Why ABT’s ‘Like Water for Chocolate’ Became Summer’s Hottest Ticket

The piece is the company’s most ambitious production to date.

As any balletomane can confirm, American Ballet Theatre’s summer season—running through July 22—is one of the marquee events for New York City’s performing arts. And while this year’s month-long stint at the Metropolitan Opera House will include beloved classics like Giselle and Swan Lake, the production that’s most eagerly anticipated by fans is certainly the New York premiere of Like Water for Chocolate, an adaptation of Laura Esquivel’s magical realism novel (and later movie) of the same name.

Ballet dancers performing on a stage
Catherine Hurlin as Gertrudis. Marty Sohl/American Ballet Theat

The plot centers around Tita, a young Mexican woman who has the supernatural ability to infuse her cooking with her own emotions. And, like any good story ballet, there is love, loss, humor and sorrow. The ballet received its world premiere last June in London with The Royal Ballet, and then was workshopped further before premiering with ABT this past March at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California.

The three-act production, choreographed by Tony-winner Christopher Wheeldon and with sets and costumes designed by Bob Crowley, is notable for being the company’s most ambitious production ever, with 145 costumes, 250 props and multiple dance floors.

“I heard one of our stage crew saying that if you were to combine every single one of our productions together, this one production is even bigger than all of those combined,” principal dancer Christine Shevchenko tells Observer.

In its ambition, artistic director of ABT Susan Jaffe likens this ballet more to a show you might see down the street on The Great White Way. “It’s a ballet for the 21st century,” she tells Observer. “There are projections, elements that fly in and fly out. In a way, it runs like a Broadway show as far as the production value of it.”

And while the ballet’s sheer size may draw some to Lincoln Center, it also marks a departure in terms of content and choreography. There are not many ballets in the repertory that feature prominently Mexican themes, nor are there many whose viability relies on the dancers to emote the way they must in this piece.

“You really have to tell the story well in this production,” says Shevchenko of the choreography. “Because if you don’t, then a lot of [the plot] is missed. It’s not about the technique, or the jumps, or anything like that. It’s about storytelling.” Jaffe concurs, noting that Wheeldon’s creative choreography is one of the elements that makes LWFC unique in ABT’s productions.

In a classical piece like Giselle, dancers often pantomime to express emotion. But in this production, “all of the feelings are woven into the choreography more specifically,” she says. “For example, when a character is feeling broken, the foot will go into a turned-in, flexed position, which is not a proper balletic line, but within this ballet, it’s so beautiful and it makes so much sense.” Dancers, therefore, don’t have to stop their movements—and the action of the plot—to mime sadness or happiness.

A group of dancers performing on a stage
Christine Shevchenko (Mama Elena). Marty Sohl

And indeed, Wheeldon likens some sections of LWFC to a play without words. “It’s probably the most complex story I’ve attempted to tell through dance,” he tells Observer. “I’m always striving to create something that feels accessible, but also cinematic in scale, and very theatrical in the way that it moves.”

Thus far, audiences have responded enthusiastically. At the Costa Mesa performances, the company saw an an astounding 30 percent of patrons who had never attended the ballet before, a testament to both to the untapped subject material and Wheeldon’s creative verve.

Jaffe is confident that the New York premiere will havethe same bump in numbers. “We’re very excited. Laura Esquivel said that she and [the Mexican] people that know that this ballet is happening are so proud that this story—this Mexican story—is being brought out to a larger public,” she says. “They’re very, very proud and honored to be put on our stages with such beauty and such great storytelling.”

Like Water for Chocolate closes soon. Tickets are available at abt.org.

A duo of ballet dancers, one dipping the other
Christine Shevchenko (Mama Elena) and Jose Sebastian (José). Marty Sohl/American Ballet Theat

Why ABT’s ‘Like Water for Chocolate’ Became Summer’s Hottest Ticket