An exploration of tradition and rebellion will take center stage in “Like Water for Chocolate,” Christopher Wheeldon’s latest full-length ballet for American Ballet Theatre. The work is based on a magical love story that was first shared in Mexican author Laura Esquivel’s best-selling novel of the same name. 

Adding to the three-act production: an emphasis on acting outside of pure attention to ballet technique and choreography. 

“This is the most text-like of all ballets I have made,” said Wheeldon in an ABT special event talk-back session in March. “It is most like a play, a lot of stories are told with just a glance.”

‘Like Water For Chocolate

When:  7:30 p.m. March 29 through 2 p.m. April 1.

Where: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

Cost: Starting at $29

Contact: or (714) 556-2787

That approach has so far paid off. Reviews of the 2022 world premiere, as danced in London by The Royal Ballet, came back positively and left Wheeldon excited to continue working on the production, fine-tuning it in the way that Broadway productions use preview performances for before the official opening.

“With these big productions, it’s luxurious when you get to restage it,” Wheeldon said. “To have the opportunity to go in and make adjustments…It is ever-shifting, ever-shaping.”

Following the North American premiere in California, “Like Water for Chocolate” will travel back to New York to open ABT’s summer season at the Metropolitan Opera House on June 22.

Magical Realism, Mexican Heritage and Adapting for Dance

“Like Water for Chocolate,” tells the story of a young Mexican woman named Tita who has been relegated to a solitary life by virtue of birth order and tradition. Despite her circumstances, Tita longs for her forbidden love, Pedro, and soon finds that her stifled emotions are miraculously infused into her cooking. The seemingly ordinary meals create dramatic and sometimes startling experiences for those who taste her dishes.

Fantastical cooking abilities aside, the family saga that plays out in the pages of Esquivel’s book is real and relatable to many people, and it also describes a unique culture and time period. 

When deciding how to bring the ballet to life in early 2020, Wheeldon worked with Mexican conductor Alondra de la Parra and Esquivel herself to reshape the richly layered story in a way that respected the culture and helped focus the production on the narrative.

“I was in the middle of creating (the ballet) when we had this massive culture reckoning,” Wheeldon said as he discussed the pandemic’s influence on the work. “I asked myself, ‘How do we make sure these ballets are made hand-in-hand with Mexican collaborators, and how can we approach the story in a more abstract way?’”

As a result, the creative team – which includes composer Joby Talbot, designer Bob Crowley and lighting designer Natasha Katz – found ways to incorporate Mexican instruments, architecture and textiles into the production.

Humanizing Not Hiding

Along with his attention to design, Wheeldon took great care in shepherding the characters in Esquivel’s story to the stage. He cast dancers based on more than their technical abilities in order to do right by the vivid emotions of each role. 

Wheeldon shared that he was presented with a challenge early on to go against the iconic notion of the “ballerina role” and the “male role” and instead choose dancers who were right for each part. 

“There are five to seven roles I consider to be ‘leading’ roles (in ‘Like Water for Chocolate’) and they need to be danced by the right people. It takes real artists to play these parts.”

Throughout the six shows, Trenary, SunMi Park, and Devon Teuscher will appear in the role of Tita on various nights and Herman Cornejo, Daniel Camargo and Joo Won Ahn will play Pedro. Other leading roles will be danced by Christine Shevchenko, Hee Seo, Catherine Hurlin, Cory Stearns, Thomas Forster, Betsy McBride, Zhong-Jing Fang, Chloe Misseldine, Skylar Brandt and Calvin Royal III. 

“To be involved in a ballet that prioritizes storytelling is a dream come true. I honestly find comfort in it more than anything,” said Cassandra Trenary who compared the ballet to having a script. She will be playing Tita on opening night. 

Although there is magic, “Like Water for Chocolate” is not of the “Sleeping Beauty” variety with innocent princesses and fairies. The magical realism genre that the book belongs to does not shy away from sensuality and yearning.

“There are moments on stage that are very passionate and intimate. It feels good to sit in the character and not feel like I have to hide elements of what it is to be a human, a woman,” Trenary said. “The characters are wrestling with choices they made, forgiving and harming one another, exploring infidelity. It feels very adult and it feels very real.”

Said Trenary: “I truly believe that if ballet is going to survive, an audience needs to feel like they can connect with it. I am most interested in dance when I see the intention behind what is being danced when I see something that moves me.”

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