Koch Theater's Like Water for Chocolate
June 23–July 1, 2023
Christopher Wheeldon enlivens the entire stage when given the chance, as he does in spades with ABT’s Like Water for Chocolate, a grand, new co-production with the Royal Ballet. Every bit of the proscenium teems with visual interest—lacework and fabric panels flying in and out, raucous horse puppets, layered videos—over the span of the work’s nearly three-hour duration. Joby Talbot wrote the music, a rich soundtrack peppered with instruments native to Mexico, where Laura Esquivel’s best-selling novel and the ballet’s story source takes place.
Bob Crowley designed the splendid sets—including modules of white lacy paper cutouts and cotton sheets that fly up and down, household furniture, and buildings constructed on a small scale to imply distance. A row of knitting women sits behind much of the first act’s downstage action, perhaps a nod to women’s constant work and domestic and biological output, often taken for granted. With a somewhat sinister presence, they may also represent the souls of generations of women past, haunting the living with their traditions, but also watching over them.
About the story—there is so, so much of it. Pared down, it follows Tita (Cassandra Trenary), the youngest of Mama Elena’s three daughters destined to remain single to care for her mother. Her childhood friend and later paramour, Pedro (Herman Cornejo), is thus consigned to marry her sister Rosaura (Hee Seo, in a largely thankless role). A doctor (Thomas Forster) who tends to the often-sick Rosaura befriends Tita and later proposes to her. And through fate and folly, the offspring of the doctor and Pedro/Rosaura wed two decades later. Tita and Pedro finally unite, literally immolating in burning love.
Food becomes the metaphor for alchemical transformation. The cook, Nacha (Luciana Paris) piques Tita’s interest in cooking by teaching her how to knead dough and giving her tastes of her creations. A sister, Gertrudis (Catherine Hurlin, a force of nature), after eating quail with rose petals, succumbs to passion in the form of red-tinged dancers creepily emerging from under the table and writhing erotically as filmed roses bloom on the scrim. She strips down to a sequined tank suit and mounts a horse puppet, which bucks madly. Subtle it ain’t.
In another instance of food’s alchemy, as Tita helps bake the cake for Pedro and Rosaura’s wedding, her tears of sorrow drip into the batter. Nacha tastes it and succumbs to grief while longing for her dead fiancé. She reappears as a ghost, as does Mama Elena (Claire Davison, a corps member subbing), the tyrant through most of the ballet. After Elena dies, she manifests in a show-stopping, larger than life appearance—double her normal height, with a fright wig and skirts billowing like storm clouds. Projected words helpfully denote the march of time and different settings, such as the passage of twenty years in Act 3.
While the supernatural courses through the ballet, many scenes revolve around quotidian props. A large table serves as a surface on which to cook, dine, and, when tripled, hold parties. The children seek refuge on its lower shelf, playing or hiding from adults. A pair of upstage beds connote the large, shared house, and are where the sick suffer and receive treatment. Crowds comprise two distinct groups: younger, more athletic people in casual color-dipped muslin separates with head garlands, and a more reserved, possibly older group in tailored coats and dresses wearing hats. (Years back, these might’ve been sorted as peasants and the upper class.) In a particularly lively scene, Gertrudis returns as a triumphant revolutionary leader, tossing her sombrero high into the wings while on horseback. To a jaunty waltz, gleeful dancing ensues dotted with huge leaps and scything arms, led by the fearless Hurlin, who it would seem will have no limits for future roles.
Wheeldon loves a big dramatic move, but he also relies on refined, small-scale gestures and mime to elucidate characters and narrative. Deep, visible breaths signal a soul connection, as do heads laterally resting on one another; a sort of reverse Zorro sketched on the torso seems to imply binding family tradition. Throughout, Joby Talbot’s agreeable score supports the stage dramatics as it might a film. The lush orchestration evokes varied emotions as needed: warmth, turmoil, wonder, contentment, passion.
The third act covers too much—it skips ahead two decades, and the children of the protagonists marry. Tita and Pedro doff their clothes down to flesh-hued skivvies and dance an over-long duet of passion, so heated it culminates in their garish immolation as they float upward—overly literal, especially given the expressive physicality of Trenary and Cornejo. The ballet might benefit from editing for brevity and a streamlined plot. But the eye is rarely bored in this lavish spectacle, which, given the audience’s enthusiasm, might have a recurring spot in the company’s repertory.