Like Water For Chocolate

Christopher Wheeldon has all the talents a choreographer needs: the ability to make interesting dance, an excellent theatrical eye and skill at putting together first-class teams of professionals to support his vision. His back catalogue is certainly not without its misfires, but he has produced some magnificent work, especially in the area of full-length ballets: his Alice in Wonderland, The Winters’ Tale and, to a lesser extent, Cinderella, are worthy additions to any repertoire, as are many of his one-act ballets. Taking on the magical realism and multi-faceted characters of Laura Esquivel’s novel Like Water for Chocolate might seem a near-impossible task, but Wheeldon has, on the whole, risen to the challenge.

The English title comes from the Spanish phrase como agua para chocolate, referring to the boiling water used, in many Latin American countries, to make hot chocolate, rather than hot milk as in most of Europe. The expression is used to signify deeply felt ‘boiling over’ emotion, and the central theme of the novel is the intensity of the love that Tita (youngest of three sisters), bears for her childhood playmate, Pedro. A family tradition, fiercely enforced by Tita’s cruel mother, Elena, dictates that the youngest daughter will not marry, but will care for her mother until her death. When Pedro’s father asks for Tita’s hand for his son, Elena refuses but offers her eldest, Rosaura, instead. Pedro accepts in order to stay close to Tita, but she is devastated. Her suffering expresses itself through her cooking, learned from her much-loved childhood carer, Nacha. When she cries into the wedding cake her tears cause overwhelming sadness to those who eat it; Nacha, sampling the basic mixture, is overcome with grief for her dead fiancé and breathes her last, curled up on the kitchen table. The wedding guests, consuming the finished cake, find their melancholy expressing itself as severe digestive problems. When Tita serves the family quail with a rose-petal sauce, made with the petals from the rose Pedro gave her at the wedding, the erotic thoughts she had while making it transmit themselves, resulting in an extreme case of lustfulness in her sister Gertrudis, who runs off to join a bordello, with a graphic episode on horseback with revolutionary leader Juan on the way.

Meanwhile, Rosaura is unable to feed her newborn son, Roberto. Magic intervenes again and Tita finds that her virgin body can produce breast milk to feed him. He begins to thrive, but Elena, sensing the relationship between Tita and Pedro, sends Pedro away with Rosaura and the baby, who, separated from Tita, later dies. A violent confrontation between Tita and Elena, each blaming the other for the baby’s death, leads to Tita’s complete emotional collapse, and Elena declares that she will not have an ‘insane’ person in her house. Dr John is summoned to take Tita to an asylum, but decides instead to take her to his home in Texas, where she can rest and recover. A mutual affection develops between Tita and John; she does not love him as he loves her, but craving security and peace, and genuinely fond of him, she accepts his marriage proposal.

The family reunites at the funeral of Mama Elena. Tita finds her mother’s diary and sees a vision of her mother as a young girl, passionately in love with a young man called José. Her parents forbid the match and marry Elena to Tita’s father. She tries to run away with José but he is killed by Elena’s brothers-in-law.

Pedro is driven to distraction with jealousy when Dr John announces that he and Tita are engaged. In a moment alone together, Pedro declares his love once more, and their passion for each other summons the ghost of Mama Elena, terrifying Tita. Elena is also present at the fiesta the following day for the revolutionary soldiers, under the command of Gertrudis, who has married Juan. Taunted by her mother’s ghost, visible only to her, Tita is overcome by guilt and tells John that she cannot marry him as she has lost her virginity to Pedro. John, sad but resigned, forgives her, and she joins in the joyful dancing crowd, until Elena’s ghost returns: Tita confronts her with the diary, breaking her mother’s hold over her. Elena reveals herself to Pedro, causing his heart to fail.

Dr John and Tita nurse Pedro and Rosaura, who is rapidly declining from digestive problems fed by jealousy, and care for John’s son Alex (from his previous marriage) and Rosaura’s daughter Esperanza. Rosaura is determined to maintain the family tradition: Esperanza is the youngest (only) daughter and will sacrifice marriage to care for her mother. She repeatedly separates the youngsters but eventually her ill health overwhelms her and she dies.

Twenty years later, after the wedding of Alex and Esperanza, Pedro and Tita are at last alone at the homestead. In their final act of passion, their bodies ignite from within and they ascend beyond mortal life.

Wheeldon worked closely with Esquivel and has retained the emotional essence of the book and its sense of magical realism, but had I not recently re-read it and watched the movie, I don’t believe I would have had a chance of following all the details. Many choreographers rely on programme notes, as here; others, such as Matthew Bourne, recognise the clear telling of the story as the choreographer’s own job. Like Water for Chocolate is a complex novel and difficult to translate into pure dance; there are many moments that Wheeldon handles beautifully, others that are muddled.

Scenically, the pared-back sets and design features by Bob Crowley are perfect, conveying the heat and colour of the country. Joby Talbot’s score, orchestrated by Ben Foskett, is filmically lush, dynamic and nuanced, and as always Wheeldon responds to it symbiotically; less traditionally tuneful than say, The Winter’s Tale, it still thrills with its swoops and falls, and I enjoyed the subtle folk elements produced in consultation with Alondra de la Parra, who also conducts.

The ballet could not have been better served by the cast. Francesca Hayward and Marcelino Sambé were born to play Tita and Pedro. Hayward is simply sublime as Tita, and doesn’t shrink from overlaying her sweet-natured kindness with deeply felt erotic yearning. She dances from the heart, emotion flooding through her movement and her acting. Sambé, especially when dancing alone, digs into the character of Pedro to imbue his classical bravura steps with fire, and his love for Tita burns palpably in their pas de deux. Laura Morera is spectacular (this is the only word) as Mama Elena, her internal rage and bitterness contorting her features to make them ugly, her dancing driven by hatred and frustration. Cesar Corrales stole every scene he appeared in, as Juan the revolutionary leader, getting right inside the character and bringing dynamism to each individual movement. The elegant Matthew Ball is perfect in the role of the good doctor, dancing superbly. Mayara Magri brings desperation to the role of Rosaura: we can clearly see the exploited woman scrabbling to maintain a sense of personal dignity. Joseph Sissens impressed as Elena’s early love, José, and Christina Arestis is very good as Nacha, who continues to guide Tita after death.

All in all, quite a cast, but the biggest surprise was Anna Rose O’Sullivan in the graphically libidinous role of Gertrudis. O’Sullivan adds lustre to all her roles, but here she is quite astounding, throwing caution to the winds and immersing herself in Gertrudis’s discovery of her body. Ripping off her clothes, exposing only a brief shimmering leotard to cover (just) her modesty, she writhes and cavorts at the centre of a group of men, who are dressed, somewhat disconcertingly, like Orientalist Spectres de la Rose. The lovely legs and feet stab with yearning at each man, and her eyes seem to burn with lust—not what we are accustomed to seeing in her usual roles but absolutely in tune with the character, and unforgettably well portrayed.

The cheers and standing ovations at the end of the performance (not least for Esquivel herself, brought onstage by Wheeldon) testify to many revivals ahead. Do go and see it—there are so many gleamingly lovely moments, especially the final pas de deux, which is simply gorgeous—but do read the programme attentively before curtain-up.

World Premiere
2 June 2022
The Royal Ballet
Royal Opera House, London

Like Water For Chocolate
Ballet in Three Acts
Inspired by the book
by Laura Esquivel

Choreography Christopher Wheeldon
Scenario Christopher Wheeldon and Joby Talbot
Music Joby Talbot © 2022 Chester Music Ltd
Orchestrations Ben Foskett
Designer Bob Crowley
Lighting designer Natasha Katz
Video designer Luke Halls
Associate costume designer Lynette Mauro
Associate set designer Jaimie Todd
Assistants to the choreographer Jacquelin Barrett, Jason Fowler

Tita Francesca Hayward
Mama Elena Laura Morera
Rosaura Mayara Magri
Gertrudis Anna Rose O’Sullivan
Pedro Marcelino Sambé
Dr John Brown Matthew Ball
Nacha Christina Arestis
Juan Alejandrez Cesar Corrales
Don Pasqual Gary Avis
Chencha Isabella Gasparini
Nacha’s Former Lover Harris Bell
José Joseph Sissens
Elena’s Mother Annette Buvoli
Elena’s Father Bennet Gartside
Elena’s Brothers Tomas Mock, Kevin Emerton
Juan De La Garza Lukas B. Brændsrød
Esperanza Taesha Patterson (child), Marianna Tsembenhoi,
Alex Billy Tucker (child), Harrison Lee
Priest Philip Mosley

Ranch Workers
Ashley Dean, Leticia Dias, Mariko Sasaki, Ginevra Zambon, Téo Dubreuil, Benjamin Ella, Calvin Richardson, Joseph Sissens

Brides, Revolutionary Soldiers and Wedding Guests
Artists of The Royal Ballet
Students of The Royal Ballet School appear by kind permission of the Artistic Director Christopher Powney