Dance review: Christopher Wheeldon’s Like Water for Chocolate — magical-realism brought to life – Financial Times

Marcelino Sambé and Francesca Hayward in ‘Like Water for Chocolate’ © Tristram Kenton

Christopher Wheeldon is not afraid of complex narratives. His previous story ballets have included the absurdist Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and a Shakespeare “problem” play, The Winter’s Tale. Now he tackles Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate, the 1989 magical-realist bestseller. The result, a co-production with American Ballet Theatre, had its world premiere at Covent Garden last Thursday. It is gorgeous to look at and superbly danced, but the ballet’s central love story is stifled by over-elaborate storytelling.

Tita’s Mama forbids the banns, so Pedro marries her sister in order to be near his true love. Several convenient deaths and many, many recipes later, the two are finally united. Anyone who subscribes to the show-don’t-tell school of dance drama — Matthew Bourne is a fervent believer — will have been aghast at Wheeldon’s 1,200-word scenario — “her tears inundate the batter”; “their sadness manifests as violent indigestion” — and disappointed that so much precious dancing time is eaten up by stage “business”.

Bob Crowley, whose phantasmagoric designs were the making of 2011’s Alice and who created powerful stage pictures for 2014’s The Winter’s Tale, was a natural choice to bring Esquivel’s dreamlike imagery to life. The near-ludicrous moment when sister Gertrudis (zestily danced by both Anna Rose O’Sullivan and Meaghan-Grace Hinkis) is driven wild by a large helping of quails in rose petal sauce and runs naked into the desert to be ravished mid-gallop by a passing revolutionary ought to be unstageable, but Crowley, with a bucking bronco puppet and a flesh-coloured leotard, somehow finds a way.

Dancers cluster in a group and carry a female dancer who holds aloft her arms and expresses serene pleasure
Anna Rose O’Sullivan as Gertrudis © Tristram Kenton

The magical-realist bits are entertaining — the monstrous ghost of Mama Elena (Laura Morera on fearsome form) wears a six-man crinoline — but everyday elements are handled with leaden literalness. Pedro’s banishment requires a change of clothes, three suitcases and a buggy when “exit, crestfallen, stage right” would surely have sufficed. Solos and duets are regularly upstaged or interrupted by the next plot twist, robbing them of impact.

Francesca Hayward, one part steel, two parts silk, conveys the heroine’s every mood from frisking girlhood to the flex-footed contortions of her mental breakdown. Marcelino Sambé shows off his easy elevation and eerily silent landings and gives tragic weight to the love of her life. Cesar Corrales was on scene-stealing form as the rebel leader at Thursday’s opening, unleashing a cyclonic pirouette, arms snaking around him like bullwhips. As the hero at Saturday’s matinee, his slightly effortful partnering of the expressive Yasmine Naghdi gave their duets a dangerous edge.

Somehow, despite the best efforts of both casts, the pas de deux remain unsatisfying and unmusical. Composer Joby Talbot, advised by Mexican conductor Alondra de La Parra, peppers the orchestra with a quartet of Mexican instrumentalists. The result has cinematic sweep but it’s essentially illustrative rather than inspirational and might explain why the love scenes fail to take flight. The final duet comes close with mezzo Siân Griffiths singing Octavo Paz’s poem “Sun Stone”, but even here the heavy emotional lifting is done by Crowley and video designer Luke Halls, who magically bring the closing inferno to life, the lovers flying clear of the flames in an eternal embrace.

★★★☆☆

To June 17, roh.org.uk

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