LONDON – Twelve white-robed, veiled brides stand motionless onstage as the curtain rises on Christopher Wheeldon’s new full-length “Like Water for Chocolate,” for the Royal Ballet. Slowly the women back away, then turn. Now, they are dressed in black, a row of crones, who sit and begin to knit as the action begins.
It’s an arresting, painterly beginning for this three-act ballet, based on the novel by the Mexican writer Laura Esquivel, which opened on Thursday at the Royal Opera House here. 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. For a moment, it seems that creating a ballet based on a complicated plot involving cooking, food and magic, isn’t necessarily a terrible idea.
Wheeldon is an experienced creator of story ballets (he made “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “The Winter’s Tale” for the Royal Ballet) and has directed and choreographed two Broadway shows, including “MJ: The Musical,” for which he has been nominated for a Tony Award.
It’s testament to his skills and his team of regular collaborators that he has succeeded in creating a big-spectacle ballet for this 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 visits.
Joby Talbot’s commissioned score (impressively conducted by Alondra de la Parra, who served as music consultant) 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 ballet, a coproduction with American Ballet Theater, nods to the Royal Ballet’s narrative traditions, and, judging by the response on Thursday, is likely to find an enthusiastic audience. Choreographically though, it is only intermittently interesting; often it feels trapped in Story Ballet Land, a world in which activities are demonstratively telegraphed in the service of exposition.
After the striking opening scene, we are in the kitchen, with Tita (Francesca Hayward) and the cook Nacha (Christina Arestis). In short order, we learn that Tita and Pedro (Marcellino Sambé) are in love; that Mama Elena (Laura Morera, scary) forbids Tita to marry because family tradition decrees she must look after her mother; that Pedro chooses to marry Tita’s elder sister Rosaura (Mayara Magri) to stay nearby; that Tita’s tears in the wedding cake batter cause the guests to be overcome by regret and nausea (and the faithful cook to die when recalling her lost love). And that’s just the first two scenes.
But Wheeldon comes into his own in an early fantasy sequence, when Tita’s repressed desire for Pedro is transmuted through her cooking to her other sister, Getrudis (Anna Rose O’Sullivan). Wheeldon creates a marvelous floor show to a danzón tango rhythm, with Getrudis as the pinup center of a group of bare-chested men, before she is swooped up by a swashbuckling bandit (Cesar Corrales) on a (wire) horse.
As the ballet progresses, Wheeldon is less burdened by narrative exposition, and freer to create these kinds of 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. These group numbers have, in a good way, a kind of Broadway flair. 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 demonlike final reappearance as a giantess in a huge, trailing dress.
But too often the ballet’s choreography is merely expository, with long tracts of forgettable passages illustrating subplots. Although Wheeldon tries to find leitmotifs for his characters (anguished foot flexing for Tita, stabbing lunges for Elena), he doesn’t evoke a real sense of character. Tita and Pedro, beautifully danced by Hayward and Sambé, remain unfocused figures, whose skilfully constructed pas de deux blur into a generalized evocation of frustrated longing, while Tita’s relationship with the kindly Doctor John Brown (an underused Matthew Ball), feels dutifully worked in .
In the ballet’s final moments, however, comes a pas de deux for Tita and Pedro that is the equal of any Wheeldon has created. Like his mesmerizing “After the Rain,” it offers two figures moving through an abstract landscape. To a haunting song based on Octavio Paz’s poem “Sunstone,” sung by Siân Griffiths, Sambé and Hayward 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.
It’s a final theater, one of many visually breathtaking moments in the ballet. But it’s also where the dance shows us something more than a narrative idea. The spare purity of the final pas de deux offers a glimpse of the unity of body and spirit, emotion refined into abstraction. There is plenty that is entertaining in “Like Water for Chocolate”; here, Wheeldon shows he can do much more.
“Like Water for Chocolate”
Through June 17 at the Royal Opera House, London; roh.org.uk.