After tasting a dish infused with rose petals, a young woman experiences an erotic awakening so intense that she gallops off with a passing soldier. Another woman feels such love for her sister’s child that she develops the ability to nurse him from her own breast. Two lovers come together in an embrace so passionate that it causes them to spontaneously combust. Such magical occurrences arrive at regular intervals in “Like Water for Chocolate,” the 1989 novel by the Mexican writer Laura Esquivel that has now inspired a ballet by Christopher Wheeldon.
American Ballet Theater will open its summer season at the Metropolitan Opera House on June 22 with “Like Water for Chocolate,” which had its company debut at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, Calif., in March.
The large-scale production, a co-commission with the Royal Ballet — the world premiere was in London last year — represents a new kind of endeavor for American Ballet Theater: a full-length work based not on a folk tale or a literary source from the past but on a work of contemporary fiction, a best seller that was made into a popular film. The hope is that it will attract new audiences, less familiar with ballet.
“For people who might not be familiar with the great abstract works of Balanchine or the classics,” Wheeldon said, “they might see a poster and think, ‘Well maybe I’ll go and see that.’”
The premiere comes at a time when Ballet Theater, like many arts organizations, is struggling to recover its prepandemic audiences. The company’s last season at the Metropolitan Opera before the pandemic filled eight weeks, but because of changes in the opera’s schedule, since 2022 the Met seasons have been reduced to five weeks. And touring is down.
“People are just starting to come back to the theaters,” said Susan Jaffe, the company’s new artistic director, who took over in December. “What we’re trying to do is build out our weeks in New York and continue to have as much presence as we had in the past.”
“We are the company of the story ballet,” she added. “I think ‘Like Water for Chocolate’ is exactly everything that Ballet Theater should be producing right now.”
Esquivel’s novel achieved its success by interweaving Mexican culinary wisdom with a story of forbidden love set during and after the turbulent years of the Mexican Revolution. Readers were drawn to its tale of female empowerment — with her ability to channel emotion through cooking, the heroine changes her destiny — its frank discussion of female pleasure, and its folksy tone.
The novel has sold more than 7 million copies, in 38 languages, and was turned into one of Mexico’s top grossing films.
It was the movie, released in 1992, that grabbed Wheeldon’s attention. He was a young dancer, newly arrived from London when “Like Water for Chocolate” was in theaters. He had just joined New York City Ballet and was feeling lonely and claustrophobic in his tiny New York apartment.
“I saw the poster for the film at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas,” he said, and was drawn in. “I was enchanted. It was something about the combination of the main character’s magical power, mixed with a ghost story and this epic romance.”
These ingredients align the film and novel with magical realism, a catchall label for a branch of Latin American and world literature, in which mundane events merge with otherworldly occurrences. As Esquivel recently said in a Zoom call from her office in Brasília, where she is serving as ambassador to Brazil: “I come from a culture where magical realism is part of our daily life. It’s not even magic. It’s just a way of channeling energy.”
Esquivel, whose approval and guidance Wheeldon sought throughout the process, describes cooking as a kind of alchemy, a word she also applies to what Wheeldon has done in translating her novel into a ballet. “He transports us to a language of rhythm, of movement, of suggestion and interpretation beyond words,” said Esquivel, who plans to attend the New York premiere.
Such a translation has its complications. On the one hand, magic is something ballet does well — otherworldly transformations and supernatural characters provide much of the atmosphere and mystery of 19th-century ballets like “Giselle” and “Swan Lake.” But ballet has a harder time convincingly rendering complicated plots with multiple story lines, depicting a wide range of emotions and events that occur over long periods and in more than one location.
“Like Water” takes place at a family farm in northern Mexico over the course of two decades, beginning at the time of the Mexican Revolution in the early 20th century. Some scenes are set across the border, in Texas. There are six main characters, including Tita, the heroine, her domineering mother and two sisters, each of whom has a story of her own.
Then there are Tita’s two love interests, her true love Pedro and an American doctor for whom she feels affection but no passion. Plus a group of Mexican revolutionaries, assorted farm workers, two servants and two ghosts who appear intermittently. It’s a lot.
For help, Wheeldon, who has directed two Tony-award-winning Broadway musicals (“An American in Paris” and “MJ The Musical”), called on two longstanding collaborators, the designer Bob Crowley and the composer Joby Talbot. Together, they devised a storytelling style that emphasizes fluidity and forward motion.
The production stage manager, Danielle Ventimiglia, said “Like Water” is the most technically challenging production Ballet Theater has put onstage. “There are so many elements that have to come together perfectly in time to the music,” she said. “The backstage choreography is incredibly complex.”
Drops and set pieces fly in and out in a continual stream, moving the action along at a heady clip and evoking changing locations, both interiors and exteriors. Near-constant lighting changes suggest close-ups, dissolves, changes of focus and the passage of time.
“There are easily more lighting changes in this production than in the rest of the season’s ballets combined,” Ventimiglia said after a rehearsal. “I’m talking, sending out instructions, nonstop during the whole show.”
At the Royal Opera House in London, where the theater has a computerized rig, the cues could be programmed and executed automatically, but in New York, it must all be done by hand as it was in California. Around 10 stagehands pull ropes to raise and lower the flies.
The ballet “is quite cinematic,” Wheeldon said. “The scenes are short, and there is a very clear flow of storytelling from beginning to end, and almost no pure dance moments. Dramatically, every moment of the piece informs the next.”
The lead characters often deploy a physical language somewhere between dance and simple gesture, a kind of wordless acting and reacting. “It’s almost like a play without words,” Wheeldon said. Movement evokes conversations, arguments, secret assignations, cooking and, at one point, food poisoning.
“It’s not always about what is the most dazzlingly inventive step I can come up with,” Wheeldon said, “but about what is the step that actually focuses us very clearly on what is happening in the story.” The most technical choreography is saved for a series of pivotal pas de deux and big, celebratory group dances.
Talbot’s music in some ways more closely resembles a movie score than traditional ballet accompaniment. “I think it’s most similar to writing for silent film,” said Talbot, who was at home in London working on an actual film score. “The music is sort of in front of what’s happening on the stage.”
Like Crowley, the designer, who took inspiration from Mexican landscapes and textiles and the architecture of the modernist Luis Barragán, Talbot wove Mexican elements into the ballet’s musical setting. He worked with the Mexican conductor Alondra de la Parra — who will conduct during the ballet’s New York run — and the guitarist and composer Tomás Barreiro to develop a Mexican sound world, drawing from musical forms like danzón and huapango (a folk style from the north, for guitar, violin and voice) and using traditional instruments like the teponaztli (a kind of drum), bamboo flute, guitar and ocarina. Barreiro plays guitar onstage during the ballet.
“Alondra and Tomás really helped me get my head around this amazing, incredibly rich tradition of Mexican music,” Talbot said.
But the dance vocabulary is very much Wheeldon’s own. There are large group numbers that suggest the groundedness and rhythms of folk dance, but the steps are not drawn from the Mexican folk tradition. (Some people might see echoes of “Estancia,” his 2010 ballet for New York City Ballet, and the folk-dance scene in his “Winter’s Tale.”)
His avoidance of the traditional steps found in Mexican dance, he said, “gave me more freedom to build my own vocabulary.” He added: “I also wanted to be sensitive and avoid moving in the direction of cultural appropriation.”
As in most ballets, the arc of the love story is developed through a series of pas de deux, an art for which Wheeldon is well known. “Each pas de deux has a very different temperature, reflecting the different stages of their relationship,” he said of the lead couple, whose forbidden romance is thwarted at every turn. The partnering grows increasingly steamy — an intimacy consultant was brought in to ensure that everyone felt comfortable. (On the Ballet Theater website, the production comes with a parental advisory, advising discretion for children under 13.)
Cassandra Trenary, who dances the role of Tita on opening night, said in an interview that the opportunity to depict female passion onstage with greater frankness than usual felt liberating. “It makes me feel like I can be a full, complex, interesting woman onstage,” she said. “I think it’s a step in the right direction for ballet.”
The romance, along with the ballet’s cinematic sweep, fits into Wheeldon’s desire to attract new, and perhaps different, audiences. “People are sometimes afraid because they don’t know exactly what ballet is,” he said. “But maybe we can bring in new audiences because they think they’re going to get a theatrical and dynamic experience. Maybe they’ll be able to experience ballet through the art of storytelling, which is more accessible.”