Christopher Wheeldon has done it again. Not one to let complex stories put him off, the choreographer has taken Laura Esquivel’s 1989 Mexican novel, Like Water For Chocolate, and brought it to life in ballet form with all of the passion, magic and emotion of the original text. Clear, clean and breathtaking, Wheeldon excels in the near-impossible task of creating a twisting and turning narrative ballet expertly, as we have seen him do in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Winter’s Tale, but to me, Like Water For Chocolate is his most ambitious ballet yet.
Marcelino Sambé (Pedro) and Francesca Hayward (Tita). Photo: Tristram Kenton
Set in the early years of 20th century Mexico, against the backdrop of the Mexican Revolution, the plot centres around the forbidden romance between Pedro (Marcelino Sambé) and Tita (Francesca Hayward), the latter of whom, as the youngest daughter in her family, cannot marry. Due to family tradition, she must look after her tyrannical mother, Mama Elena (Laura Morera) until she dies. The tale revolves around Tita’s family, the De la Garzas, including the rebellious sister Gertrudis (Anna Rose O’Sullivan) and the conservative, traditional eldest sister Rosaura (Mayara Magri), who is ultimately forced to marry Pedro.
Added to the portrayal of a repressed love against the scenery of Mexican ranch life is the powerful and emotional role of food in Tita’s life. The youngest daughter possesses a mysterious gift where her cooking is interlaced with intense feeling, her recipes causing supernatural and magical occurrences. This is the key challenge that Wheeldon was faced with: conveying magical realism - a genre associated with Latin American literature, in which mystical happenings take place in everyday life without comment - in dance form.
Mayara Magri (Rosaura) and Marcelino Sambé (Pedro). Photo by Tristram Kenton.
Where to start? I must admit that I was at first concerned that this ballet might fall into stereotype and/or exaggeration. Yet, I was overjoyed to witness the complex subtleties of Wheeldon’s representation. Having worked with Esquivel directly, his ballet stayed close to the novel in both plot and emotion. From the clever use of props, such as ribbon to literally bind an unwilling couple in marriage, to the beautiful illusory levitations to introduce us to the ghosts of Mama Elena and the cook, Nacha (Christina Arestis), the abstract motifs peppered into the plot serve rich emotions, from anguish to passionate love.
It is truly a perfect casting. Sambé exquisitely dances the forlorn lover while Hayward confidently plays with everything from delicate pirouettes to jaunty, experimental movements in her moments of despair. Of course, the pas de deux between these two experienced dancers is delightful to witness, but so too is that between Magri and Morera, those two complex, conservative but powerful women who prowl and rule over the household. The kind and gentle Dr John (Matthew Ball) also plays an emotional part in this tale, regretfully but respectfully allowing Tita to leave him to pursue her undying love for Pedro.
Francesca Hayward (Tita), Matthew Ball (Doctor John) and Marcelino Sambé (Pedro). Photo by Tristram Kenton.
Special mentions must be awarded to the strong and joyful Anna Rose O’Sullivan and César Corrales, who plays her revolutionary lover, Juan Alejandrez. A perfect pairing who made the best of their roles, leaping and dancing together with the utmost joy. Their energy was truly infectious, particularly when paired with an exuberant crowd scene (as it often was). A gleeful corps de ballet played with movements based on those of Mexican folk dance, and it paid off beautifully. Accompanied by echoes of Mexican music throughout, thanks to Toby Jalbot’s excellent score and Tomás Bareirro’s earthy guitar playing, these busy scenes conveyed the joy and rhythms of Mexican ranch life without falling into cliche. Mexican conductor, Alondra de la Parra, was another much-appreciated member of the production, her applause from the audience louder and more enthusiastic with every act.
Anna Rose O'Sullivan (Gertrudis). Photo by Tristram Kenton.
The one to watch? Joseph Sissens. What a vibrant dancer. The soloist plays Mama Elena’s past forbidden lover with fluidity and passion. A direct comparison with Tita and Pedro, it is easy to see why Sissens was cast. Like Sambé, his controlled yet engaging movements are emphasized by his brilliant facial expressions; both dancers are the picture of pain and yearning. Sissens will undoubtedly go far in his dance career.
Laura Morera (Mama Elena) and Marcelino Sambé (Pedro). Photo by Tristram Kenton.
As expressed by Mayara Magri in her interview with The Cambridge Satchel Co., it will be interesting to see how this ballet will be interpreted in the future. It will be difficult to top this first production - its mystical set and inspired lighting, its impassioned cast, its playful and humorous use of props to create surprise and suspense, its intelligent and formidable use of costume, especially in ghostlier scenes.
The ballet is topped off with a poignant pas de deux between Tita and Pedro, together and alone at last, and beautifully accompanied by a rare lyrical love song, sang by soprano Sian Griffiths. We are left both heartbroken and fulfilled when the two leads rise to heaven together, consumed by flames. A ballet that was well worth the hype and anticipation, two years after the idea was first thought out. Mesmerising, magical and memorable.
Marcelino Sambé (Pedro) and Francesca Hayward (Tita). Photo by Tristram Kenton.
Read our interview with Principal Dancer, Mayara Magri, here.
Like Water for Chocolate, The Royal Ballet
The Royal Opera House, WC2E 9DD
11,15,17 June 2022 at 7.30pm
Tickets on sale now from £5 - £115.
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