American Ballet Theatre
Metropolitan Opera House
New York, New York
June 26, July 1 afternoon and evening, 2023
Like Water for Chocolate
I don’t know whether it’s true, but I’ve heard that there’s been much critical commentary that dissects American Ballet Theatre’s latest full-length ballet, Like Water for Chocolate, and finds it fatally deficient for one reason or another, or that dismisses it out of hand because it isn’t sufficiently “ballet.”
Cut the critical crap.
If one’s notion of great ballet includes original choreography, or one that’s the equivalent of those ballets that have been in the canon for centuries, or one that’s as contemporary as today’s headlines or cause du jour, that’s fine. Then don’t see Like Water for Chocolate.
But if one goes to a performance with an open mind, or at least one where your mind is sufficiently flexible to change a preconception, don’t miss Like Water for Chocolate whenever it returns to ABT’s repertory (last night was its last performance during this 9 day, 13 performance run). It certainly invites criticism, most of which relates to the choreography (including much that I agree with, as I’ll discuss below), but overall, including that same choreography, Christopher Wheeldon’s Like Water for Chocolate is quite miraculous.
Perhaps of greater significance, and for better or worse, it points a direction that ballet theater, at least in the United States, may need to follow in the future.
Few new ballets or reproductions/ reconceptions of older ones have been accorded the overwhelming level of hype that ABT has bestowed on Like Water for Chocolate (“LWFC”): seemingly 95% of ABT’s social media posts leading up to its current 2023 MET season have focused on it – in addition to a myriad of posts by its individual dancers. Although, regrettably, many such posts emphasize and exploit the dance’s sensuality, to a large extent the postings have been aimed at educating the reader/ potential viewer about the ballet and its underlying story. I assume this was intended to bolster slow ticket sales, since, even though the novel had previously been adapted into a successful film, ABT management may have suspected (and I’d agree) that most Americans were ignorant of the story, and it’s undeniable that its complexity and strangeness are daunting.
I must confess that I’m one of those audience-members who neither read the book by Laura Esquival nor saw the subsequent movie, so I can’t comment on the ballet’s faithfulness to the novel as it might have been or should have been. I understand, however, that certain characters and maybe plot lines have been reduced or eliminated. But faithfulness to the work of art that inspired it isn’t the sine qua non of ballet theater propriety or respectability. [In Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s gold standard ballet interpretation of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” how is it that Romeo just happened to hear of Juliet’s “death”?] Inner coherence is, as well as observing the first commandment of any theatrical performance: thou shalt not be boring.
Although reading the provided plot synopsis, maybe more than once, is critical if for no other reason than to decipher which dancer is playing which character, LWFC is remarkably comprehensible despite its sprawling, multi-faceted subject matter.
And regardless of any of its flaws, or all of them, LWFC is never boring.
Here, the narrative story is woven into Mexican culture generally, but also into cultural /religious customs and superstitions and the evolution of both during a particular period in time. The existence of these underlying and overbearing currents is made clear at the outset, in both the program note and as a projection onto a scrim before the ballet itself begins: traditional familial obligations vs. the power of love. Trite as this conflict may initially appear, it’s a theme common – in one form or another – in many iconic literary works and ballets. [E.g., Romeo and Juliet.]
The projected quotation is followed far more dramatically, after the curtain rises, by an array of women (call them a sort of Mexican Chorus) lined horizontally upstage, dressed in what appear to be “religious”-based costumes (e.g., like, but not quite being, a nun’s habit), who turn and retreat to the stage rear, and in front of whom the story thereafter evolves. They’re the context; the cultural background and history that are as critical here as the narrative story itself. They’re a dominating and searing presence – and they’re always there in one form or another, silently knitting what eventually evolves into a comforting/ confining patchwork quilt of forms that symbolize tradition.
What happens thereafter is a hybrid Broadway/ Ballet production that might derisively be referred to as a Mexican soap opera (or soup opera), but that in fact is the battleground within which the culture war is fought, almost all of it taking place within the ample and relatively opulent boundaries of the De la Garza family hacienda.
I won’t reprise the ballet’s story here, but its contradictory forces include Mama Elena (Elena De la Garza), a widow and the family matriarch who insists (as prevailing tradition requires) that her youngest daughter care for her, to the exclusion of everything and anyone else, until she dies; Tita, the youngest daughter who grows up playing with the neighbor’s son Pedro, both of whom over time fall into “eternal” overpowering love with each other; the oldest daughter, Rosaura, who Mama Elena designates as the one who Pedro must marry; Gertrudis, the middle daughter and family wild child who runs off with a revolutionary, Juan Alejandrez (a part of the story that, at least as presented in this ballet, appears fully contrived and unnecessary – except it’s the vehicle for some of the piece’s most exciting-looking choreography); Dr. John Brown, a Texas doctor who cares for members of the family (weren’t there Mexican doctors?) and falls for Tita (another contrived but, in one form or another, essential plotline); and the family cook, Nacha (unfathomably not identified in the “advance” cast listings), who in both life and death is a repository of knowledge and a force for change. Many more characters in what seems to be a cast of thousands are significant (some of whom I’ll mention below), but those are the most important.
Out of these characters and conflicting forces (and much more) Wheeldon cooks a Mexican stew of traditional obligations; revolutionary, contradictory, and gustatory emotion-laden impulses; love and hate; life and death; ghosts and ghostbusters; weddings and wakes; unfaithful faithfulness; hot dishes; hot tempers; and cold-hearted repression – all spanning decades backwards and forwards, beginning with a lachrymal-infused wedding cake that makes its celebrants sick, and culminating in a particular and peculiar Mexican dessert delicacy: lovers flambé.
Given all this, LWFC could easily have spun out of control. That doesn’t happen thanks to Wheeldon and his array of artistic associates who have created a piece of ballet theater that not only reflects the conflicting passions within the story and makes it all somehow real, but that engenders (albeit with calculated intent) a level of passionate, spontaneous response from the audience, and not a little pride (as I’ll explain below), the like of which I can’t recall ever seeing before – at each performance, not just before some partisan gala or opening night gerrymandered set of pre-determined viewers.
There are some things about LWFC that simply aren’t debatable. I bristled a bit at the song sung at the piece’s end, but that’s my prejudice – it works emotionally and in context, and if knew its origin and translation (I assume from the Spanish) my reaction might have been different. Aside from that, the music itself, composed by Joby Talbot and original to the piece (orchestrated by Ben Foskett; with “musical consultant” Alondra de la Parra), is flat out fabulous; easily one of the finest of contemporary ballet scores. Similarly, the sets (designed by Bob Crowley) are skimpy but not spartan (except for the limited “special effects”) and they don’t dominate the piece; rather, like the dance’s effective lighting (designed by Natasha Katz) and the period/ ethnically proper costumes (also designed by Crowley – and with one unfortunate exception), they complement Wheeldon’s staging. Together they make this sprawling panorama visually comprehensible.
And then there’s the choreography. There’s nothing particularly new or inventive here, and choreographic high points are minimal and/or derivative. It certainly doesn’t carry the patina of genius that, for example, is evident in choreography by Balanchine, Robbins, and Ratmansky – or in many other pieces created by Wheeldon himself (e.g., Estancia and Polyphonia for New York City Ballet, and DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse, created for The Royal Ballet and in NYCB’s repertory, among many others).
That “most exciting-looking choreography” that I mentioned above is the revolutionary gathering that is the final scene in Act II. At one point or another it brings to mind the gypsy dance in Don Quixote, the pirates’ celebrations in Le Corsair, any set of bravura male solos from such ballets as Swan Lake or The Sleeping Beauty, and bits and pieces of Justin Peck’s Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes (not to be confused with his Copland Dance Episodes).
More significantly (what else was Wheeldon supposed to do in that context?), the highlight pas de deux, at least one in each act, are ok but not more, and despite their particular positions in the ballet, in memory they all look basically the same. Ok – arguably, the pot needs to simmer, not overflow. However, the concluding pas de deux is especially disappointing and misses an opportunity, finally, to produce choreography that soars. I don’t expect MacMillan, but here Tita is as impetuous in attempting to break free from traditional obligations as Juliet or Mary Vitsera or Manon. Consequently I do expect more at the musical/ emotional climax of this concluding pas de deux than Pedro holding Tita upside-down instead of lifting her to the rafters. Perhaps this was intended to reflect the carnal aspect of their relationship – but regardless, it’s a huge mistake.
The only way to explain or justify this concluding pas de deux as it is is to consider it in its entirety to be a metaphor for the ballet’s subject as a whole – the triumph of eternal love over traditional restrictions – and not something to be taken as in any way “real.” [After all, by that time the lovers are probably at least in their 40s or 50s. Shudder.] This is logical in the abstract, but it shifts the apex of this final pas de deux to the gimmicky fiery apotheosis that consumes and immortalizes them and that takes the confining traditions with them (visualized as the quilt and the “knitters” viewable through a scrim behind it) rather than displaying it in the choreography where it belongs. Seen this way this concluding pas de deux makes some narrative and overall subject matter sense, but it doesn’t help rescue the mediocre choreography for this and the other pas de deux.
In the end, and however valid these criticisms may be, they matter – if they matter at all – only to critics, real or would-be.
In overall context Wheeldon’s choreography successfully melds with the novel’s subject(s), enhances the story (including managing a couple of major, and a few minor, apparitions who are as essential to LWFC as the Wilis are to Giselle), and, maybe most important, does no harm. Seen as a whole, it all works. And I don’t mean that as a backhanded compliment; in this case, making it “all work” is a considerable accomplishment because the story, even in whatever abridged form might be the case here, is not just a simple story, and Wheeldon manages to tell all aspects of it succinctly and within a minimum performance time frame: that is, he crams a lot of recitative between those would-be balletic and soap-operatic arias.
In the process, Wheeldon’s “lesser” choreography (that is, not the highlighted pas de deux) is memorable not only in its comprehensiveness, but by the “little” details, subject area motifs (e.g. — and not in any way by limitation – the passage of the apron torch from Nacha to Tita to Esperanza; the flexed, contorted body that represents the impact of traditional restrictions; the “sign” of the unstated stigma that cripples those who feel compelled to yield to it – like the sign of the cross but … not; the interactions between young Esperanza and young Alex that echo the interactions between Tita and Pedro at the ballet’s outset) that are repeated at the exact moments when they should be, and which light a fire of recognition in a viewer’s mind on sight.
And, perhaps surprisingly, there are allusions and parallels (to a point) between LWFC and classic ballets – though they’re appropriately kept to a minimum. I’ve referenced some already. Certainly, for an overall story of love vs. family/ cultural tradition, there’s Romeo and Juliet. For dubious (but here apparently acceptable) faithfulness, as well as love that transcends obstacles, including death, there’s Pedro who marries and fathers two children by his supposed eternal love’s sister but who Tita loves anyway (Giselle); and if you look hard enough or just happen upon the image, in the opening scene (which itself as a whole has a vague resemblance to the opening scene in Ratmansky’s The Nutcracker) [oh, please bring that back to New York] are legitimate and very well-executed swan arms.
One thing that LWFC does not do, which here is a good thing, is to dwell on the psychological forces at work a la Sir Antony Tudor (e.g., as I alluded to above, Jardin Aux Lilas); they’re succinctly and sufficiently expressed within the overall context.
So in the end, I don’t really care whether there are choreographic components of LWFC that could have been done better. [And which may be tinkered with in the future. I understand on good authority that Wheeldon has changed aspects of this piece to improve it since its initial premiere in London in June, 2022, and perhaps since its American premiere at Segerstrom Center in Costa Mesa, CA as well (it’s a co-production between The Royal Ballet and ABT).] I care much more about the overall spirit, the sense of magic, the representation of a culture, that Wheeldon and his team have captured and enabled here.
Which brings me to the performances, upon which, no matter how successful Wheeldon’s staging might otherwise be, the success of the production depends.
I saw three of the four casts (some of which overlap). I feel uncomfortable “ranking” the performance I saw, as I’ve often done in other situations, since the casts overall were so good. But after reflection, not doing so where apparent would be unfair as well. So take that aspect of the below with a grain of salt (and maybe some incendiary spice), keeping in mind that at this level, in the eyes of one who only attends one performance, any of the casts was the best cast.
As Tita, Skylar Brandt on Monday, SunMi Park Saturday afternoon, and Cassandra Trenary on Saturday evening were each astonishingly good and undeniably (and, to me, surprisingly) moving. Had I only seen Brandt’s phenomenal Tita, especially since it was her only outing in that role, it would have been enough. She managed to physically change, and become a different person, from Act to Act if not Scene to Scene. I’d seen only a few of Park’s performances previously (not intentionally), so her performance here was revelatory; hers was a crystalline, emotional, and impeccably delivered performance. And Trenary – well, there’s no other way to put it: she simply and unequivocally delivered the performance of a lifetime.
The only Tita I didn’t see was Devon Teuscher’s, but given her successful navigation of Tudor’s Jardin Aux Lilas (it wasn’t for nothing that I mentioned that ballet earlier), I don’t doubt that her Tita was at the same level as the others.
The three Pedros I saw (Carlos Gonzalez on Monday, Daniel Camargo on Saturday afternoon, and Herman Cornejo Saturday evening) each provided an excellent performance, but Gonzalez evolved in his role much the way his partner (Brandt) did, and to me his performance was most credible.
Mama Elena is a complex, emotionally crippled character. Christine Shevchenko is injured and didn’t dance the role as expected Saturday evening. Instead, I saw Claire Davison on Saturday afternoon and evening, and Zhong-Jing Fang on Monday. Both were exceptionally and appropriately intense, but Davison’s was the more unexpected. [An aside – the costume for Mama Elena as a ghost was the serious costume mistake I mentioned earlier. Both dancers, as spirits, looked like the Bride of Frankenstein.]
Rosaura was portrayed by Betsy McBride on Monday, Chloe Misseldine Saturday afternoon, and Hee Seo Saturday evening. All three performed exceptionally well (yes, I know I’m repeating superlatives, but there are only so many…), with Misseldine’s inexperience resulting in not quite the level of accomplishment as the other two. The same comment applies to the dancers in the role of the middle daughter, Gertrudis: Zimmi Coker on Monday, Brandt Saturday afternoon, and Catherine Hurlin Saturday evening. Coker’s was the greatest fun to watch because she’s such an electric stage personality, but her colleagues provided greater nuance. Brandt’s Gertrudis was the most sexually charged, and Hurlin delivered the most measured balance of spirit and sensuality. I’d see any of them in these roles again in a heartbeat.
As Nacha on Saturday afternoon, Courtney Lavine gave a very fine performance, signaling at the very least that she should be given more opportunities than she gets. But Luciana Paris’s performances Monday and Saturday evening were off the charts. That her characterization was as shocking the second time, when I knew what to expect, as it was the first speaks volumes. By far, it’s the finest work I’ve seen her do; she nailed Nacha the living; and killed Nacha the dead.
Perhaps the most difficult role in terms of repressed emotion and consequent physical action is Dr. John Brown. I saw Jarod Curley on Monday, Calvin Royal III Saturday afternoon, and Thomas Forster Saturday evening. Each played the role as it had to be played, and did so well, but Curley’s was the most unexpectedly superb. He also deserves more opportunities than he gets.
In other roles, Chencha is the family maid/ jane of all trades. Anabel Katsnelson’s Chencha was a particularly likeable character, seemingly everywhere at once. Lea Fleytoux’s Chencha on Saturday afternoon was the same, except, as I’ve previously observed, she could do nothing at all on stage (decidedly not the case here) and still be a magnet. But Isadora Loyala’s portrayal on Saturday evening, compared to the others, appeared to me to be more obsequious-looking than animated; too much like Aya in La Bayadere. As Gertrudis’s love /revolutionary interest, Michael de la Nuez on Monday, Aran Bell on Saturday afternoon, and Gonzalez Saturday evening, all were appropriately dynamic revolutionaries. Last, the “children”: young Esperanza (Rosaura and Pedro’s daughter, essentially adopted by Tita after Rosaura’s death) and Young Alex (Dr. Brown’s son by a former marriage) delivered their roles very well, but the young Esperanza has more acting and dancing to do, and Emely Rivas on Saturday afternoon, and Elliana Quiner (one of New Jersey’s seemingly endless supply of highly-capable ballet-dancing Quiner sisters) on Monday and Saturday evening did professional-level as well as endearing work. As young Alex, Daniel Landsmanas on Monday and Saturday evenings and David Barrington on Saturday afternoon performed admirably, with Landsmanas looking far more comfortable in his role, and more of a match for his young Esperanza, in his second outing.
And I must recognize that the ABT Orchestra (under the baton of Music Director Ormsby Wilkins on Monday and Saturday evening and David LaMarche on Saturday afternoon), including guest solo guitarist Tomás Barreiro, soprano Maria Brea, and an unidentified woman who played a large, wooden flute-like instrument, were treated to the kind of overwhelming, well-deserved ovations not often seen (or merited) at ABT before. It may be a premature observation, but ABT’s orchestra is sounding more and more like its ballet neighbor across the Lincoln Center plaza.
Finally, I mentioned earlier the sense of pride I sensed in the audience. By that I mean that the audience’s ovations weren’t only de rigueur, and didn’t only represent recognition of a successful presentation. There was far more to it.
Generalities are notoriously unreliable, so take this with that same grain of salt I mentioned above, but I saw what to me seemed to be an unusual number of Spanish-speaking members of the audience. Without exception, based on their animated bodies, their sparkling eyes, and the tone of their voices (as well as what Spanish I can recall from high school), they were involved, enraptured, and quite simply, proud to be there. In this respect, maybe LWFC has tapped into a well of good will that goes beyond ballet appreciation. Supposedly, at least in the U.S., ballet is seen by many to be a dying art. I don’t believe that, but I don’t crunch the numbers. Be that as it may, assuming its truth, LWFC, intentionally or not, has provided a valid and long-living continuation strategy. Make it positive (and/or enlightening), make it entertaining, make it about something that people can relate to (more than a new ballet language or a diatribe that preaches to the choir) and, as was the case with these LWFC performances, the audiences will come.
If that’s so, then regardless of any individual component of the piece, with Like Water for Chocolate Wheeldon and Co. (including many not identified above) have done ballet a service by demonstrating that the whole may well be greater than the sum of its individual parts. It’s not pure dance; it’s not pure ballet; but it’s ballet theater at its most human. There’s a role for ballets like this. And if you don’t want to see it, or can’t appreciate it for what it is, that’s your loss.