On weekend in the early 1990s, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, 19-year-old dancer Christopher Wheeldon found himself distraught. He had recently moved from London to join the New York City Ballet. “I hadn’t really made any friends yet and I remember a very lonely Sunday afternoon at the cinema,” Wheeldon says. “There used to be a big art house in Lincoln Center, called Lincoln Plaza.” The movie he saw there was Like Water for Chocolate, an adaptation of Mexican author Laura Esquivel’s magical, realistic novel about thwarted love.
“It really stuck with me,” Wheeldon says. “I’m a bit of a hopeless romantic, I guess.” At the time, he had no idea that 30 years later he would still be living in New York, now an award-winning choreographer with international success Tony and Olivier, turning the film he saw into a ballet.
Having started his choreographic career making abstract neoclassical ballets (including Polyphonia, Morphoses and Tryst) based on stark beauty, structuring and musicality, Wheeldon has since made a name for himself as a large-scale storyteller, who has everything covered, from the visual spectacle of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to transforming The Winter’s Tale, supposedly one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays”, into a moving ballet. He also choreographed and directed a hit stage version of Gene Kelly’s film An American in Paris and recently opened the Michael Jackson musical MJ on Broadway.
Esquivel’s novel is unlike any of those shows, but Wheeldon spotted rich ingredients for the ballet in the story of heroine Tita, forbidden to marry her beloved Pedro because family tradition dictates that she has to stay home to take care of her demanding mother. As Tita cooks for the family, her emotions are transferred to the food and those who eat it, causing flare-ups of lovesickness and intense desire. Heightened emotions and simmering passion are things that ballet does very well, and Wheeldon has planned great ballerina roles for Tita, her mother and sisters (Francesca Hayward will be the first Tita). “And it’s a very dynamic story,” he says. “There is a ghost, a band of revolutionaries and, of course, magic.”
At the start of the project, Wheeldon visited Esquivel in Mexico City and she cooked him a recipe from the book, a casserole of champandongo. “I wouldn’t do this without Laura’s blessing,” he says, aware of the sensibilities of telling stories outside of his own culture. “We have to make sure we’re asking all the right questions and that we have permission.”
Wheeldon has also worked closely with Mexican conductor Alondra de la Parra and composer Tomás Barreiro, but has no intention of copying the world of the novel. After studying a vast array of Mexican folk dances, he decided the best path was to invent his own language. Likewise, the score, by Joby Talbot, combines passionate melodies and danceable rhythms with only hints of Mexican flavor.
Even the story is somewhat abstract, its “detailed and tightly woven tapestry” distilled into key relationships based on the ballet’s strengths. Wheeldon is well aware that for those unaccustomed to dancing, watching even well-known story ballets on stage can be disconcerting. “I sat in Swan Lake the other night and thought, ‘If you’re coming to this for the very first time and you haven’t read what this is about, you’re going to have a hard time. “”
Perhaps that’s why the ballet so often falls back on the same old stories, which Wheeldon no longer cares about. one of the beauties of dance is that you manage to escape into this poetic abstraction, even within a tale-ballet. Still, he plans to send out a synopsis when people get their e-tickets, along with links to a number of talks he’s given about creating the work. “If you’re completely confused about what’s going on, you’re not having fun; you may feel stupid.
It’s a point of view sometimes missed by those, like Wheeldon, who have been steeped in ballet since childhood. Born in Yeovil, Somerset, he started ballet aged eight and was accepted into the Royal Ballet School aged 11, based at White Lodge in Richmond Park, west London. He immediately started choreographing. “I was quite bossy and I liked to organize,” he says, “so it felt natural. When the annual choreography competition was held, I thought, “Yeah, I’m going to enter it and I’m going to win it.” Her freshman application was chosen to perform for Princess Margaret. “I was like, ‘Wow, someone thinks my little piece is good!’ So often in class we were told that we weren’t good as dancers, when someone tells you that you’re good at something, they give you that confidence – for me, that was the big boost.
At White Lodge, it was great to be around so many other ballet-obsessed people, but the intense competition could be tough. “If you weren’t selected for something, like The Nutcracker, your name just didn’t come up on the board. Nobody took you aside to talk to you. It’s very different now,” he said. Back then, there wasn’t much talk about feelings in general. “It’s really formative years, you’re maturing, and while I think kids are encouraged now to be free of who they are, it wasn’t times when we shared or talked about sexual feelings I think most of the boys in our year were gay and we were all so closeted we were all terrified our parents would disown us I went to New York to find myself I was unable to fully express myself as a gay man until I moved away.
Wheeldon is now happily married to yoga instructor Ross Rayburn (they just moved, along with their dog, to an apartment building where, coincidentally, esteemed choreographer George Balanchine lived). The way we talk about many things has changed since the 90s, and there is a gradual openness in the world of ballet to conversations about diversity, body shape, gender, corporate hierarchy and power dynamics – topics that weren’t discussed before. “We’re re-evaluating what’s considered great on stage,” says Wheeldon. ” That will take time. It’s going to be awkward and uncomfortable and awkward, but as long as we have the conversations and progress is made, I’m encouraged.
At White Lodge, students were allowed to hang a poster on their bedroom wall and, while others had photos of ballet stars, Wheeldon had a poster of Michael Jackson’s Bad (“I remember being obsessed with this album”). It’s another memory that resonated over the years Wheeldon was asked to direct and choreograph MJ the Musical, recreating preparations for Jackson’s dangerous world tour of 1992-93. A white, British, ballet-trained choreographer with no expertise in hip-hop or funk dance styles, Wheeldon was not the obvious directorial choice. “I said that when they asked me! You know who i am ? But the show’s Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, Lynn Nottage, had seen An American in Paris and wanted a dance-maker to helm.
Inevitably, he had reservations about doing so, due to the complexity of Jackson’s legacy. “Everyone has their opinion,” he says. “Some people think it’s not appropriate; some people separate the art from the artist. We ask, in part, how do we have this conversation about this large body of work going nowhere? We focus on the creative process. Despite being so polarizing, his music connects. Every night we have New York’s most diverse audience, all connected through their music. I don’t regret doing it at all. »
The pressure of creating a musical on Broadway is different from that of a ballet, “because you’re expected to make money for people,” says Wheeldon. But as a result, they have a lot more development time to get it right: plenty of workshops before they start rehearsals, six weeks of previews before the press arrives. “I still haven’t put two scenes together in Like Water for Chocolate,” he says. . When will it be reunited? “The day before! Honestly, that’s usually what happens. It all comes crashing down and then it’s opening night. It’s a much riskier prospect.” But it’s also kind of excitement,” he said. “Just jump in and keep going.”
Like water for chocolate is at the Royal Opera House, London, from June 2 to 17.