Christopher Wheeldon’s Like Water for Chocolate for The Royal Ballet provides food for thought

United KingdomUnited Kingdom The Royal Ballet’s Like Water for Chocolate: Dancers of The Royal Ballet, Siân Griffiths (mezzo-soprano), Tomás Barreiro (guitar), Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Alondra de la Parra (conductor). Recorded (directed by Ross MacGibbon) at the Royal Opera House, Covent, Garden, 9.6.2022 and shown at Cineworld Basildon, Essex, 19.1.2023. (JPr)

Francesca Hayward (Tita) and Marcelino Sambé (Pedro) © Tristram Kenton

Choreography – Christopher Wheeldon
Scenario – Christopher Wheeldon and Joby Talbot (inspired by the book by Laura Esquivel)
Music – Joby Talbot (orchestrations by Ben Foskett)
Music consultant – Alondra de la Parra
Designer – Bob Crowley
Lighting designer – Natasha Katz
Video designer – Luke Halls

Cast included:
Tita – Francesca Hayward
Mama Elena – Laura Morera
Rosaura – Mayara Magri
Gertrudis – Meaghan Grace Hinkis
Pedro – Marcelino Sambé
Dr John Brown – Matthew Ball
Nacha – Christina Arestis
Juan Alejandrez – Cesar Corrales
Chencha – Isabella Gasparini
Jose – Joseph Sissens

As someone asking for ballet to be reinvigorated and not just recreated, I welcome Christopher Wheeldon’s new full-length Like Water for Chocolate more for its ambition rather than the result. It had its moments and clearly I suspect the closing pas de deux where the ballet’s two central characters [spoiler alert] are immolated by the flames of their passion was Wheeldon’s first choreographic inspiration for Like Water for Chocolate and then it was a matter of adding on the backstory and doing justice to Mexican writer Laura Esquivel’s original debut novel.

I have not read the 1989 book which has the same title nor seen the 1992 film, but I have read a detailed synopsis of the book and it seems that much (though not all) of its magic realism has not reached the stage and what we get is the CliffsNotes at best. Regardless it was little use Dame Darcey Bussell (introducing the ballet) holding up a two-page synopsis she said was available for audiences in cinemas when all we were given was one paragraph about the story and a QR code that possibly only the two people in the cinema who looked under 50 would know what to do with.

That paragraph was: Tita lives with her family on a ranch in Mexico. She falls in love with a boy, Pedro, who lives nearby, but when they want to marry, family tradition prevents it: Tita must remain unmarried in order to care for her mother [Mama Elena]. Tita’s love for cooking is such that her own emotions are transmitted to others through the food she prepares, and as her moods change in response to events in her life, the consequences for all those around her become ever more startling

Instead of a discussion with Kevin O’Hare, director of The Royal Ballet, it would have been good to spend five minutes detailing the entire story we would see unfold. Also, it would have helped had Wheeldon and composer Joby Talbot used more of a linear narrative beginning with what drove Tita’s mother to be so insistent on tradition and therefore cruel to her own daughter. We only see this in flashback when Mama Elena is on her deathbed and we see her own frowned upon youthful infatuation with her true love Jose who Elena’s brothers will eventually kill. Elena is then forced to marry someone else; just as she insists Pedro spurns Tita and marries her sister, Rosaura.

Marcelino Sambé (Pedro) © Tristram Kenton

The ballet begins with some spooky-looking Dia de los Muertos figures who are veiled and in white at first. They then turn and are in mourning black and are seen knitting at the rear of the stage. The opening scene showing Tita and the family cook, Nacha, kneading dough is interestingly staged and the story begins. The first act is a bit of a gallop through the ensuing events as Tita and Pedro’s childish friendship develops into the heady rush of young love when they get older. Mama Elena intervenes and so the magic – such as it is – begins as the tears from the inconsolable Tita fall into the ingredients for Pedro and Rosaura’s wedding cake and when Nacha tastes it she is so overcome with grief for her own lost love that she dies and her spirit rises from her body to haunt the rest of what we see. Later all the wedding guests will be overcome by the sadness and memories of those they have loved and lost.

Pedro gave a rose from the wedding bouquet to Tita as a token of his true love. Tita is filled with wonder at being able to nurse Rosaura’s baby, Roberto, when she cannot and at the evening meal quail – with added rose petals – causes an outbreak of (mimed) projectile vomiting whilst sending Tita’s other sister, Gertrudis, into a state of erotic delirium culminating in her making love on the back of a revolutionary soldier’s – War Horse-style – steed. Tita and Pedro are also overcome with passion but are interrupted by Mama Elena who demands Pedro, Rosaura and Roberto leave. (Streaming glitches meant we lost the next scene when Roberto dies and a fragile, distraught Tita is put in the care of the family doctor, John Brown.)

The other two acts are rather more straightforward and basically lead to the release of Mama Elena’s hold on Tita, even when she is a ghost – who looks rather like Carabosse in Sleeping Beauty – and (literally) towers over Tita to try and create further obstacles to her future happiness. Tita has been nursed back to health by Dr John who declares his love for her and they become engaged. At their celebratory dinner she has an intense encounter with Pedro and their coitus is interrupted when they are haunted by Mama Elena, however when she is confronted with her own diary – revealing her love for Jose – Tita is now free. However, Mama Elena’s ghost is visible to Pedro who has a heart attack. The ballet ends when Pedro’s health improves but Rosaura’s is now failing because she is wracked with jealousy. Their second child, Esperanza, now plays with Dr John’s son, Alex, in the same way Tita and Pedro did when young. Rosaura tries to control Esperanza just as her mother treated Tita but she dies in her daughter’s arms. Twenty years later, Esperanza and Alex are to marry and that is when Tita and Pedro are reunited.

There is drama aplenty here, but Wheeldon (familiar from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Winter’s Tale for The Royal Ballet) certainly seems to be promoting his credentials to (re-)choreograph any new West Side Story should the opportunity arise as he keeps punctuating the story for yet another exuberant fiesta. (There are hints of folk dances though without anything looking particularly traditional.) Like Water for Chocolate is a co-production with the American Ballet Theatre and looks to have been created with Broadway in mind especially when he has Gertrudis strip down to her unitard and engage in a floorshow with several bare-chested chorus boys straight from musical theatre. This is before she gets carried away – in more senses than one – on the back of the soldier Juan Alejandrez’s horse. I do wish Wheeldon had reigned in some of the incessant movement for more moments of stillness so the dancers might have externalised their feelings – passionate clinches notwithstanding – without all the gesticulating and emoting. There is a lot of ‘ography’, involving marriage ribbons, arms, legs, feet and even chairs.

Then, of course, there is that final incandescent – and brilliant – pas de deux exquisitely danced by Francesca Hayward’s Tita and Marcelino Sambé’s Pedro. (Its gymnastics to the haunting ‘Sunstone’ sung by Siân Griffiths to Octavio Paz’s words owed much to Kenneth MacMillan and Rudolf Nureyev.) Hayward conveyed an emotional fragility appropriate for the role and would have benefitted with more to work with dramatically. There was a compelling natural ease to all Hayward did which probably made this the best I have seen her dance. Marcelino Sambé struggled to repress his impressive virtuosity as the bereft Pedro but there was genuine chemistry between him and Hayward. Laura Morera excelled as the mother from hell and clearly relished her spectral visitations in the later acts. Nobody caught the eye more than Cesar Corrales (probably The Royal Ballet’s most exciting dancer) whose lightning speed and bravura power was jaw-dropping in his all-too-brief cameo as Juan Alejandrez. Meaghan Grace Hinkis revelled in her showgirl moment in the spotlight as Gertrudis whilst Mayara Magri and Matthew Ball did their best with the little they were given as the envious Rosaura and the loyal Dr John Brown. Christina Arestis was the devoted Nacha, more of a mother to Tita than Mama Elena, and the rest of the company also danced extremely well and were 100% committed to Wheeldon’s vision.

Thanks to Luke Halls’s video and Natasha Katz’s lighting, Bob Crowley’s designs showed what can be done to show changes of place and time without needing solid (and more expensive?) sets. Crowley’s work was apparently influenced by the Mexican architect Luis Barragán and showcased his frequently colourful costumes.  Joby Talbot’s original score was suitably vibrant, if slightly repetitive. Mexican conductor Alondra de la Parra (who acted as music consultant) led the orchestra – enhanced by two specialist percussionists, flautist Eliza Marshall and guitarist Tomás Barreiro (who also helped the composer and conductor with Mexican musical influences) – in a performance full of rhythmic zest.

Like Water for Chocolate was enthralling to see once but I wouldn’t want to see it again. How revivable the full ballet is only time will tell but the concluding pas de deux could certainly live on as a showstopper for any gala.

Jim Pritchard

Leave a Comment