiafuoco the puppet-master.
The story opens in an enchanted forest when the magic spell is cast on the log which eventually becomes Pinocchio. From the village of Collodi we travel to Geppetto’s workshop, and later to the Paese dei Balocchi, where truant school children spend their days playing and eventually they sprout donkey ears and tails. Pinocchio is sold as a donkey to a circus master, and eventually drowns in the sea. The moral will be clear to the tiniest tot in the audience and adults alike.
Wit of the highest order is on display in the costuming. The rakish Cricket and her brigade sport shimmering bloomers, tunics that tail off like a phalaenopsis leaf, and tiny top hat topped with elongated antennae. Equally chic are the cunning Fox and Cat, the corps de ballet outfitted as villagers, puppets with Commedia dell’arte masks hand crafted specifically for the ballet from Venice, school children, forest nymphs, toy soldiers and the scores of actual children who swarm onstage as mice and cartwheeling clowns in toyland.
No less fantabulous are Frank Boffa’s sets and backdrops inspired by the village of Collodi itself, in autumn reds and bronzes, sea and sky undulating in ripples of blue and white.
The simplest of effects work like magic against these spectacular backdrops, moodily lit to convey tranquility, sadness, or a sense of menace. Balinese shadow puppetry illuminates Pinocchio’s braggadocio, his wooden nose lengthening as he boasts of his exploits to the Blue Fairy. Children costumed as mice and toy soldiers dance along the stage floor, adding magic to the story. Pinocchio plunges into the sea, floating over dancers who engulf him as if they were waves.
Throughout, the breathtaking music score of Italian composer Enrico Melozzi, imaginatively choreographed by Johane Casabene assisted by the JCDC teaching faculty.
The talented young boy Diego Mirabile will win the hearts of many in the role of Pinocchio. Gino Camilleri will be taking the role of Geppetto. Leonora Chircop, the Blue Fairy. Federica Nicastro as Fox and Martina Pace as the Cat, Joseph Julian Schembri as Maestro Ciliegia.
Pinocchio is a family performance with various elements that a broad audience will like. Translating the timeless tale of the puppet brought to life is no easy feat, but it’s one that Johane and her team have approached without hesitation. Pinocchio debuts on the Friday 22nd July at the Mediterranean Conference Centre and the performance will also be repeated in Gozo at the Aurora Theatre on Saturday 19th November 2016.
The source material, written by Carlo Collodi in 1883, tells a rather dark tale, some of which Johane has opted not to feature. “You can’t use everything from the story, so I had to omit a few situations. I did so to make the story a little bit lighter.” Nonetheless, the production still features some of the more morose scenes from the novel – one such scene sees Pinocchio carried in a coffin by four black rabbits, which the ballet production substitutes by the Rabbits bringing the medicine to Pinocchio, which if he does not take he will die.
Perhaps that which made the adaptation difficult is what has contributed to its beauty. The producer explains, “In a play, you can say certain things in one line. Here we have to transform it into a world of feelings and connections and meetings and harmonies in another way.” In this transformation from text to a performance piece, Johane has carefully selected the scenes that would be most striking for an audience. “I tried to choose the most danceable moments in the story. That’s the hard part of my job – to know how they should move in certain situations – whether it feels natural or not.”
Another innovative element is the narrator, Charles Sammut who will be interpreting the role of Collodi himself. In this way scenes which are not danced will be explained to the audience by the actor, who will be also giving some interesting facts about the story which will make the journey more interesting.
The result is a two hour production, which consists of 21 carefully choreographed scenes. In keeping with the original narrative and the performative nature of traditional ballet, the production hopes to strike a balance – that of telling the story whilst showing the emotional side of dancing.
So far, the production has harboured a collaborative process between choreographer, dancers, designers and the like. Rehearsals are well on their way and it seems like the performance will yield truly magical results.
Such projects encounter countless financial problems during the realization of the production. All support is needed to make these events possible and to help local talent to grow.
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