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ABT’s Muy Caliente Gala

Until American Ballet Theatre’s premiere of Christopher Wheeldon’s “Like Water for Chocolate,” my first thought upon leaving a ballet gala had never before been: “well that was hot.” ABT has found its new Valentine’s Day programming. Debbie Downers “Romeo and Juliet” and “Swan Lake” can take a rest. Spoiler alert: the star-crossed lovers in “Like Water for Chocolate” also perish together in the last scene, but the effect is, well, different. After decades of longing, Tita and Pedro are finally free to consummate their desire, and their love is so profound that at the point of climax they erupt in flames—their bed beautifully engulfed in fiery projections by Luke Halls. Though their earthly bodies are lost to the conflagration, their souls ascend to an astral plane, united for all eternity. Principal dancers Cassandra Trenary and Herman Cornejo, nearly nude, floated up into the clouds in a Kama Sutra-like tangle as the curtain fell. Ahem.


American Ballet Theatre: Christopher Wheeldon’s “Like Water for Chocolate”


Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Centre, New York, NY, June 22, 2023


Faye Arthurs

Cassandra Trenary and Herman Cornejo in “Like Water for Chocolate” by Christopher Wheeldon. Photograph by Marty Sohl

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Christopher Wheeldon’s choreographic breakout was the abstract, post-Balanchinian “Polyphonia” for the New York City Ballet in 2001, yet his penchant for theatrics and inventive partnering often places him more squarely in the mold of Kenneth MacMillan, his fellow Brit and Royal Ballet forebear. In Wheeldon’s choice of full-length subject matter—“Alice in Wonderland,” “The Winter’s Tale,” and now Laura Esquivel’s 1989 novel, “Like Water for Chocolate”—Wheeldon has surpassed the master. I’ve complained before about MacMillan’s acrobatic pas de deux not aligning with the physical trajectories of his characters in realist narratives like “Manon.” (A woman drawing her last breaths should not be tossed and caught like a trapeze artist!) Esquivel’s magical realism, on the other hand, is an ideal vehicle for sensational ballet pas de deux. And why not? Fairy tales are the basis for the best of the narrative full-lengths. Pointe shoes are uncanny footwear; they signify the otherworldliness of swan-women, sylphs, sugarplums, firebirds, and wilis. Esquivel’s fever dream of passion-laced cooking and vengeful ghosts was well-served by the artform. 

Unfortunately, the ballet was overserved by Esquivel’s byzantine plot machinations. I recently rewatched the 1992 film, directed by Alfonso Arau, and I was glad for the refresher. The gentleman next to me opted to skip the 1,100-word synopsis in the program, and his intermission guesses about what was happening were amusing and wildly off-base. It bears dragging out the Balanchine witticism again: “There are no mothers-in-law in ballet.” Yet “Water for Chocolate” featured a terrific Christine Shevchenko as the ghost of Mama Elena, towering 10 feet in the air on a rolling platform in a bride-of-Frankenstein wig, haunting her daughter to distraction and palming the head of her son-in-law to cause his heart to fail.  Narratively, Wheeldon bit off an awful lot, but he mostly chewed it. It required a long, 3-hour run time, but he did justice to Esquivel’s multigeneration-spanning story.    

Christine Shevchenko in “Like Water for Chocolate” by Christopher Wheeldon. Photograph by Marty Sohl

In that respect, this year’s gala reminded me a lot of last year’s, which featured Alexei Ratmansky’s “Of Love and Rage”—another ballet that deftly handled a hot narrative mess. But there was a key difference between these complex tales: the “Love and Rage” plot mattered not a whit—one could ignore the whos and the whys and focus on the spectacle and the dancing feats. In fact, it was best to do so. “Water for Chocolate,” in contrast, lived or died by its storytelling. And in so faithfully adhering to the full scope of the source material, “Water for Chocolate” was borderline a silent film at times. I wish Wheeldon had been less faithful, but the extensive pantomime was well-crafted. Many characters had their own choreographic motifs: Tita’s tormented knots, Rosaura’s peptic lurching, and Mama Elena’s long struts on pointe—as if she was willfully disconnected from earthiness, in denial of her daughters’ primal desires. Some characters had specific instrumentation in Joby Talbot’s pretty, Mexican-inflected score—like evil Mama Elena’s association with the bean pod shaker, which evoked a rattlesnake. But I wanted less expository gestures and stolen glances and more danced emotional catharses. The best moments were those in which the heroine’s magically charged food incited a torrent of passion through full-bodied movement—as in the fatally nostalgic batter-tasting solo of Nacha, the family cook (a tender Luciana Paris).       

There needed to be more such solos. Conversely, there were also too few large tableaux scenes. Wheeldon extracted maximum value from the ones he had, however—like the hilarious barf-o-rama wedding. I also enjoyed when Shevchenko threw off her shroud and rose from her funeral bier to enact Mama Elena’s secret, tragic history with a ghostly corps of men. Catherine Hurlin and Carlos Gonzalez brilliantly led a rambunctious fiesta of Mexican revolutionaries that served as the biggest group dance—and only bravura display—in the ballet. Hurlin, sensational as Tita’s sister Gertrudis, also stole Act I. After eating Tita’s erotically infused dish, quail in rose petal sauce, Gertrudis had a sexual awakening that began at the dinner table and ended with her climbing, pseudo-naked, onto the lap of a passing revolutionary soldier on a giant mechanical steed for a bucking, orgasmic exit. It was wonderfully over-the-top. She’s ready for a spinoff; maybe Wheeldon should adapt Tom Robbins’s “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues” next. (“Skinny Legs and All” would also befit ballerina gams...) 

Catherine Hurlin in “Like Water for Chocolate” by Christopher Wheeldon. Photograph by Marty Sohl

But though Esquivel’s magic was a perfect fit for Wheeldon’s expert stagecraft, “Water for Chocolate” is essentially a domestic drama that takes place in a cramped kitchen, making the ballet too small-scale and subtle at times. I was glad I brought my opera glasses, even in orchestra seating. Perhaps that is why so many story ballets focus on royals. They come with built-in, yet anonymous, entourages to fill out every scene. (Come to think of it, maybe Wheeldon should tackle “The Crown,” or Prince Harry’s “Spare”!) Wheeldon added volume to “Water for Chocolate” wherever he could, most ingeniously in the creepy lineup of brides that opened the ballet. These identical women in white turned around and became old ladies in black mourning dresses (the wonderful sets and costumes were by Bob Crowley). They sat at the back of the stage or loomed high above it, knitting throughout much of the production. Their presence demonstrated the legacy and power of storytelling in Mexican culture—a particularly female power. They brought Toni Morrison’s conspiratorial, gossipy phrase “quiet as it’s kept,” to mind. 

But even when the scenes felt big enough for the Met Opera stage, there was just too much story to cover. There weren’t any pure dance divertissements, plot was always necessarily churning. During the fiesta, for example, you had to split your focus between the dancing horde and the love triangle negotiations of Tita, Pedro, and Dr. John Brown (an elegant Thomas Forster) on the sidelines. The penultimate “Three Rooms” scene featured a triptych of competing storylines, which taxingly trifurcated audience attention. A more streamlined story would’ve helped throughout. Did we really need baby Roberto? Though I have to say, I was tickled to see a passage about the joys of breastfeeding in a ballet. 

The celebration of femininity and the glorification of the domestic sphere were the most exciting aspects of “Water for Chocolate” to me. Breastfeeding, cooking, knitting, child-rearing, female arousal—these are not typical story ballet themes. Food and motherhood are anathema to real-world ballerina stereotypes too. And though, like so many ballet heroines before her, Tita was initially trapped and powerless, she became brave enough to defy the ghost of her abusive mother and to choose whether to give her heart to a friend (Dr. Brown) or a lover (Pedro) on her own terms. Online, there seemed to be a backlash brewing about the fact that this erotic, womanly, Mexican tale was being told by white British men. Wheeldon smartly got out in front of that, framing his creation as a poetic abstraction and a piece of fan art. He highlighted the behind-the-scenes involvement of several women as well. Alondra de la Parra consulted on the score and beautifully conducted it. Alicia Rodis served as intimacy director. And Esquivel herself campaigned for and attended the gala, taking the final bow of the production team. 

Coincidentally, ABT has a new, female Artistic Director, former ballerina Susan Jaffe. Since taking over, she has been forthright about her intent to focus on story ballets. “Like Water for Chocolate,” then, is expedient for kickstarting this mission, as it necessitates convincing dramatics to succeed—particularly in its central love story. Tito and Pedro’s sexual tension is tantalizingly prolonged while a cacophony of subplots run interference. It requires intense performances to keep it afloat over three hours. On opening night, Trenary and Cornejo very much delivered. Cornejo’s charisma has been a not-so-secret weapon for ABT for 25 years. And though he desperately needed a solo passage or ten, he didn’t fade into the background like he could have in his decades of being married to the wrong sister on the outskirts of the culinary action. 

Pedro is a bit of a tool in the film too. “Like Water for Chocolate” is, above all, a story about strong women, and the exquisite Trenary was the lustily throbbing heart of the show. She was compelling even when sitting and reading her dead mother’s journal at the side of the stage. I wasn’t surprised, as she blew the rest of the all-star cast out of the water with her languorous sex-appeal in Twyla Tharp’s “Nine Sinatra Songs” at City Center last fall. If Jaffe is to restore dramatic heft to the classics (and I’ve seen many technically dazzling, yet emotionally uninvolved “Swan Lakes,” “Sleeping Beauties,” etc. at ABT in recent years), Trenary should factor in hugely. She has the gifts of the great dancer-actresses of Jaffe’s era and before. I’d bet that “Water for Chocolate” will factor in too. It’s got flaws, but its unconventional subject matter and ribald silliness was a welcome departure from the norm. I don’t know if it will soar as high with different casting, but in the right hands, it certainly gives off a lot of heat.              

Faye Arthurs

Faye Arthurs is a former ballet dancer with New York City Ballet. She chronicled her time as a professional dancer in her blog Thoughts from the Paint. She graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. in English from Fordham University. She lives in Brooklyn with her partner and their sons.


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