A Deliciously Dazzling Debut for ABT Gala’s “Like Water for Chocolate”

Herman Cornejo & Cassandra Trenary – Photo by Lieba Nesis

Every ten years, a performance comes along that breaks your heart, startles your senses, and makes you believe that New York is the cultural center of the world – that moment transpired on Thursday night with American Ballet Theatre’s opening gala production of “Like Water for Chocolate.”

Conductor Alondra De La Parra – Photo by Lieba Nesis

Beginning at 6:30 PM on June 22nd, the beautifully coiffed crowd joined forces at the Metropolitan Opera House for the New York premiere of this spellbinding ballet. Expectations were high, yet often when a ballet or opera takes risks, it flops spectacularly; however, this night soared unimaginably, judging by the ten-minute standing ovation and the oohs and aahs throughout the night. This performance necessitates multiple viewings to inhale the glorious minutiae.

Amy Fine Collins & Felipe Escalante – Photo by Lieba Nesis

The Royal Ballet of London first featured the World Premiere at its Opera House in June 2022, with ABT co-producing and following suit with its presentation on March 2023 at the Segerstrom Center in California. The long-awaited opening in New York is the most lavish production in ABT’s history, with multiple dance floors, 200 costumes, many custom laser-cut, 250 props, intricate set configurations, and emotive video projections by Luke Halls.

Julianne Hough – Photo by Lieba Nesis

Set and costume designer Bob Crawley who used the architecture of influential 20th century Mexican Luis Barragán as an inspiration, masterfully evoked a multi-layered Spanish effect that transported the audience to a live “Mask of Zorro” where flamenco and haciendas abound-worlds away from the streets of New York.

Jean Shafiroff & Stella Abrera – Photo by Lieba Nesis

For three hours on Thursday night, choreographer and scene designer Christopher Wheeldon threw one home run after another in an intricate and complex ballet that he began plotting in 1993 after viewing the film directed by Alfonso Arau.

Marilyn Kirschner – Photo by BFA

Wheeldon was nervous, knowing this evening would be make or break, as he described being most excited for its conclusion. However, the triumphant look on his face during intermission said it all.

Christopher Wheeldon & Damian Woetzel – Photo by Lieba Nesis

And while many attendees came to view the dazzling Herman Cornejo, whose 5 ft 6-inch stature belies his all-encompassing presence and whose physique and machismo can take your breath away, female leads Catherine Hurlin and Cassandra Trenary more than held their own. Every member of the Corps de Ballet, including the children from the Jacqueline Kennedy School of ABT, was impeccable – there was not one B-lister in this group.

Kevin McKenzie – Photo by Lieba Nesis

It was readily apparent from the beginning this ballet was uncharted territory as the end of Act 1 had Gertrudis, played by Catherine Hurlin, sexily undulating on a horse with an army soldier after an aphrodisiacal meal left her burning with desire. Millennials, put down your television and forget the tawdry “Euphoria” and “The Idol” you want true euphoric sensuality come to ABT.

John Giordano, Sutton Stracke, Tanya Young Williams, & Cynthia Bailey – Photo by Lieba Nesis

The second Act, where Herman Cornejo and Cassandra Trenary remove their shirts in the first topless moment I have ever witnessed at a ballet – even if her back was facing the crowd-was jaw-dropping.

Kate Wesler – Photo by Lieba Nesis

Let’s not forget the last scene where a bare-chested Cornejo lustily embraces Cassandra as the haunting voice of soprano María Brea accompanies this couple for an out-of-body duet; as this long-suffering couple are finally able to reunite and transcend the mortal realm.

Quentin Grimes, Lauren Richardson – Photo by Lieba Nesis

This is the first time I have seen an “Intimacy Director” listed on a ballet program- Netflix and HBO eat your heart out – Alicia Rodis did a better job than any cable channel.

Mickey Lemle, Nicole Callahan – Photo by Lieba Nesis

For those ballet purists, there was plenty of classical dancing and acrobatic marvel Carlos Gonzalez, who wowed as Juan Alejandrez. Dancers cartwheeling over tables and jumping on chairs and beds was a small part of the excitement that abounded.

Richard Lowe, & Angela Goding – Photo by Lieba Nesis

Female conductor Alondra De La Parra was another first as she effortlessly led the male-dominated orchestra for three hours. Newly appointed Artistic Director Susan Jaffe’s reign looks to be a hit as a relaxed-looking Kevin McKenzie said he was delighted to no longer be at the helm.

Sharon Hurowitz, Ezra William – Photo by Lieba Nesis

Jaffe, a former principal dancer and a lover of the “story ballet,” is hoping to bring young people to the forum through the use of videos detailing the history of masterpieces “Giselle” and “Swan Lake.” Another tenure change at ABT was the announcement that visionary Artist in Residence Alexei Ratmansky would leave in June 2023 after a smashing 13-year career.

With all these changes and a struggling creative community, I was sincerely disappointed at the empty orchestra seats and the dearth of youth in attendance.

Dancers Damian Woetzel & Heather Watts – Photo by Lieba Nesis

Moreover, the days of celebrities populating the arts are all but done – not Sarah Jessica, or Jennifer Hudson anywhere nearby. Nights like these are once-in-a-lifetime, as famed designer Prabal Gurung reiterated on our walk to the David Geffen house, where a lavish dinner awaited the glitterati of New York for $3,000 a ticket.

Knowing I needed more “chocolate” sans calories, I purchased another ticket to this rare extravaganza online.

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Lieba Nesis

My love of fashion, writing and photography were something that always dominated my lifestyle however it wasn't until I was approached by the editor of Lookonline that I realized I could utilize these three skills in combination.

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