Let’s get one thing out of the way: I know very little about ballet. I don’t know the difference between a Plie and a Grand Jete. Or how one dancer’s version of them might be better than another’s.
What I do know is how ballet can make us feel, how the performers’ movement and grace evoke joy, fear, and love with just a turn of their bodies. This is how I went into the U.S. Premiere of “Like Water for Chocolate,” a new ballet based on the book (and film) by Laura Esquivel.
The often tragic tale concerns the De la Garza family. Mama Elena (Christine Shevchenko) gives birth to a daughter Tita (Cassandra Trenary,) who – when she’s older – reminds her that her sole purpose in life is to take care of her when she’s old. This means that Tita is not allowed to marry and instead becomes the primary cook on their ranch until such time as she has to play nursemaid.
But Tita has fallen in love with her childhood friend Pedro (Herman Cornejo). Unable to marry him, Mama Elena promises Tita’s sister Rosaura (Hee Seo) to Pedro instead. Devastated, the only slight ray of light in this turn of events is that Pedro will always be near Tita.
Of course, their passion for each other never ends and causes ripples throughout their young lives. At the same time, both Tita’s love and her pain are magically combined into the food she cooks; whether it is her tears of devastation, or flower petals of passion, her emotions have quite an effect on those that partake.
As the epic tale moves forward, we watch with hope that Tita and Pedro can finally engage in the love they’ve felt for each other for so many years. To at once be happy and whole.
For those that have read the book or have seen the film, the ballet takes all of those story elements that are so well known and brings them to passionate, stunning, visual life. For a book and film defined as “magical realism,” this version of Esquivel’s story is the closest to matching that definition.
The set and costume design by Bob Crowley, and lighting design by Natasha Katz must offer up the magic in ways that dazzle – and that they do. From the simple De la Garza kitchen that is the center of their lives, to the expansive shawl that trails behind Tita after her breakdown, the show is a feast for the eyes.
But the sets are just beautiful vessels without the dancers and the choreography by Christopher Wheeldon. Trenary and Cornejo make charming and desperate lovers that alternate between despair and joy. Whether they are sneaking away together to indulge in their desire or trying to hold it together as they are repeatedly separated, their love is perfectly realized through their movement.
Luciana Paris brings a whimsical vibe as grandmother Nacha, reappearing often as the ghost that watches over her favorite granddaughter Tita. Catherine Hurlin as rebellious sister Gertrudis is a treat as the daughter who isn’t going to conform to conventions and runs off (naked) with a soldier, and returns as a revolutionary commander herself. Shevchenko brings a rigid fright to her role as the overbearing mother with a secret past of her own, and Thomas Forster as Dr. John Brown brings a gentle empathy to his role as a man deeply in love with Tita, but aware that he is not the man of her dreams.
From the stunning stage design, to the gorgeous lighting, and the magnificent dancers, “Like Water for Chocolate” feels like a perfect adaptation of Esquivel’s story. Having re-watched the popular 1992 film, I found that the ballet captured the emotions and passion even more so. It brings heightened visual magic to the lives of the characters that pulls the audience in that only this medium can. And to add Joby Talbot’s gorgeous score to it all is the magical ingredient to an already delicious confection.
“Like Water for Chocolate,” the ballet, brings Esquivel’s novel to wild, magnificent, beautiful life where every aspect of the production is working at the height of its craft.