ABT Debuts Like Water for Chocolate—And Cooks Up Some Magic

March 24, 2023

Christopher Wheeldon is no stranger to translating complex and imaginative narratives into full-length ballets, with classics like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Winter’s Tale. He returns this month to American Ballet Theatre with the U.S. premiere of Like Water for Chocolate, a ballet inspired by the acclaimed novel of the same title by Mexican author Laura Esquivel. A co-production between The Royal Ballet and ABT, Like Water for Chocolate made its world premiere at London’s Royal Opera House in June 2022, with Francesca Hayward and Marcelino Sambé in the lead roles; ABT will debut it in the U.S. at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California, March 29–April 2. The ballet will also open the company’s 2023 summer season at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera House on June 22 and run through July 1. (Due to mature themes, the ballet is suitable for ages 13 and up.) 

Esquivel’s book has sold more than four and a half million copies worldwide, and its 1992 film adaptation garnered an Ariel Award for Best Picture (Mexico’s highest film honor). Set during the Mexican Revolution, Like Water for Chocolate tells the story of Tita De la Garza, who is forbidden to marry the love of her life, Pedro. Family tradition dictates that as the youngest daughter of Mama Elena, Tita must remain unmarried in order to care for her until she dies. Mama Elena offers Pedro the hand of Tita’s sister, Rosaura, and Pedro reluctantly marries her to remain in Tita’s life. But it’s not another typical love-triangle story: Tita’s magic—and power—lies in her ability to channel her feelings into the food she cooks, sending all who consume it into waves of emotion, from deep sorrow to erotic passion. 

Cassandra Trenary, in a long light blue and white striped house dress, and Daniel Camargo, in a white button down and beige trousers, pose together sensually as Tita and Pedro in "Like Water for Chocolate." Trenary sits on a wooden table facing Camargo, leaning back on her hands slightly as she lifts her legs around him gently. Camargo kneels, her right leg on his shoulder as he holds her left calf and looks down at her leg passionately.
Cassandra Trenary and Daniel Camargo in Like Water for Chocolate. Photo by Emma Zordon, courtesy American Ballet Theatre.

“There are so many layers to Tita, and I think there is a really intense strength within her throughout the entire story,” reflects Cassandra Trenary, who is cast as Tita opposite Herman Cornejo as Pedro. “Laura [Esquivel] has written a very passionate, whimsical being who is relatable simply because she is someone who holds these multiple truths within her. There is this internal struggle between doing what is ‘right’ and what aligns with her heart. Generationally, she also hopes this tradition of having to be the caretaker of the household will die with her, so the women after her will be free to make the decisions that she wasn’t able to.”

Wheeldon watched the film version of Like Water for Chocolate in 1993.  “I was enchanted by the story, its magical realism and family saga,” Wheeldon said during a preview discussion via Zoom with ABT donors. He eventually was introduced to Esquivel through a mutual friend, esteemed Mexican conductor Alondra de la Parra, who became the ballet’s music consultant. Wheeldon and his creative team, which includes composer Joby Talbot and designer Bob Crowley (who both worked with him on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Winter’s Tale), traveled to Mexico between 2018 to 2019 to meet with Esquivel and gather research to create the ballet. In addition to de la Parra’s conducting, the performance will feature Mexican musician Tomás Barreiro on solo guitar.

The cast has had the opportunity to chat with Esquivel once so far, via Zoom, during rehearsals.

In front of a dark rust background, Cassandra Trenary and Daniel Camargo dance together as Tita and Pedro in "Like Water for Chocolate." Trenary wears a nude-colored dress with a sheer, wispy skirt that's slit on the side, and she lunges with her back to Camargo. Camargo wears nude tights and lunges with her, chest toward her back. Their arms trace each other with longing.
Cassandra Trenary and Daniel Camargo in Like Water for Chocolate. Photo by Emma Zordon, courtesy American Ballet Theatre.

“Laura explained how she wanted to share this story about creating change within yourself and within your home, and how these are important little changes [one can make] when war is raging around you,” explains Trenary. “Tita realized that her way of contributing to the revolution was ensuring that change could take place in her family generationally; to see that women in her family can have freedom, will and the ability to love who they want to love and live life according to their terms.”

The Royal Ballet principal and coach Edward Watson, Benesh choreologist Gregory Mislin and frequent Wheeldon répétiteur Jason Fowler have served as Wheeldon’s assistants for ABT’s rehearsals. 

“My favorite thing about this ballet is that it allows so many artists to have an opportunity to dance a great role,” explains Watson. “It’s not like you have the two principal leads and a backup of corps [dancers] doing a few solos and pas de deux. It involves everybody, and everyone has their importance throughout.”

As for Trenary, who is performing a Wheeldon ballet for the first time, she has particularly enjoyed the narrative behind the movement. “It feels like we’re mounting a play in a lot of ways,” she says. “It’s a very meaty story, but I think at the end of the day, it’s just so cool to take on such a nuanced character that is written in text so clearly. It’s fun to excavate it all as I learn the steps.”