George Balanchine compared choreography to gardening. “Dancing disintegrates,” he once said. “Like a garden. Lots of roses come up, and in the evening they’re gone.”
The same is true of food, and it’s no surprise that Balanchine also compared dance to cooking. It grows, you cook it, and if you don’t eat immediately, it loses its flavor. In its own way, it too disintegrates.
Such a connection between dance and food poses an intriguing condition for Christopher Wheeldon’s “Like Water for Chocolate,” which American Ballet Theater brought to the Metropolitan Opera House on Thursday.
Wheeldon’s story ballet is inspired by the 1989 novel by the Mexican writer Laura Esquivel and subsequent film adaptation. Cooking is at the heart of her book, which has sentences full of movement like “the dazzling display made by dancing water drops dribbled on a red hot griddle.” Food, through magical realism, transforms behavior among Esquivel’s characters. Quail in rose petal sauce produces erotic desire; a cake stirred with tears brings back memories of lost loves to the point of vomiting and death.
But even as that food-movement connection comes to life in Wheeldon’s work, a shared production with the Royal Ballet that premiered there in London last year, the meal it serves is heavier on story than sensation or even, sadly, full-blown dancing.
Wheeldon’s “Like Water for Chocolate” meanders. It repeats. The choreography, anchored by lifts that spirit dancers from here to there — or situates dancers on the floor in more twisted contortions and flexed feet — runs out of fresh ideas. Some sections are more evocative than others, but the intersection between story and ballet often comes down to a gestural approach that leans toward a profuse acting out of words.
Set during the Mexican Revolution, the production, which opened Ballet Theater’s Met season, features a score by Joby Talbot, who also collaborated with Wheeldon on its overall scenario and worked with the Mexican conductor Alondra de la Parra. She leads the Ballet Theater orchestra throughout the run and lends vivid delicacy to the cinematic music, which incorporates traditional instruments and forms like danzón.
A good chunk of the story — reading this three-act ballet’s synopsis takes about 10 minutes, as a YouTube clip attests — comes to life in the opening scene. Tita (Cassandra Trenary) is born; what appears to be a baby swaddled in fabric turns into dough, which Nacha, the family cook (Luciana Paris) kneads and stretches. Passing down her culinary knowledge to Tita is a playful lesson.
During these first minutes, Tita grows up and falls in love with Pedro (Herman Cornejo), but she has been dealt a horrible hand: As the youngest daughter of Mama Elena (a wonderfully brittle Christine Shevchenko), she is not allowed to marry. Her fate is to take care of her mother in her old age. Mama Elena — a nightmare-comical mix of the wicked fairy Carabosse and Edward Scissorhands — decides that Pedro will marry Tita’s sister Rosaura (Hee Seo) instead. He agrees so that he can be closer to Tita, who rightfully has a meltdown.
Other characters appear, including Gertrudis (a lush, magnificent Catherine Hurlin), Tita’s feisty sister who — after eating Tita’s desire-inducing quail in rose petal sauce — is ravaged by soldiers who slither from underneath the dinner table. She takes off with one, Juan Alejandrez (Carlos Gonzalez), on a mechanical wire horse. Facing each other on the saddle, they writhe wildly.
At some point, you might find yourself ranking characters, and asking yourself whom you’d rather never see again the most. But they can’t even be killed off; two return as ghosts. One recurring Day of the Dead effect that makes sense is a silent chorus of 13 brides. When they face one side, they appear to be wearing white. The other side, though, shows them in black, as old women knitting.
Gertrudis and Juan eventually reappear to lead a joyful elaborate ensemble, a number that shows Wheeldon at his most invigorating. The ever-bounding Hurlin, along with an equally forceful Gonzalez, galvanizes the scene with choreography that frees itself from some of its straight-ahead flatness. For all the specificity of the characters, the big stage — too big for this production — is aching to be explored by dancing bodies.
The backstory of Mama Elena, who it turns out is awful for a reason, becomes a dream ballet in which Wheeldon tells the story of how she was forbidden to marry her true love — just like Tita. OK, fine. But spending so much time on the subplot of Doctor John Brown (Thomas Forster), who rescues Tita from her mother after a beating and eventually proposes to her, weighs the ballet down. Glances of longing and sweetness turn tedious; there’s too much acted emotion and not enough action.
Cornejo is better at portraying Pedro as a boy than as a man, and gradually fades into the background. Trenary, however, instills her Tita with such deep spirit and sadness that her emotions are entirely in the moment, spilling out of her body like electricity. Much of their stage time is spent fighting their mutual desire. One hot night, they are unable to sleep and find themselves together in the dark. Pedro stands behind Tita, tracing an outline of her body without actually touching her skin. What is made visible — until they can no longer take it — is the space between their bodies. In something of a plank position, Pedro props himself over her, and with a roll, she returns the favor.
It takes them years to truly come together, a moment marked by a final sweeping pas de deux full of swooning turns and breathless lifts that tilt and spiral. Cornejo even holds Trenary upside down while her ankles hook around his neck. But this tailor-made unleashing of passion comes so late that it veers dangerously close to the Harlequin zone. The inner fire of their love, repressed for so long, engulfs them in flames. They’re finally united.
While it’s difficult to fall under the spell of the mystical tale, “Like Water for Chocolate” does have a look: The sets and costumes by Bob Crowley, when paired with the brighter options of Natasha Katz’s lighting, become the most vibrant part of the show. They reflect the way the Mexican architect Luis Barragán saturated his buildings with color and light.
The look also brings to mind, along with Wheeldon’s choreographic approach, many other works, like “Oklahoma!” and “West Side Story.” Has story ballet depreciated in value so much that we are simply watching new versions of old shows? “Romeo and Juliet” is in there, too. Probably “Manon” as well, along with Matthew Bourne’s cloying “Play Without Words.”
In a way, the biggest influence on “Like Water for Chocolate” isn’t Esquivel’s book; it’s Broadway. But there has to be a better way for a story ballet to shine. And it’s not with plot twists.
Like Water for Chocolate
Through July 1 at the Metropolitan Opera House, Manhattan; abt.org.