ABT (designated “America’s National Ballet Company” in 2006 by act of Congress) was founded in 1939 with the mission to preserve and present the rich repertoire of classical ballet, as well as commission new works by exceptional contemporary choreographers. This season, the first for new Artistic Director Susan Jaffe, promises to fulfill that mission in the best possible ways.
Two-time Tony Award-winning choreographer Christopher Wheeldon’s Like Water for Chocolate, making its New York premiere on June 22 and running through July 1, is without a doubt the season’s highlight. The new three-act ballet received its world premiere by The Royal Ballet on June 2, 2022 at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, London and its North American premiere by ABT at Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California on March 29, 2023. Associate Artistic Director Clint Luckett told Observer that the Company can’t wait to bring its first ballet set in Mexico to the diverse New York audience.
Like Water for Chocolate is inspired by Mexican author Laura Esquivel’s bestselling novel of the same name. Those of you who have read the novel may be wondering how this story would translate to dance, as it centers around cooking and food. While Wheeldon did have to pull back from the culinary themes and focus on the parts that felt most easily communicable through movement (complicated family dynamics and the passionate love affair between dutiful Tita and her wealthy neighbor Pedro), he keeps the story’s sensuality and magical realism at the forefront.
In ABT’s pop-up online book club moderated by Pointe Magazine’s Editor-in-Chief Amy Brandt and ABT dancer Courtney Lavine, Wheeldon said that he toyed with the idea of pumping delicious aromas into the theater. How fun would that have been? When that plan didn’t pan out, he settled on long tables to hold the symbolic weight of food and the kitchen on the stage.
Wheeldon wanted to stay as true to the novel as possible. He went to Mexico City with collaborator Joby Talbot to discuss their ideas with Esquivel and learn more about her culture. He referred to Esquivel’s writing throughout the choreographic process, using one of her many poignant images to create each scene’s “emotional core.” He also made sure that every dancer received a copy of the book. Cassandra Trenary, who dances Tita, says her copy is full of underlined passages and dog-eared pages. While waiting backstage in California, she would flip to favorite lines to help prepare for her performance.
During the pop-up discussion, Trenary described Wheeldon’s choreography as “deeply human,” which is both a joy and a challenge as the dancers can’t rely on the gestural work so common in classical ballet. In fact, the choreography is refreshingly devoid of any mime at all. Herman Cornejo, dancing Pedro, talked of his connection to his character, saying, “Even though this role was created for someone else, when working with Chris it feels like it was created for me.”
As for the music, you are in for quite a treat. Talbot’s original score will be conducted by Alondra de la Parra (the first Mexican woman to conduct professionally in New York City) for the first four performances. Performers include Venezuelan-born singer Maria Brea and Tomás Barreiro, an internationally recognized Mexican composer, orchestrator, and guitar player, who will be on Solo Guitar for all twelve performances.
But the biggest feast of all is for the eyes. Natasha Katz’s atmospheric lighting, Luke Halls’ video design and Bob Crowley’s scenery and costumes are extraordinary. The production requires over 200 costumes, 250 props, 33 wigs, 25 hair pieces, 265 lighting cues, 80 video cues, 60 flying cues and more than 90 backstage staff (including six wig stylists). In ABT’s On Point magazine, Vincent Roca, ABT’s Head of Production explains, “It’s all part of the choreography… Christopher uses the scenery and the props, and the costumes in such a beautiful storytelling way. It’s all part of the story, and it’s all connected.”
Esquivel, who was at the world premiere in London and will be at the New York premiere as well, is very pleased with the adaptation, calling Wheeldon an alchemist, saying, “He takes all the elements and transforms them, and creates something magical.”
Wheeldon has indeed created something magical, and Like Water For Chocolate should not be missed. But the thing that ABT does so well—arguably better than any other dance company in the world—is bring the past to life. And there is magic in that too. In an ephemeral art form like dance, performing old masterpieces is essential, beautiful work.
Following the run of Like Water For Chocolate, the three full-length classics in the Summer Season are presented in historical order.
First up is the haunting Giselle (July 3–8), one of the oldest continuously performed—and one of the most challenging—classic ballets. Inspired by the supernatural writings of Heinrich Hein and Victor Hugo, it was originally titled Giselle, ou les Wilis (translated Giselle, or the Wilis), which pretty much sums up the plot. Wilis (as in “gives me the willies”) are the ghosts of jilted women who seek revenge on men by making them dance to their death by exhaustion. The world premiere of the original production (choreographed by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot) occurred at the Theatre de l’Academie Royale de Musique in Paris on June 28, 1841, starring Carlotta Grisi as Giselle. The ballet is dreamy, poetic, and tragic. It was created at the height of French Romanticism and is notable for putting the ballerina front and center, which had not previously been the case in what was a male-dominated art form.
The ballet has gone through many iterations over its 182 years, but ABT premiered the current production (staged by ABT’s former Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie and incorporating Marius Petipa’s choreography) in 1998. It is set to the original score by Adolphe Adam, orchestrated by John Lanchbery, with scenery by Gianni Quaranta, costumes by Anna Anni, and lighting by Jennifer Tipton. For its opening performance, Hee Seo will dance the title role with Cory Stearns as Albrecht.
Next is Swan Lake (July 10-15), another classic from the nineteenth century. Based, perhaps (there is some controversy), on Russian and German folktales, it tells the story of Odette, a princess turned into a swan by an evil sorcerer’s curse. The ballet was originally choreographed by Julius Reisinger for the Bolshoi Ballet in 1877. But it is Petipa and Lev Ivanov’s revival for the Imperial Ballet in 1895 that received positive critical acclaim and international success.
Composer Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky’s original score for Swan Lake was inspired by Adam’s score for Giselle, especially in its use of leitmotif (a musical phrase associated with certain characters or moods). The iconic music was initially not well received. For the 1895 revival, Tchaikovsky’s score was revised by the St. Petersburg Imperial Theatre’s chief conductor and composer Riccardo Drigo, and this is the version that is still heard on stage today.
The current production of Swan Lake, which premiered in 2000, was choreographed by McKenzie after Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov and features scenery and costumes by Zack Brown and lighting by Duane Schuler. Isabella Boylston opens as Odette-Odile and Daniel Camargo as Prince Siegfried.
Closing out the season is the mid-20th century Romeo and Juliet (July 18-22), based on William Shakespeare’s play. Sergei Prokofiev’s musical score was originally composed in 1935, but the ballet wasn’t presented until 1938 and didn’t get much attention until the premiere of its revised version at the Kirov Theater (now Mariinsky Theatre) in Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) in 1940. The production that we all know and love, though, received its world premiere by The Royal Ballet in London in 1965 with Margot Fonteyn and Rudolph Nureyev dancing Kenneth MacMillan’s choreography.
Romeo and Juliet features scenery and costumes by Nicholas Georgiadis and lighting by Thomas Skelton. Devon Teuscher and Aran Bell will open in the title roles.
While romantic passion and death make for good ballets, they might not be the best topics for kids. Younger audiences can enjoy ABTKids, the annual one-hour introduction to ballet for families on the morning of June 24. There will be excerpts from Swan Lake, Giselle, and Romeo and Juliet, as well as the solo Do You Care?, choreographed by ABT dancer Aleisha Walker, and Vasily Vainonen’s Flames of Paris pas de deux performed by members of ABT Studio Company.
There will be all kinds of lovers on Met’s stage this summer: forbidden, unrequited, half-dead, fully dead, cross-species and star-crossed. There will also be magic and grace and top-notch dancing. You’ll be able to travel to Mexico during the Revolution, Rhineland during the Middle Ages, an enchanted lake by a European castle “long ago,” and a balcony in Renaissance Italy, all while taking in ABT’s steaming-hot artistry, and what could be more summery than that.
ABT will perform at the Metropolitan Opera House through July 22.