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Sunday, June 16, 2024

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PerformanceStage ReviewIn 'Match Girrl,' Dance Brigade lights up a world...

In ‘Match Girrl,’ Dance Brigade lights up a world of inequality

Taking off from Hans Christian Anderson's tale of poverty and abuse, while banging on the McMansion gates

There’s something particularly grating when one flaw comes close to ruining an entire work. Performing arts are a collaborative process: No matter how much one person may get credit (deserved or not), they owe a lot to the collaborators in their immediate vicinity, to say nothing of the audience providing invaluable feedback. 

Dance Brigade’s new piece, Match Girrl (world premiere through January 28 at Dance Mission Theater, SF) has so much going for it that I spent the majority of its 85-minute runtime thanking the theatre gods that this was the first show I saw this year. It’s a well-choreographed, socially-conscious, visceral piece of SF rebel yelling. Of its 75 minutes, 74 of them are right on the money.

It’s that one lone minute that threatens to knock the train off the rails.

Before the show begins, the freestanding set piece by Lisa Calderon piques one’s interest. It’s an iron gate, not too far removed from the kind one might find surrounding the McMansions of Atherton. Sure enough, our poverty-stricken cast—whose wardrobe dances that classic SF line between “boho chic” and “I can only afford thrift” (where I personally buy most of my clothing)—will spend a great many times trying and failing to scale the gates of this unidentified affluent residence, only to constantly fall like Mario getting hit with a barrel by Donkey Kong. That’s when they’re not moving the gate out of the way to make way for life-draining office desks.

As the title suggests, the piece takes loose inspiration from the Hans Christian Anderson story The Little Match Girl. For those unfamiliar: A cold winter’s night finds a poverty-stricken girl trying and failing to sell matches to passers-by on the snow-covered streets. It’s clear that no one is buying, but the girl doesn’t want to return home empty-handed to her abusive father. With little else to do, she begins lighting the matches to keep warm—the glow of each one providing a pleasant memory to warm her spirit, if not her body. If you’re familiar with the non-Disney take on Anderson’s work, you’ll know that the story doesn’t exactly have a happy ending. (Spoiler: she soon runs out of matches.)

Dance Brigade’s ‘Match Girrl.’ Photo by Tony Abello

Dance Brigade’s piece also finds its performers lighting matches onstage to transport them into comforting visuals. One scene early on finds the particular match-lighter cruising into a biker chick fantasy set to Daniel Johnston’s “Speeding Motorcycle.” Though the piece seems to abandon Anderson’s story by the end, the entire show is a meditation on class struggles set to a Sofia Coppola-like use of pop music. (It includes both Enya’s “Boadicea” and The Fugees’ “Ready or Not”, which famously sampled the former.)

It seems to begin at the 2008 financial collapse, frequently integrating audio of the money-bro douchebags from The Big Short. Projections on the upstage wall jump back-and-forth from footage of the de-regulating capitalists that put us in this mess (Reagan, Clinton, etc.) to the all-too-familiar sight of tents along the streets of San Francisco. All the while, choreography by Fredrika Keefer and Bianca Mendoza-Prado turns our unnamed, all-femme cast into visceral spirits of poverty, magic, regret, and joy in a world ravaged by inequality and environmental devastation. They give the dancers a synchronicity that would be at home for the videos of one of these songs, along with allowing each one to define themselves through movement. 

Oddly enough, I feel like using the term “jukebox ballet” to describe how the show’s throwback playlist is successfully woven into a heart-breaking narrative of a wealth gap that seems to grow wider with each passing minute. With no credited writer, the show is listed as the creation of director Krissy Keefer, who outright abandons subtlety with sequences showing the bourgeoisie in ball gowns tossing pennies at the peasants who perform for their amusement. It all works and keeps great pace.

Dance Brigade’s ‘Match Girrl.’ Photo by Tony Abello

Then comes the aforementioned one minute. During a spoken series of monologues, the dancers lament everything from the crippling power of addiction to the fact that SF has more billionaire residents than any other place on Earth… all true enough. Where it goes wrong is when one cast member, a Black woman, exposits a baseless conspiracy theory that COVID was just a false flag to not address addiction in the Black community, and that those dying of COVID are really just addicts who weren’t treated.

That’s not only untrue, it’s dangerous in its misinformation. We’ve officially crossed the four-year threshold of this ongoing pandemic, but Keefer (whose Director’s Notes also refer to the pandemic in the past tense) and her collaborators briefly indulge in the sort of gross misinfo keeping people from getting updated vaccinations or masking during the second-largest surge yet.

Not only that, but the minute spent on this tinfoil-hat rant could easily be dropped without changing anything about the entire piece. The materials define Match Girrl as a work-in-progress, so one can only hope that Dance Brigade remove this harmful lie before the piece’s next iteration.

In regard to COVID safety: Dance Mission Theater rolled back their safety measures last year, leaving the job of masking to the individual. On opening night, I’d say that roughly 1/3 of the audience masked, myself included. CO² levels on my Aranet4 peaked around 1743ppm by the final bow, which is neither the best nor worst reading I’ve ever taken.

Dance Mission staged one of the last shows I saw in 2023, and it was a good one, in spite of its flaws. Match Girrl is the first show I’ve seen in 2024, and, as a work-in-progress, the one thing holding it back is one minute of horrific dialogue that does a damaging disservice to the 74 minutes surrounding it. Luckily, there’s an easy fix. The real hope is that this sort of dangerous mistake isn’t repeated.

MATCH GIRRL’s world premiere runs through January 28 at the Dance Mission Theater, SF. Tickets and further info here.

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Charles Lewis III
Charles Lewis III
Charles Lewis III is a San Francisco-born journalist, theatre artist, and arts critic. You can find dodgy evidence of this at thethinkingmansidiot.wordpress.com

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