On a bleak New York afternoon in 1993, Tony-winning choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, captivated by the title Like Water for Chocolate, slipped into a movie theatre to watch the Mexican film directed by Alfonso Arau. He, like many, fell under its spell. Soon after its 1992 release, the acclaimed movie became the highest-grossing foreign-language film in the United States.
Mexican writer Laura Esquivel’s poignant romance Like Water for Chocolate describes a family saga spanning generations, centered on the frustrated love affair between protagonists Tita de la Garza and Pedro Múzquiz and the alchemy of food. The much-loved novel is interwoven with recipes for such emblematic dishes as poblano chiles in walnut sauce. It proved a harbinger of growing international interest in Mexican food— some 20 years later, traditional Mexican cuisine was inscribed on the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
The movie and book sparked Wheeldon’s interest in Mexico. Travel there crystallized a love for the country and its culture. He traveled widely, visiting distinctly different states as Jalisco and Oaxaca, the Yucatán peninsula, and cosmopolitan Mexico City. Wheeldon also made deep and lasting friendships, including with the Mexican conductor Alondra de la Parra. De la Parra introduced him to Esquivel and the idea of a ballet based on Like Water for Chocolate was born. Composer Joby Talbot and designer Bob Crowley, Wheeldon’s collaborators on the earlier full-length ballets Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (2011) and The Winter’s Tale (2014), joined him on the project.
As part of research for the ballet, a co-production between American Ballet Theatre and The Royal Ballet (running through July 1), Wheeldon, Talbot, who fashioned the scenario with Wheeldon, and Crowley made trips to Mexico City. Because of the nature of the story and dimension of magical realism, it became evident early on that the aim would not be to put Mexico on stage, but rather to find a distillation—to determine, as Wheeldon says, “how to create a poetic abstraction of Mexican ideas, colors, and sounds in order to tell the story.”
On a visit to the vast National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, Talbot took a break from the pre-Columbian collections, rested on a bench in the museum’s plaza, where he heard an otherworldly sound emanating from among reeds in a pool. It was, in fact, a recording of an ocarina, a type of ceramic flute, popular since Aztec times.
De la Parra, who served as consultant for the ballet, suggested adding the ocarina and other indigenous instruments—a teponaztli orlog drum, the single-headed drum known as a huéhuetl, a bean pod shaker rattle, and the cedar flute. Prominent use of the marimba and harp, also characteristic of Mexican popular music, enhanceTalbot’s ballet score. Listeners hear a colorful world of sound, one requiring, at times, six percussionists and timpanist.
The guitar is at its heart, and is performed, on stage and in the pit, by Mexican guest artist Tomás Barreiro.
Set and costume designer Bob Crowley was drawn to the architecture of Luis Barragán, the influential twentieth-century Mexican architect whose houses and fountains are found in Mexico City. Barragán’s striking design of broad geometrical planes created from stucco, timber beams, or water; saturated colors, pink, blue, orange, rusty red; and play of light and shadow, is notable for the quietude and enchantment it inspires.The suspended beams of Crowley’s set—spare and elegant—variously define the stage, stressing a distant horizon or drawing the perspective toward intimate interiors. Props such as tables, key in the novel and ballet’s narrative, also describe spaces. Not unlike Barragán’s masterly use of light, Tony winner Natasha Katz, the production’s lighting designer, imbues the stage with color conveying mutability of mood and emotion.
This production counts as the biggest in Company history. In three acts, the staging calls for multiple dance floors, various set configurations, laser-cut custom fabrics; 145 costumes (more than 200 counting duplicates and triples), scores of clothing accessories; 250 props, from spoons and bowls, flowers, a giant and fantastical knitted cloth, to a horse puppet; and evocative video projections by Luke Halls.
In Wheeldon’s final pas de deux, Crowley’s landscape recedes to its essence, as Tita and Pedro’s union gains full expression. The apotheosis of their love is yet made greater by a final masterstroke, the introduction of song, affecting and absorbing, newly composed by Talbot and performed live by soprano Maria Brea. Drawn from lines of the poem “Sunstone” by the celebrated Mexican writer Octavio Paz, it considers existential questions, no less the transformative possibility of love.