REVIEW: American Ballet Theatre's "LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE" — Segerstrom Center for the Arts
Updated: Apr 1
MARCH 30, 2023 — COSTA MESA
Christopher Wheeldon clearly relishes a challenge. In 2011, the Somerset-born choreographer made a success of the perilously episodic “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” Three years later, he transformed one of Shakespeare’s most notorious problem plays, “The Winter’s Tale,” into a modern classic.
And now, he has refashioned Mexican novelist Laura Esquivel’s gastronomy-obsessed 1989 love story, “Like Water for Chocolate,” into a sensational, mouth-watering ballet delight at Segerstrom Center for the Arts, featuring the North American Premiere of American Ballet Theatre’s Spring engagement about family, food, and forbidden love.
This full-length ballet by Wheeldon, with performances set from March 29th through April 2nd in Segerstrom Hall, explores a richly layered story through beautiful choreography, sets and costumes. And nothing could be sweeter.
Reuniting the award-winning team of Wheeldon (Tony Award winner for MJ: The Musical) with composer Joby Talbot, and Tony-winning costume and set designer Bob Crowley, along with a a star-studded, 100% committed cast of American Ballet Theatre dancers accompanied by live music from Pacific Symphony, “Like Water for Chocolate” tells the story of Tita, a young Mexican woman whose restrictive upbringing prevents her from marrying until her mother dies.
Overwhelmed by a sense of duty and family tradition, Tita’s only form of expression is through cooking, but her life takes an unexpected turn when she falls in love with her wealthy neighbor Pedro. Their forbidden passion has far-reaching — and devastating —consequences.
This ballet is a feast for the senses and begins with some spooky-looking Dia de los Muertos figures who are veiled and in white at first. They then turn and are in mourning black and are seen knitting at the rear of the stage.
It’s an arresting, painterly beginning for this three-act ballet. In this succinct image, Wheeldon (and the designer Bob Crowley) suggests the intermingling of life and death, of the fantastical and the practical, the magical and the real, that permeate Esquivel’s much-loved story, centered on food and a frustrated-love affair, with excursions into the Mexican revolution, flashbacks to various lost loves, weddings, babies, deaths and ghostly visitations.
The first act is a bit of a gallop through the ensuing events as Tita and Pedro’s childish friendship develops into the heady rush of young love when they get older. But Wheeldon, a master at staging the unstageable, comes into his own in an early fantasy sequence which seems to defy gravity, when Tita’s repressed desire for Pedro is transmuted through her cooking to her other sister, Getrudis (Catherine Hurlin).
Wheeldon creates a marvelous floor show to a danzón tango rhythm, with an ardent and frenzied Getrudis as the pinup center of a group of bare-chested men, before she is swooped up by a swashbuckling revolutionary bandit, only to be ravished on horseback. Conductor Charles Barker has laced the orchestra here with some distinctive Mexican instrumentalists, with the bandit sequences being thrilling and very alive.
As the ballet progresses, Wheeldon is less burdened by narrative exposition, and freer to create pure-dance set pieces. A wonderful fiesta dance, and a joyous final wedding dance both use earthy, grounded movement that suggests folk dances without referencing specific traditions; the music follows suit. The group numbers have a kind of Broadway flair about them. So does the evocation of Mama Elena’s tragic past, a mini-Romeo and Juliet tale told in a skillful five-minute ballet-within-the-ballet, and her demon-like final reappearance in a huge, trailing dress.
Yes, there is drama aplenty here — near-death experiences, haunting encounters, tragedies and jealous rages…and quite a few other surprises. But all of this climaxes when Tita and Pedro are reunited twenty years later, and there is that final incandescent — and brilliant — pas de deux over which Octavo Paz’s haunting poem “Sun Stone” is sung, exquisitely danced with genuine chemistry, layered fragility and flaming virtuosity by Cassandra Trenary’s Tita and Herman Cornejo’s Pedro (at this performance).
Mr. Cornejo is both forceful and tender, while Ms. Trenary captures the anguish of the heroine with lightness and emotional subtlety, as they both move with liquid beauty through a series of spiraling, cross-body swirls and high, off-kilter lifts before being engulfed by flame-lit clouds, behind which we glimpse the white-clad brides we saw at the start.
Christine Shevchenko excels as the mother from hell and clearly relishes her spectral visitations in the later acts. Catherine Hurlin revels in her showgirl moment in the spotlight as Gertrudis while Hee Seo and Cory Stearns were exceptional as the envious Rosaura and the loyal Dr John Brown. Christina Arestis was the devoted Nacha (more of a mother to Tita than Mama Elena).
Joby Talbot’s commissioned score is serviceably lush, making using of guitar, varied percussion and Mexican instruments like the ocarina. Crowley’s décor, influenced by the Mexican architect Luis Barragán, is spare and ingenious; Natasha Katz’s lighting adroitly suggests changes in time and place.
“The music, the movement, the wonderful performances of the dancers, the costumes, the scenery, the musicians, and the amazing choreography working in unison become powerful. A pure alchemy. They show us what has never been seen before: the heart beat in Tita and Pedro’s chest, Chencha’s last breath and the way her spirit rises to heaven, the way affections are tied and unleashed within the De La Garza family and finally the way they free and purify a castrated heart. All this through moving images full of poetry.” - Laura Esquivel
WITH: JOO WON AHN · ARAN BELL · ISABELLA BOYLSTON · SKYLAR BRANDT · DANIEL CAMARGO · MISTY COPELAND · HERMAN CORNEJO · THOMAS FORSTER · CATHERINE HURLIN · GILLIAN MURPHY · CALVIN ROYAL III · HEE SEO · CHRISTINE SHEVCHENKO · CORY STEARNS · DEVON TEUSCHER · CASSANDRA TRENARY · JAMES WHITESIDE · ROMAN ZHURBIN · ZHONG-JING FANG · JOSEPH GORAK · BREANNE GRANLUND · SUNG WOO HAN · BLAINE HOVEN · BETSY MCBRIDE · CHLOE MISSELDINE · LUCIANA PARIS · SUNMI PARK · GABE STONE SHAYER · KATHERINE WILLIAMS
Alexei Agoudine · Nastia Alexandrova · Sierra Armstrong · Alexandra Basmagy · Leah Baylin · Lauren Bonfiglio · Kathryn Boren · Tristan Brosnan · Jacob Clerico · Zimmi Coker · Luigi Crispino · Jarod Curley · Claire Davison · Michael de la Nuez · Cy Doherty · Teresa D’Ortone · Camila Ferrera · Léa Fleytoux · Scout Forsythe · Patrick Frenette · Carlos Gonzalez · Kiely Groenewegen · Emily Hayes · Connor Holloway · Andrii Ishchuk · Anabel Katsnelson · Kanon Kimura · Jonathan Klein · Erica Lall · Courtney Lavine · Melvin Lawovi · Virginia Lensi · Fangqi Li · Isadora Loyola · Duncan Lyle · Elwince Magbitang · Tyler Maloney · Joseph Markey · Abbey Marrison · Hannah Marshall · Cameron McCune · Duncan McIlwaine · João Menegussi · Garegin Pogossian · Lauren Post · Luis Ribagorda · Rachel Richardson · Andrew Robare · Jake Roxander · Jose Sebastian · Yoon Jung Seo · Courtney Shealy · Kento Sumitani · Eric Tamm · Ingrid Thoms · Olivia Tweedy · Nathan Vendt · Paulina Waski · Kotomi Yamada · Remy Young. Apprentices Elisabeth Beyer · Tillie Glatz · Yuma Matsuura · Aleisha Walker
AMERICAN BALLET THEATRE PRESENTS, “LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE,” Inspired by the book by LAURA ESQUIVEL; Choreography by CHRISTOPHER WHEELDON; Scenario by CHRISTOPHER WHEELDON and JOBY TALBOT; Music JOBY TALBOT; Artistic Director SUSAN JAFFE; CEO & Executive Director JANET ROLLE; Artist in Residence ALEXEI RATMANSKY; Associate Artistic Director CLINTON LUCKETT; Music Director ORMSBY WILKINS; Principal Conductor CHARLES BARKER; Conductor DAVID LAMARCHE; Pacific Symphony ORCHESTRA; Regisseur SUSAN JONES; Principal Répétiteur IRINA KOLPAKOVA; Directors of Repertoire JOHN GARDNER, CARLOS LOPEZ, AMANDA MCKERROW, NANCY RAFFA; Orchestrations BEN FOSKETT; Set and Costume designer BOB CROWLEY; Lighting designer NATASHA KATZ; Video designer LUKE HALLS; Music Consultant ALONDRA DE LA PARRA; Costume Design Associate SUKIE KIRK; Associate Set Designer JAIMIE TODD; Associate Lighting Designer JONATHAN GOLDMAN; Assistants to the Choreographer JASON FOWLER, GREGORY MISLIN, EDWARD WATSON. “Like Water for Chocolate” by JODY TALBOT is a co-production with The Royal Ballet, presented under license from G. Schirmer Inc. and Associated Music Publishers, copyright owners. Performances are March 29th - April 2nd at Segerstrom Center for the Arts. For Tickets, see: www.scfta.org/
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report