A photo essay captures the intimate beauty of one of the most impactful dance premieres ever presented at Segerstrom Center for the Arts

Photos and descriptions by Elaina Francis

Christopher Wheeldon’s latest ballet Like Water for Chocolate from American Ballet Theatre had six fiery performances in the ballet’s North American Premiere at Segerstrom Center for the Arts. Center audiences were the first in the country to experience this magical Mexican love story with the stellar dancers of ABT translating this richly layered tale.

This family saga set in 19th-century Mexico tells the story of Tita, a young Mexican woman who is overwhelmed by a sense of duty and family tradition, unable to marry until her mother dies.

In the novel, Esquival writes, “For Tita, the joy of living was wrapped up in the delights of food.” Emotion runs deep, her only form of expression spilling out from the kitchen—influencing everyone around her in startling and dramatic ways. Her life takes an unexpected turn when she falls in forbidden love with her wealthy neighbor Pedro. Her mother offers Pedro the hand of Tita’s sister, Rosaura, and Pedro reluctantly marries her to remain in Tita’s life. Their hidden passion has far-reaching—and devastating—consequences.

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. 

Co-presented by the Segersrom Center for the Arts and ABT, and led by Artistic Director Susan Jaffe, the three-act work is set to an original score by Joby Talbot and inspired by Laura Esquivel’s captivating and bestselling novel of the same name. 

Esquivel’s original novel has sold more than 4.5 million copies around the world and has been translated into more than 30 languages, while the memorable film adaptation won ten Ariel Awards (Mexico’s highest film honor) including Best Picture and, at the time of its release in 1992, was the highest-grossing foreign film in the United States and Canada.

Esquivel says, “Having Christopher and his team transform my story into a ballet is truly magical for me. It was a great pleasure to have them visit Mexico for extensive research and to develop the scenario together. I am amazed at how Christopher can translate deep emotions into movement, and I can’t wait to see this wonderful creative adventure unfold.”

Act I, Scene 4, “Quail in Rose Petal Sauce” feels like a key moment in classical ballet for its portrayal of female sexuality. Instead of hinting at promiscuity, Christopher Wheeldon’s choreography implies only delight.  Skylar Brandt’s performance as Gertrudis is one of a young woman completely at ease with her own desires. Her grande jetés and her smiling eyes are equally open, and she is unabashedly comfortable in seeking her own pleasure. 

As the scene ends, this open attitude toward sex as a gratifying experience is reinforced when Gertrudis is carried off on horseback by revolutionary soldier Juan Alejandrez. In allowing her a fulfilled sexual identity, this supporting character then becomes a heroine, and later returns to the ranch as a top commander herself. Gertrudis reminds us that pleasure may be sought and enjoyed, without fear of consequence or harm. 

Tita and Pedro are briefly united and alleviated of guilt, when Tita discovers her mother’s diary revealing Mama Elena’s hypocrisy.  Their joy is short-lived, however, when the ghost of Mama Elena comes back to haunt them.

The final scene of Act III shows our tragic lovers finally rid of all roadblocks to their coupling. Tita and Pedro are able to fully surrender to each other in the production’s most breathtaking moment.

Wheeldon worked closely with Esquivel to reshape her story of magical realism into an entertaining and engrossing new ballet with a newly commissioned score by Joby Talbot and designs by Bob Crowley. Mexican conductor Alondra de la Parra will lead Pacific Symphony with the addition of featured Mexican musician Tomás Barreiro on solo guitar. Lighting is by Natasha Katz and video design is by Luke Halls.

“Nothing could be sweeter than hosting the North American Premiere of Like Water for Chocolate for American Ballet Theatre’s spring engagement at Segerstrom Center for the Arts,” says Judy Morr, Executive Vice President for Segerstrom Center for the Arts. “To give our patrons and ballet aficionados the unique opportunity of being the first audience in the country to see this magical Mexican love story come to life with the extraordinary and talented ABT dancers is exciting.”

Act III, Scene 2 “The Ranch” is a visual masterpiece, ranging from stillness to full-stage movement, all of it equally poetic. The couple begins the scene with their hands placed over each other’s hearts, taking a moment to simply breathe. Then ensues an athletic, motion-driven pas de deux,  ending in a bed of fiery passion.  Slowly, their intertwined forms begin to lift as flames engulf their bed, rising higher and higher until the entire stage has become a burning symbol of their passion. 

While the choreographer’s interpretations and the dancer’s executions deserve an ovation, one should take a moment to also applaud other members of the crew.  The costumers, set designers, stage managers, audio engineers, lighting designers and many more all deserve extensive praise for creating an environment on the Segerstrom Center for the Arts stage that allowed the intensity of this love to burn in all of us. 

Like Water for Chocolate received its World Premiere from The Royal Ballet on June 2, 2022, at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London. Following the North American Premiere engagement at Segerstrom Center for the Arts, the New York Premiere will take place Thursday evening, June 22 at 6:30 PM at the Metropolitan Opera House, through Saturday, July 1, during ABT’s Summer season at Lincoln Center.  

Segerstrom Center for the Arts |

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