Love, food, repression, revolution. Based on Laura Esquivel’s novel, The Royal Ballet’s new Like Water for Chocolate is a densely-plotted family saga. Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon weaves multiple generations and jealousies into a swift and stylish narrative, though he takes longer to reach the emotional heart of his story.
Wheeldon’s superb 2014 The Winter’s Tale showed his gift for complex stories. Like Water for Chocolate reunites the same creative team. Joby Talbot’s new score is swirling and fast-paced, helping to drive the galloping plot. Working with conductor and music consultant Alondra de la Parra, he nods to Mexican traditions, without falling into impersonation. Similarly, Bob Crowley’s airy designs evoke Mexican lace and cut paper, gorgeously lit by Natasha Katz.
As the youngest daughter, the heroine Tita isn’t permitted to marry. Staying at home to look after Mama Elena, her controlling mother, she pours her feelings into her cooking. Wheeldon finds visual motifs for both food and emotion. Cloth is stretched and kneaded like dough, a skill passed down the generations. Engaged couples are bound together with ribbon, in an image that is both pretty and oppressive. There’s a sense of freedom when the final couple are allowed to join hands without being bound.
The dancers give powerful weight to those moments. Francesca Hayward’s Tita is stricken with horror and grief when the ribbon is passed from her hand and to her sister – who does have permission to marry. Fighting her daughter, Laura Morera’s Mama Elena slaps the floor on either side of her: Tita caged and surrounded by displaced violence.
The storytelling has impressive clarity, but these events need more room to breathe. One of Tita’s recipes is an overwhelming aphrodisiac, conjuring revolutionary soldiers from under the table to run away with her sister Gertrudis. It’s a glittery, extravagant number, but it isn’t quite a showstopper. Like Gertrudis, splendidly danced by Anna Rose O’Sullivan, the ballet wants more heat and abandon.
Wheeldon finds greater depth as the story continues. As forbidden lovers, Hayward and Marcelino Sambe dance a duet where they can’t let themselves touch: hands reach, bodies fall into yearning lines, while keeping desperately apart. Morera’s Mama Elena is all elegant silhouette and terrifying intensity – but in a flashback to her own unhappy love, she blossoms into youthfulness, with a tender flow of movement.
With such an intricate story, there’s a risk of biting off more than you can chew. Always fluent, Like Water for Chocolate sometimes reaches for intensity. Yet Wheeldon’s sense of theatre sweeps the ballet along. His glowing stage pictures are full of atmosphere, while a charismatic cast bring warmth to this ambitious work.
Until 17 June 2022; www. roh.org.uk