NEW YORK – How do you choreograph a scene of mass food poisoning? A young woman in an erotic frenzy? Or a couple whose passion is so intense, they literally catch fire?
These were just a few of the storytelling challenges awaiting choreographer Christopher Wheeldon — for decades one of the most inventive minds in ballet and more recently on Broadway, too — as he adapted the hugely popular 1989 novel “Like Water for Chocolate.” It gets a splashy New York premiere this week at American Ballet Theatre.
Wheeldon is no stranger to storytelling challenges, either in ballet, where he adapted Shakespeare’s vexing “The Winter’s Tale,” or in theater, where he's won two Tonys, the latest for choreographing the hit “MJ: The Musical,” about Michael Jackson.
But Laura Esquivel’s sweeping tale of food, magic, lust and forbidden passion set in early 20th-century Mexico, which also inspired a hit movie, posed a different issue: How do you convey such a layered, hefty, multi-character story, spanning two decades, without words?
Wheeldon laughingly rejects the word “hefty,” preferring “meaty” or better yet, “epic.”
“It's both epic and intimate, you know?” he said in a recent interview. “It's about a family, but the scale of the emotions within this family and then of course the time over which the story's told — then you start adding the magical realism, and it's an epic story."
But, he adds, “My aim is always to try to find stories that are dynamic and exciting and theatrical and not get too worried about the practicalities … Can we manage it? Can we take the audience on a journey that they’re going to come out of feeling they’ve connected with these characters and been transported to a different world?"
The production arrives at the Metropolitan Opera House on Thursday to open ABT’s summer season, after earlier versions at London’s Royal Ballet, which co-produced, and in March during an ABT stint at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California. It’s safe to say ABT has a lot riding on the production, and we don’t just mean when one character gallops off on horseback in the above-mentioned erotic frenzy.
The company hopes to attract fans of the book or film who might not be regular balletgoers. It's presenting two full weeks of the ballet — double what beloved hits “Swan Lake” and “Romeo and Juliet” are getting.
But while most everybody knows the story of Juliet and her Romeo – and the basics about those swans, too — audiences who haven’t read Esquivel’s novel, and perhaps even those who have, may need a primer. Hence the very detailed program notes. Wheeldon says he's seen audience members “furiously reading their programs at intermission" — which he says is a good thing.
“It’s OK to need a synopsis,” he says. ”I know it’s widely said that if you’re making a narrative ballet, it should be clear and you shouldn’t need your notes. That’s true up to a point. There needs to be enough for the audience to hold onto and to be able to understand the relationships — but not necessarily catch every single nuance. This is a complex (story) and that’s what makes it dynamic and exciting."
Esquivel’s novel, which has been translated into more than 30 languages, centers on Tita, daughter of the harsh Mama Elena and unfortunate victim of a family tradition that the youngest daughter may never marry, but rather must care for her mother until death. This dooms the great love of her life, with Pedro, who marries Tita's sister just to be near her. Tita pours her grief into her cooking, which yields unexpected magical results.
The passion at points is steamy for a ballet, and ABT’s website includes the equivalent of a PG-13 movie advisory.
The opening night cast stars Cassandra Trenary and Herman Cornejo, who also opened in Costa Mesa. The pair have been continuing to rehearse and refine in New York, along with the rest of the ensemble.
A recent weekday rehearsal at ABT’s studios found the two going over some intricate pas de deux, or duets — navigating tricky lifts, smoothing over trouble spots, figuring out pacing. They launched into gravity-defying poses, then smiled and high-fived each other when a moment worked well. It was a striking example of how dancers continue to develop their roles even as they perform them.
“We're just deepening it each time we come back to it,” said Trenary, a fast-rising ABT star who became a principal dancer in 2020. “The difference might be our moods that day, or our experiences, or just how life has shifted.”
Added Cornejo, the dashing Argentine who’s been a principal for 20 years: “We’re finding more layers. Each day it's something different." And both dancers noted that Wheeldon had given them an effective mental map to navigate the rich storyline.
Wheeldon is a busy man these days. Four days after he took the stage in Costa Mesa for a curtain call with his dancers, he was on the Broadway stage of “MJ,” congratulating departing star Myles Frost. That show begins a national tour in August and a London transfer next March.
The choreographer has just turned 50, but was barely out of his teens when, in the early ’90s, he began his love affair with “Like Water for Chocolate.” He had just moved to New York from his native Britain to dance with New York City Ballet. On what he calls “a homesick Sunday afternoon,” he caught the movie at a theater near Lincoln Center, and was enchanted.
Years later, he approached Esquivel when an opportunity came up at the Royal Ballet, where he serves as Artistic Associate, to make a new story ballet. The author said: “Let’s talk.” He traveled to Mexico to meet her, along with set designer Bob Crowley and composer Joby Talbot.
Wheeldon says his recent alternating work on Broadway and the dance stage has benefited him in both directions.
“As I’m learning how to dive deeper into character development, and emotional highs and lows of scenes, I take that to my work with dancers,” he said. “Certainly with ‘Like Water for Chocolate,’ we approached the rehearsals as much as actors as dancers, and I know the ABT dancers have really enjoyed that process.”
And Wheeldon hopes he can help broaden the audience for dance at a time when theaters are still struggling to catch up to pre-pandemic attendance.
“Maybe somebody may come and see ‘MJ: The Musical’ and love it and then see I’ve made a ballet and go, 'OK, I'm not a balletgoer but perhaps I’ll go see it,'” he says.
“It's harder to get people away from their computers and their phones and get bums in seats (these days),” he notes. “And so if I can be a part of encouraging people to come, that’s exciting and it makes me certainly feel like I have purpose.”