Kudos to Christopher Wheeldon on having the foresight and imagination to create a ballet from Laura Esquivel’s novel of recipes, romances and home remedies. And let’s also give thanks that it was Wheeldon who first had this idea of making a dance drama from Como agua para chocolate, since he is one of very few choreographers capable of making sense of it by bringing the pacy momentum of musical theatre into classical ballet.

Francesca Hayward (Tita)
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

Esquivel’s moving story concerns the all-female De la Garza family during the Mexican Civil War in the early years of the 20th century: three sisters are ruled over by the unforgiving Mama Elena (Laura Morera) and served by their 85 year-old cook, Nacha (Christina Arestis) and the family’s maid, Chencha (Isabella Gasparini). It focuses especially on the fate of the youngest daughter, Tita (Francesca Hayward), who – according to tradition – must never marry to be free to look after her mother in old age. Tita and Pedro Muzquiz (Marcelino Sambé) share an unrequited love, bursting with unspent passion, and when Pedro’s request for Tita’s hand in marriage is brutally rejected by Elena, he accepts instead her suggestion of marrying the elder sister, Rosaura (Mayara Magri), in order to remain close to his one true love. Among several side stories, Tita’s other sister Gertrudis (Anna Rose O’Sullivan) elopes with the revolutionary leader, Juan Alejandrez (Cesar Corrales) and a Texan doctor, John Brown (Matthew Ball) proposes marriage to Tita.  

Francesca Hayward (Tita) and Marcelino Sambé (Pedro)
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

The tensions between the women in this matriarchy reflect Federico García Lorca’s scenario for La casa de Bernarda Alba (which Kenneth MacMillan turned into the one-act ballet, Las Hermanas) and the decades-long unrequited love between Tita and Pedro brings to mind the similarly long, unconsummated love between Florentino and Fermino in Gabriel García Marquez’ Love in the Time of Cholera. Notwithstanding these Hispanic similarities, Esquivel’s novel is unique in the inseparable and enigmatic union of food and sex.

This is Wheeldon’s third full-evening work for The Royal Ballet, following Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (2011) and The Winter’s Tale (2014) – only one shy of Sir Frederick Ashton’s total full-length output for the company – and he has retained the same core creative team from those earlier works. There have been a slew of excellent new ballet scores recently and Joby Talbot’s melodious composition easily fits into that top drawer. It is unmistakably accented with Mexican flavours, especially in the fiesta scenes marking Rosaura’s wedding and Gertrudis’ return, both of which successfully bring Broadway to ballet. The authenticity of integral Mexican musical genres, including the solo guitar playing of Tomás Barreiro, was helped by conductor Alondra de la Parra acting as Talbot’s musical consultant.

Marcelino Sambé (Pedro)
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

Bob Crowley’s striking designs bring the De la Garza household into vivid realisation with the imagery of flapping sheets and elaborate print patterns, contrasting this with the simplicity of wide open spaces marking Tita’s recuperation in Texas. As in The Winter’s Tale, Crowley uses realistic trees, one garlanded with lanterns, to dress his set and, as in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, he brings culinary imagery to life.

The performances across the cast for this world premiere were exceptionally good. Hayward and Sambé brought all the frustrations of unrequited love to the surface and their final pas de deux, leading to a sensational ending to the ballet, was deliciously sensual and passionate, and danced with great feeling. Morera’s portrayal of the dominating Elena, both in life and as a malevolent spirit (sinister shades of Alice’s Red Queen), was a tour de force. Mayara Magri gave a sympathetic reading of Rosaura and Anna Rose O’Sullivan was exciting and ebullient as Gertrudis, the warrior sister. When the aphrodisiac “Quail in Rose Petals” kicked in, the scene in which she strips and elopes is great fun, with Corrales’ Juan simultaneously riding both his (mechanical) horse and Gertrudis, although tastefully not naked as in the novel!

Anna Rose O'Sullivan (Gertrudis) and Cesar Corrales (Juan Alejandrez)
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

A couple of scenes in the first act are dominated by the overriding need to set the narrative background such that it can be confusing without a knowledge of the book (or Alfonso Arau’s 1992 film adaptation) and the integral culinary aspects of the novel (each monthly instalment, or chapter, is punctuated by relevant and detailed recipes) is perhaps understandably sidelined to some extent; although the nauseous effect of Tita’s tears falling into the wedding cake batter is graphically portrayed and her longing for Pedro becomes manifest in the startling aphrodisiac impact of that quail dish. 

Laura Morera (Mama Elena) and Marcelino Sambé (Pedro)
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

Wheeldon and his artistic associates have done a magnificent job in bringing this extraordinary book to life in dance. When Esquivel’s novel was first translated into English it was as Like Water for Hot Chocolate and Wheeldon has certainly put the hot back into this ballet.