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Like Water for Chocolate

Posted on June 13, 2022

Like Water For Chocolate 08 06 22 Royal Ballet ROH 1498 Main

Returning to The Royal Ballet with years of international success in ballet and musical theatre to his credit, Christopher Wheeldon has created a wonderful three-act show for the company but not a very good ballet. It’s based on Laura Esquivel’s popular Mexican novel Like Water for Chocolate, a fable of love and food that blends folklore, magic realism, romance, a country and many women struggling for independence, several deaths and some enticing recipes.

Not content transferring only a portion of that material to the stage, Wheeldon set out to do it all. Maybe his eyes were too big for his stomach, or he bit off more than he could comfortably chew. Maybe his experience as the director/choreographer of An American in Paris on Broadway and with the ballet fantasy Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland sold him on the powerful impact of elaborate production values. Whatever prompted his reasoning, his new choreography plays second fiddle to Bob Crowley’s set and costumes designs, Luke Hall’s video designs and a raft of technical effects involving animatronics, “person flying,” and steel wire ropes among other things.

Photographs: Yasmine Naghdi and Cesar Corrales in Like Water For Chocolate, photos by Tristram Kenton, courtesy of the Royal Opera House.

The programme contains a four-page synopsis detailing both the complicated story and the characters’ thoughts, and words regularly projected on the scrim signpost the passage of time. Nevertheless, during the intervals the women beside me carefully rehashed what they’d seen in an attempt to make sense of it after the fact. “Who came out of the coffin?” asked one. “How did that meal turn into a nightclub?” asked the other. “Were there really nightclubs in Mexico in… when is it, 1910?”

The ballet begins with a stunning coup de théâtre, a row of masked brides in white who pivot to become mourners robed in black. It ends with the young lovers, united at last, hoisted from their bed and dangling mid-air. In between, the action includes real, projected and dancing rose petals; an all-consuming projected fire; an articulated horse on a rolling platform; a ghost on casters that materialises during one scene in several locations; and the recorded sound of a bawling baby.

What about the choreography amid all this technology? Wheeldon assigned most of the dramatic narrative to realistic behaviour and naturalistic mime – shuddering shoulders convey crying, hands slap the floor to indicate fury – which left the performers to define their roles… well, like actors. The cast I saw carried that off admirably – Yasmine Naghdi and Cesar Corrales in the leading roles of Tita and Pedro, Fumi Kaneko as Tita’s controlling mother and Claire Calvert and Meaghan Grace Hinkis as her other two daughters – by giving the choreography more character than it offered them.

Lively and well organised, the few group dances came as welcome relief from the steady flow of bland steps and overwrought gestures, as did Pedro’s solo of desperate yearning and Mama Elena’s solo of stabbing bitterness. Yet most of the big moments were merely mimed, and the various angry and teasing and passionate pas de deux, for all their contorted lifts and interlocking limbs, looked interchangeable.

Without an opportunity to applaud until the very end, the audience erupted as the curtain fell on the matinée I attended, and all the remaining performances are nearly sold out, with a top price of £115. I wouldn’t be surprised, however, if Wheeldon’s latest disappoints those who go to the ballet for expressive dancing rather than spectacular stagecraft.

Barbara Newman’s books about ballet include Grace under Pressure; The Illustrated Book of Ballet Stories for children; a volume of interviews, Striking a Balance, and its follow-up, Never Far from Dancing. She has written for Dancing Times since 1984 and served as the dance critic for Country Life from 1990 to 2016. She archives all her work at

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