LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE Review by Celia Ipiotis

Cinematic designs and set changes saturate Chirstopher Wheeldon's evening length ballet For Water Like Chocolate based on the 1989 book of the same name by Laura Esquivel. Sweeping across several generations, the tangled web of shattered love, broken families, old crones and specters adds to the visual luster.

Framed by both naturalistic and surrealistic sets by award-winning theater designer Bob Crowley and sinuous lighting by Jody Talbot Like Water for Chocolate demonstrates Wheeldon's ability to transfer story ballets to the level of Broadway theatrics for American Ballet Theater at the Metropolitan Opera House.

A string of white dressed brides holding bright red flower bouquets in their laps transform into black garbed women in mourning. This Greek chorus of women in black remains a recurring theme throughout the ballet, foreshadowing dark events.

My first introduction to the ballet featured a dancer unknown to me, SunMi Park. Only recently promoted to the role of soloist, Wheeldon plucked her from the group and gave her a principal role as the lead in his ballet. Fragile looking yet robust, Park proved a remarkable actor/dancer and the chemistry between her and Daniel Caramargo was palpable.

Around a kitchen table, Tita indulges in the luscious food made daily by the energetic old cook Nacha (Courtney Lavine). Entwined in the smells of the kitchen and the delicious, playful exchanges between Pedro and Tita, a true love grows.

Wheeldon constructs a vocabulary of flexed feet, and twisted, overlapping arms for Tita and Pedro which at times look self-conscious. Regardless, throughout the ballet, Park and Camargo retain a soulful connection initiated through their eyes, and bodies easily forming shapes around each other.

In this saga, instead of championing the union between Tita and Pedro, Tita's mother, the stern, rigid-backed Mama Elena (Claire Davison) insists Tita's older sister, Rosaura (a strong Chloe Misseldine) marry Pedro. That decision imprisons Tita in the house caring for her mother. Desiring Pedro, Rosaura never feels comfortable expressing her angst through contractions and hands gripping the air.

Time flows. People age, marry, bear children, lose children, are consumed by envy or passion and revel with revolutionaries.

Adept at establishing characters, Wheeldon's most fruitful choreography explodes in the Second Act when Pedro and Tita fall into one another's arms in a sensual duet that features Park's fluidity and ease on the floor or on pointe and Camargo's intensely supportive partnering.

This passionate exhale between Park and Camargo leads to the arrival of a flying, raging specter of the mother -- horrifying everyone even after death. Hair spraying back and gown swirling in the air like one of Chagall's apparitions, Davison rises to the melodrama.

When (Gertrudis) Skylar Brandt reappears, (after galloping off with the rebel soldier Juan Alejandrez -- a dynamic Aran Bell) the courtyard erupts in folkloric tinged dances animated by the colorful skirts and shirts, kerchiefs and hats by Sukie Kirk. The earthly, kinetic dances circle around a marvelously abandoned Brandt to s Mexican music tinged score composed by the talented Joby Talbot. They gather momentum, peeling off into smaller groups and back into a single unit.

There's a good deal of expository choreography delineating the complicated storyline that enjoys a visual allure but occasionally wanes choreographically.

Like Romeo and Juliet, the final section re-unites the lovers in a sinewy duet dusted in ardor and exulting in off-kilter overhead lifts. Sadly, we are not treated to a happy ending, but it's certainly an extravaganza.

Several casts appear in this ballet, including the fluid Cassandra Trenary and charismatic Herman Cornejo. From his experience on Broadway and former life as a ballet dancer, Wheeldon has fine-tuned his casting skills making every cast a strong choice. That said, Park and Camargo's performances touched the stars.

EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Celia Ipiotis

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