EITHERn weekend in the early 1990s on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, 19-year-old dancer Christopher Wheeldon found himself with a loose end. 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 going to the movies,” says Wheeldon. “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 realism novel about frustrated love.
“It really stuck with me,” says Wheeldon. “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 internationally successful Tony and Olivier award-winning choreographer, turning the movie he saw into a ballet.
Having begun his choreographic career doing abstract neoclassical ballets (including Polyphonia, Morphoses and Tryst) based on streamlined beauty, pattern and musicality, Wheeldon has made a name for himself as a storyteller on a grand scale, who has tackled everything, from the visual spectacle of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to turning The Winter’s Tale, supposedly one of Shakespeare’s “trouble plays,” into an emotional ballet. He also choreographed and directed a highly successful stage version of Gene Kelly’s An American in Paris and recently opened the Michael Jackson musical MJ on Broadway.
Esquivel’s novel is unlike any of these shows, but Wheeldon discovered some rich ingredients for ballet in the story of the heroine Tita, who is forbidden to marry her beloved Pedro because family tradition dictates that she must stay home to take care of his demanding mother. As Tita cooks for the family, her emotions spill over into the food and those who eat it, causing outbreaks of lovesickness and intense desire. Intense emotions and simmering passion are things ballet does very well, and Wheeldon envisioned big ballerina roles for Tita, her mother, and her sisters (Francesca Hayward will be the first Tita). “And it’s a very dynamic story,” she says. “There is a ghost, a band of revolutionaries and, of course, magic.”
At the beginning 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,” she says, aware of the sensitivities of telling stories outside one’s own culture. “We have to make sure we ask all the right questions and have permission.”
Wheeldon also worked closely with Mexican director Alondra de la Parra and composer Tomás Barreiro, but he has no intention of copying the world of the novel. After researching a wide variety of Mexican folk dances, she decided the best way was to invent his own language. Similarly, the score, by Joby Talbot, combines passionate melodies and danceable rhythms with just hints of Mexican flavor.
Even the story is somewhat abstracted, its “detailed and tightly woven tapestry” distilled into key relationships to suit the ballet’s strengths. Wheeldon is well aware that for those not used to dancing, seeing even ballets of well-known stories on stage can be disconcerting. “I sat in Swan Lake the other night and thought, ‘If you’re coming to this for the first time and haven’t read what it’s about, you’re going to be in trouble.'”
That may be why the ballet so often falls back on the same old stories, something Wheeldon no longer cares about. “I don’t think we should be afraid to tackle complex stories and not feel like the audience has to understand every second; one of the beauties of dance is that we manage to escape this poetic abstraction, even within a narrative ballet”. However, he plans to send out a synopsis when people get their e-tickets, as well as links to a series of talks he’s given about creating the play. “If you’re completely confused about what’s going on, you’re not having fun; they can make you feel stupid.”
It is a point of view that is sometimes overlooked by those, like Wheeldon, who have been immersed in ballet since childhood. Born in Yeovil, Somerset, he began ballet at the age of eight and was accepted at the Royal Ballet School at 11, based at White Lodge in Richmond Park, west London. He started choreographing right away. “I was pretty bossy and I liked to organize,” he says, “so it seemed natural. When the annual choreography competition was held, I thought, ‘Yeah, I’m going to participate in that and win it.’” His first-year introduction was chosen to be represented by Princess Margaret. “I was like, ‘Wow, someone thinks my little piece is good!’ Very often in class we were told that we were not good as dancers. When someone tells you that you are good at something, he gives you that confidence, that for me was a huge 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 cast in something, like The Nutcracker, your name just wasn’t on the board. Nobody took you aside to talk to you. It’s very different now,” he says. At that time there was not much talk about feelings in general. “Those are really formative years, you’re maturing, and while I feel like kids are now encouraged to be free about who they are, these weren’t times where we shared or talked about sexual feelings. I think most of the boys in our year were gay and we were all so closeted that we were terrified that our parents would disown us. I went to New York to find myself. I couldn’t fully express myself as a gay man until I moved.”
Wheeldon is now happily married to yoga instructor Ross Rayburn (they just moved, with their dog, into an apartment block where, coincidentally, the esteemed choreographer George Balanchine used to live). The way we talk about a lot of things has changed since the ’90s, and there’s a gradual opening up in the world of ballet to conversations about diversity, body shape, gender, company hierarchy, and power dynamics, topics that weren’t before. they were addressed. “We’re reevaluating what’s considered great on stage,” says Wheeldon. “It’s going to take a while. It’s going to be awkward and awkward and awkward, but as long as we have the talks and it moves forward, I’m encouraged.”
At White Lodge, students were allowed to put a poster on their bedroom wall, and while others had pictures of ballet stars, Wheeldon had a poster of Michael Jackson’s Bad (“I remember being obsessed with that album”). It’s another memory that resonated with the years Wheeldon was asked to direct and choreograph MJ the Musical, recreating the build-up to Jackson’s 1992-1993 Dangerous World Tour. A white, British, ballet-trained choreographer with no experience in hip-hop or funk dance styles, Wheeldon was not the obvious choice for direction. “I said that when they asked me! Do you know who I am? But the show’s Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, Lynn Nottage, had seen An American in Paris and she wanted a dancer at the helm.
Inevitably, he had reservations about taking it on, given the complexities of Jackson’s legacy. “Everyone has their own opinion,” she says. “Some people think it’s not appropriate; some people separate the art from the artist. We wonder, in part, how do we have this conversation about this huge body of work going nowhere? We focus on the creative process. As polarizing as it is, his music connects. Every night we have the most diverse audience in New York, all connected through their music. I don’t regret doing it at all.”
The pressure of creating a Broadway musical is different from that of doing a ballet, “because people are expected to make money,” says Wheeldon. But as a result, they have a lot more development time to get things right: numerous workshops before rehearsals begin, six weeks of previews before press arrives. “I still haven’t put two scenes together in Like Water for Chocolate,” she says. . When will it meet? “The day before! Honestly, that’s what usually happens. Everything crashes and then it’s opening night.” It’s a much riskier prospect. “But it’s also a bit of a thrill,” he says. “You just have to jump to the bottom and move on.”
Like Water for Chocolate is presented at the Royal Opera House in London from June 2 to 17.