Alastair Macaulay: New 3-act ballet by a harmless composer

Alastair Macaulay: New 3-act ballet by a harmless composer


norman lebrecht

June 03, 2022

First review of last night’s Covent Garden premiere, special to

Slipped Disc

Like Water for Chocolate

by Alastair Macaulay

In the twentieth century, new three-act ballets were rarities. Of those that did come along, very few were made to new music of importance. Yet the ten years that Kevin O’Hare has been director of the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden, 2012-2022, have brought six three-act ballets to new music.

Two of these have arrived in the current season: The Dante Project (new in October 2021, the creation of Wayne McGregor, Thomas Adès, and Tacita Dean) and now Like Water for Chocolate, which had its premiere on Thursday, the third Covent Garden collaboration between the choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, the composer Joby Talbot, and the designer Bob Crowley. These are brave new ideas for full-length ballets. Each tries to take its audience on a different large arc from darkness to light. Neither, alas, lives in its detail.

Wheeldon, Talbot, and Crowley certainly aren’t formulaic. Their Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (2011), The Winter’s Tale (2014), and now Like Water for Chocolate (new on Thursday 2 June) are all different kinds of drama. Indeed, The Winter’s Tale – much their greatest achievement – was a different drama in each of its acts. With Like Water for Chocolate, they’ve moved into the twentieth century, into Mexico and Texas, and into the magic realism of writer Laura Esquivel. Esquivel, whose eponymous novel was published in 1989 and became a film in 1992, became a part of their ballet’s preparation. After Thursday’s premiere, she joined the cast and collaborators onstage.

The prime weakness of this music-drama is its music. Talbot is a harmless composer, the twentyfirst-century equivalent of Cesare Pugni and Ludwig Minkus, the nineteenth-century hacks who churned out many new ballet scores for Marius Petipa and other choreographers; his music always does less to characterise his collaborations with Wheeldon than do Crowley’s designs. (He’s at his most poetic in Act Two of The Winter’s Tale, as Minkus is in the Shades scene of La Bayadère.)

For Like Water for Chocolate, his music consultant is Alondra de la Parra, who also conducts the ballet: she’s taken him into Latin American sounds and rhythms, Percussion and brass often characterise the score; so do dance forms resembling rumba, habanera, and tango. However initially pleasant, however, each musical idea either quickly evaporates or outlives its welcome.

It’s also evident that Wheeldon is limited rather than released by three-act narrative. In several one-act pure-dance works, he’s shown brilliant accomplishment, exceptional in his control of stage geometries and sophisticated metres. Still, beneath their compositional gloss, none of his plotless works have much by way of poetic expression. His story ballets indulge a depressing fondness for expressionistic melodrama. Alice’s Adventures and the worse parts of The Winter’s Tale abound in exaggerated facial expressions addressed to the audience, multiple repetitions of heavy gestures and weighted steps; Like Water goes further in this direction. It also proves that his reputation for composing pas de deux – an essential ingredient in a story ballet about love – has always been misguided.

None of Wheeldon’s Like Water characters have the high definition of his three unalike heroines of The Winter’s Tale. Covent Garden dance-goers know how heart-catching Francesca Hayward can be and how thrillingly impetuous Marcelino Sambé often is; here they’re the sundered lovers Tita and Pedro, forever waiting for the big dance revelations that never arrive. When Tita and Pedro finally achieve transcendence in the closing scene, their duet is all gushing cliché, a blah of lifts and runs. Wheeldon keeps making his women play various doodling games with flexed feet, especially when lifted off the floor: it’s a surface effect, never deepening any characterisations.

There is worse. Wheeldon treats Esquivel’s central metaphor – cuisine – with ponderous coarseness. Who would want to touch food prepared by cooks who keep lying all over the kitchen table as do the women here? When one of the meals upsets the stomachs of most of the cast, it’s no surprise. Then Wheeldon makes his dancers mime throwing up, straight at the audience.

Poor Laura Morera, one of the company’s finest actor-dancers, here is reduced to a grotesque caricature as Tita’s punitive mother Elena, hysterically overwrought. The most three-dimensional characterisation is that of Matthew Ball as Dr John, Tita’s kind but unrewarded suitor. Just his stance, walk, and gaze (beautifully varied as he ages) are arresting. Cesar Corrales’s style is wham-bam in a showy peripheral role: curiously, Wheeldon gives him jumping phrases with greater internal variety than any of Pedro’s.

Crowley’s décor is Like Water’s most imaginative and fascinating ingredient. He creates brilliant contrasts of scale, with lace garments and rose-petal food becoming larger than mountains, landscapes gorgeously juxtaposed with skies. Alice’s Adventures was more his show than anyone else’s; and in Like Water the imagery with which he makes Mexican women become brides of death is the nearest this ballet comes to a masterstroke.

Too bad that Wheeldon and Talbot let him down. It’s famous that George Balanchine said “There are no mothers-in-law in ballet”. By contrast, Like Water for Chocolate reduces Esquivel to “You can never have too many in-laws.” Mama Elena’s wake here becomes a flashback in which we find the man she loved was killed by her husband’s family, a flashback that teaches Tita to forgive her mother. In the novel, how touching. In the ballet, just another surface effect.


Royal Ballet at Covent Garden. In Royal Opera House repertory until June 17. A co-production with American Ballet Theatre.


  • little blue dot says:

    I’m not sure what harmless means in this context, but you can watch and listen to an excerpt from the above mentioned Alice In Wonderland by Talbot. Musically, it seems like a sort of Harry Potterization of the Alice books–music reminiscent of cinema and television and what people like to hear these days:

    Talbot’s score does not seem as removed from the books as Unsuk Chin’s dutifully modernist approach for the Munich State Opera–lots of heavy handed banging and dissonance to provide the “harm” necessary to seem innovative and profound to the wine-and-cheese intelligentsia of continental Beamterkultur.

    • guest says:

      My little internet tells me it’s Beamtenkultur, little dot, not Beamterkultur. If your are going to indulge in a bit of whatabout bashing, the least you can do is pay a little attention to grammar, and to the difference between ballet and opera. The Alice in the review is a ballet, your Alice is an opera.

      And I’m afraid intelligentsia of the 21st century is the same everywhere, continental or insular, with the possible exception of the Amazon rainforest tribes, who, one hopes, might be refreshingly free of intelligentsia, but you never know. They are certainly free of internet and leisure time.

      And, little dot, if the music is modernist, I’m sure the wine-and-cheese aren’t. There must be a long tradition behind their wine-and-cheese approach, what with the Alps so near, and Italy on the other side of the Alps.

    • Guest says:

      Oh how terrible that people should like to hear it!

    • Guestina says:

      Oh how terrible that it should be reminiscent of “what people like to hear”!

  • Robin Smith says:

    I thought Talbot’s score for Alice was the finest piece of music I have heard composed in the 21st Century. A glorious concerto for Percussion and Orchestra which suited the ballet/associated choreography to a tee.

  • Sam's Hot Car Lot says:

    “Talbot is a harmless composer, the twentyfirst-century equivalent of Cesare Pugni and Ludwig Minkus, the nineteenth-century hacks who churned out many new ballet scores for Marius Petipa and other choreographers….”

    This is a gratuitous insult of Talbot. The composer of the Path of Miracles is hardly a common hack.

  • Michael West says:

    Negativities aside, so many ballets have to rely on other arts and sources with name recognition. To make a ballet “based” or “inspired” by another source runs the danger of disappointing people who have experienced the original. Smart for past choreographers to use obscure or not very well known sources so as not to be held to previous standards, be it a great book or a popular movie. Broadway has the same dilemma, but since making money is the object there, shows get scrutinized before opening, and when there is a problem, director, composer, and certainly choreographer, can all be hired, made to change, cut, edit or fired. Even a show doctor could be called in to save the day, or indeed possible bad reviews! We count no ore than 7 to 10 19th century ballets which have stood the test of time. So there is still time for the 21st to catch up