Ballet Review: ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ vs. ‘Like Water for Chocolate’

By Rebekah Brannan
Rebekah Brannan
Rebekah Brannan
Rebekah Brannan is a 19-year-old ballerina, opera singer, choreographer, and author. She danced two seasons with San Diego Ballet and co-founded Cinballera Entertainment with her sister, Tiffany, in June of 2023. In 2016, she and her sister started a blog dedicated to Old Hollywood, the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society, which she co-wrote, and she also enjoys fiction writing and video editing.
July 5, 2024Updated: July 6, 2024

Commentary

In the modern ballet world, there are only a few choreographers creating new, full-length story ballets in the classical style.

One of the top men in this group is Christopher Wheeldon, who danced with the Royal Ballet and New York City Ballet before retiring from performing to pursue choreography at age 27 in 2000. He has since become a widely respected choreographer, creating original ballets for multiple major companies, as well as working successfully on Broadway, most notably in the live staging of “An American in Paris” and the recent “MJ the Musical.”

Among Mr. Wheeldon’s most notable works are three ballets he wrote with composer Joby Talbot for the Royal Ballet, all based on famous literature. The two I will be comparing are his imaginative 2011 fantasy tale “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and his passionate 2022 melodrama “Like Water for Chocolate.”

The Stories

“Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” opens at a garden party in Victorian England. The guests include a Middle Eastern royal, his two wives, a magician, a clergyman, his sleepy assistant, and a bombastic duchess with a baby. The three daughters of the house entertain their whimsical friend Lewis Carroll until Alice breaks away for a romantic moment with young gardener Jack. He gives her a rose, and she offers him a tart, but her mother catches him with it and fires him. Alice dozes off while Carroll takes her picture, awakening to find him turning into a rabbit. His satchel becomes a rabbit hole, into which she follows him. In a hallway of doors, she encounters Carroll, now the White Rabbit, alongside her mother and Jack, now the Queen and Knave of Hearts. A tiny door leads into a beautiful garden, but she can’t fit through it.

Alice encounters many of the typical scenes from the classic story commonly known as “Alice in Wonderland,” such as growing and shrinking after consuming food and drink, encountering the mysterious Cheshire Cat and Mad Hatter, and attending a croquet game organized by the Queen of Hearts. Meanwhile, Alice repeatedly encounters her beloved Knave, who is on the run for stealing the queen’s tarts. Eventually Alice is sent back up the rabbit hole and we realize the whole ballet was a dream; Alice is a modern-day girl sightseeing in England with her boyfriend, Jack and the Knave from her dream. While reading Lewis Carroll’s mad tale, she fell asleep and dreamed she was in it. Another tourist comes along and takes the couple’s picture; does he perhaps resemble the White Rabbit? Alice leaves her book behind, and the stranger starts reading it.

“Like Water for Chocolate” begins with a projection of the words, “Family tradition dictates that the youngest daughter cannot marry and must take care of her mother until her death.” Mama Elena, a Mexican matriarch in 1910, gives birth to her third child, Tita. Tita grows up in the kitchen alongside the family cook, who mothers her far more than domineering Mama Elena. Throughout the rest of the story, Tita’s cooking plays a major role, with the emotions she infuses into the food influencing the other characters in sometimes scandalous ways.

As children, Tita and neighbor boy Pedro fall in love. When they come of age, he asks for her hand. Mama Elena refuses, due to the tradition, and instead offers her eldest, Rosaura. Pedro accepts to be near Tita. A year later, Rosaura’s first child is dying because she can’t nurse him. Tita discovers she can produce milk and feeds him. However, when Mama Elena catches Tita and Pedro together, she sends him, Rosaura, and the baby away. Shortly after, news arrives that the baby has died, sparking a fight between Elena and Tita. Tita is nursed through her grief by kindly widowed doctor John Brown, who brings her to live with him and his young son.

Four years later, Dr. Brown and Tita have developed feelings for each other. When he proposes, she accepts. They hear Mama Elena has died and attend her funeral, where they meet Pedro and Rosaura. Tita reads the journal Elena left behind, which tells the tale of her own lost love, whom her parents had killed. That night, Tita is tormented by her mother’s ghost. Guilt-ridden over her enduring love for Pedro, she tells Dr. Brown she can’t marry him. A week later, Tita is caring for Pedro and Rosaura, who are both ill, and acting as mother to their neglected daughter, Esperanza. Esperanza is in love with Dr. Brown’s son, Alex, but Rosaura stands by the tradition forbidding her from marrying. Determined to protect Esperanza from that fate, Tita stands against her sister. Rosaura dies from complications of her illness. Twenty years later, Alex and Esperanza get married. After the wedding, Tita and Pedro share a final moment of passion before ascending into the afterlife in a burst of flames.

A Study in Contrasts

“Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” is my favorite modern ballet. Mr. Talbot’s score is infectious and haunting, capturing all the whimsy and mystery of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland. By creating a romance between the Knave of Hearts and Alice, Mr. Wheeldon matures the story and creates the opportunity for some amazing pas de deux (partnered dances with a man and woman). However, it remains family-friendly, making it a wonderful example of modern classical ballet for all audiences. The choreography is fanciful, at times bordering on odd, but always remains pleasing to the eye. A lot of modern choreography delves so far into contemporary styling that it ceases to even look pretty. While it is unusual at times, there is always a clear motivation and endearing uniqueness to Mr. Wheeldon’s choreography, even in its more creative moments.

Epoch Times Photo
The Australian Ballet rehearses “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” at Melbourne Arts Centre in Melbourne, Australia, on Sept. 11, 2017. (Michael Dodge/Getty Images)

“Like Water for Chocolate” couldn’t be more different in theme and content. It was off to a bad start with a racy novel and R-rated film as its source material. However, as many great films from the Golden Age of Hollywood (1934-1954) show us, it’s possible to make difficult source material into a tasteful, morally acceptable work. Unfortunately, nearly all the lurid segments of Laura Esquivel’s novel are presented in full detail in the ballet. Opening with a scene of childbirth and ending with the leads’ entwined bodies rising off a bed in flames, this is no family-friendly jaunt.

Mr. Talbot’s musical style is immediately recognizable, while evoking Mexico through the addition of marimba, guitar, and harp. While it is striking and very emotionally impacting in climactic moments, it isn’t enough to save this work. The choreography, which often features dancers in revealing costumes and compromising positions, is provocative to say the least. Beyond moral scruples, the choreography at times lacks any traditional standard of beauty, with the ballerinas’ constantly flexing their feet or doing movements in parallel, always without a clear motivation.

It’s a shame to see two such gifted artists using their talent in such a manner. With “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” Mr. Wheeldon and Mr. Talbot gave the world a beautiful work that can appeal to all audiences, from a child seeing his first ballet to a confirmed balletomane. However, “Like Water for Chocolate” disappoints on nearly every level. The dancers I watched were all excellent technicians and gifted actors, but their talent was wasted on the strange choreography, which seemed specifically geared to be ugly. I generally try to look for the positive in works and to find something to praise, but I really struggle to do so in this case. Beyond some poignant moments in Mr. Talbot’s score and the personal talent of the dancers, there really wasn’t much to enjoy.

There are high definition recordings of both works, and both are still being performed live. If you’re in the mood for a new ballet in the classical style, consider taking a whimsical journey with “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”