From Thursday 2 - Friday 17 June 2022, the world will be introduced to Christopher Wheeldon’s brand new full-length ballet, Like Water for Chocolate. Just days before the world premiere, we had the opportunity to sit down with the talented and exuberant Mayara Magri, a principal dancer of the Royal Ballet. Magri originally started dancing in Rio de Janeiro until she won a scholarship to the Royal Ballet School at the age of 16. She graduated into the Company a year later and has never looked back since.
Mayara Magri, Principal Dancer at The Royal Ballet.
Setting aside some time in her busy rehearsing schedule, the Brazilian dancer joins me from The Royal Opera House, her enthusiasm and excitement knowing no bounds. Enamoured with the Mexican novel that inspired this ballet, Como agua para chocolate by Laura Esquivel, Magri holds up her own copy of the book. ‘The first time I came across this book was in literature class in Brazil. I was 13 or 14. Rereading it now is completely different; the magical realism and the fantastic things that Esquivel has brought to us are amazing’.
The genre of magical realism, often used in Latin American literature, blurs the lines between reality and fantasy, with supernatural and magical phenomena entering the realm of everyday life. To portray this in a ballet is ambitious, Magri agrees. ‘At first, I wondered how Christopher Wheeldon was going to put it together, but out of any other choreographers that I know today, Chris is the best storyteller. You can see this from his Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Winters Tale. Just like those, Like Water for Chocolate is a very difficult story to portray in ballet, but he’s managed to get the whole team involved, from the costume designers, to the musicians, to the stage management team. I haven’t seen the ballet yet of course, but while it’s a bit pretentious, it isn’t for Chris. He’s accepted the challenge and I’m sure it will come together well’, she beams.
Francesca Hayward (Tita) and Marcelino Sambe (Pedro) in Christopher Wheeldon's Like Water for Chocolate. Photograph by Camilla Greenwell.
This is a tale of forbidden love between Tita and Pedro, interwoven with supernatural occurrences and peppered with references to traditional Mexican food. Magri will be playing Rosaura, who is Tita’s eldest sister, and eventually Pedro’s wife (thanks to the wishes of her mother, Mama Elena, and much to the lovers’ dismay!). Set in 19th-century Mexico, Esquivel’s family saga is one of passion, drama and rich emotion.
Magri’s delight and enthusiasm for her character is inspiring. Often viewed as a villain, Rosaura is interpreted differently by Magri. ‘Christopher Wheeldon gave me quite a complex character. In the book, Rosaura has a massive shift of personality throughout the story. I was really interested to see how Chris would take on that role because she can easily be seen as the evil sister, but it's actually not like that. She just really respects her mother, Mama Elena, and the family traditions she upholds. If you're born in a village and have never left the country, like half of my family in Brazil, you have your ways of living and your own ways of respecting that culture. It’s not like you disagree with other cultures, it’s just that you only know one truth. I feel like that’s the case with Rosaura. She hasn't found true love, so she hasn’t experienced anything else and is incapable of feeling any other way’.
‘At the very beginning, I'm not trying to portray her as the bad older sister’, Magri explains. ‘She's actually really loving towards her other sisters and plays with them. She doesn't quite understand why Mama Elena made Pedro marry her instead of Tita; she feels sorry for Tita and has that guilt in her for taking Tita’s lover for herself to marry. In a way, though, she just accepts things how they are, and she expects Pedro and Tita to accept Mama Elena's decision - which isn't really what happens’.
Magri as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. Photograph by Andrej Uspenski.
Magri speaks about Rosaura with affection, almost as if she is Rosaura. Her interpretation of the character spills over into our interview. As she explains the elder sister’s heartbreak when she cannot breastfeed her and Pedro’s newborn child, Magri clutches at her chest, giving us a taste of her performance. ‘She’s really broken. She feels useless. She feels like she can’t be the woman that she expected herself to be. When Tita takes the baby from her and can miraculously breastfeed him, they actually have a really tender moment. The two sisters give a warm kiss to each other, because Rosaura is just worried about baby Roberto. She’s not just the bad character that she eventually becomes. It’s the series of events in her life that cause her to start deteriorating and cause her to become like Mama Elena. As humans, life can shape and change who we are. Sometimes certain events hurt us so much that they cause a twist in our personality that we can’t explain or control’.
So how do her movements mimic that change, that pain? ‘Everything just starts crushing her, and that shows in the movement. The pain and the guilt set into her, and you can see this in her back curves and in the way the body changes. Her makeup changes throughout, too’.
Magri in the Pas de Six, in Giselle. Photograph by Helen Maybanks.
Of course, the development of Rosaura’s character was a team effort. Christopher Wheeldon worked closely with Laura Esquivel herself (who, according to Magri, ‘came to watch the rehearsals and sat there with a big smile, just seeing her story coming to life’) to create versions of the characters which resonated with both author and choreographer. For Magri, working with Wheeldon was enriching as ‘he does give you the movement, but he lets you question it. It’s not a very literal ballet; it’s quite abstract and caricatured. I generally think ballet has changed so much. It’s not so much about the steps themselves – it’s obviously still important, but it’s more about the purpose of the steps than the lines that you’re creating’.
For a dancer who has performed in the classics, from The Sleeping Beauty to The Nutcracker, the evolution of ballet is very noticeable. ‘There was a very balletic way of saying things in the classics, whereas now… in Like Water for Chocolate, for example, when Rosaura realises that she doesn’t have any milk to feed Roberto with, there’s a crying baby in the score and Rosaura is just so broken and lost. It’s very human compared to the princesses, queens and love stories that you would see in a classical, traditional pantomime. We get to be ourselves a bit more on stage, and Chris loves that’.
Marcelino Sambe and Mayara Magri in Corybantic Games. Photograph by Andrej Uspenski.
As a brand-new ballet, it was important for Wheeldon and every artist involved to familiarise themselves with the novel, with no previous performances from which to be inspired. For Magri, this challenge came at the right time in her life. ‘I've watched so many ballets done by the Royal Ballet and I’ve been able to observe how the storytelling is portrayed. So, I genuinely feel ready to take on this role, to be the one to be copied by others in years to come – and that’s really special. It’s good to have ownership of something and to have freedom to see what works and what doesn’t, to have freedom in my movements. I’m thrilled and I can’t believe it’s coming to life. It’s been two years since we started putting bits and bobs together for it and then we left it because of Covid, so it's been brewing for so long and the excitement is huge’.
‘Can you imagine seeing that people are still interested in making a ballet and creating a score for a book you wrote years and years ago?’, Magri gushes. ‘It must be so rewarding for Laura Esquivel. I hope I get to talk to her.’
For Magri, this is what ballet is all about. ‘I feel like now, we're so much more aware of other artistic involvements. It's not just me thinking about our steps and what we do, but we want to get to know the musicians, the conductor, the composers; they're all in the studio with us and we can chat about the ballet. I feel like sometimes there's a massive gap in between all these different worlds - whoever wrote this story, whoever is choreographing and whoever wrote the music and the dances - but, if we come together, there's so much to share and so much to get from each other and so much learn from each other. It has become more interactive in a way, which is what’s so fun about this job’.
The Two Pigeons. James Hay as the Young Man and Mayara Magri as the Young Woman in The Two Pigeons. Photograph by Bill Cooper.
Magri has achieved what she always wanted to achieve in the Royal Ballet. Her story is a ballet fairytale, the dancer reaching new heights every year - but it is also one of discipline and determination. ‘As dancers, we work to a strict schedule. Every single day of our lives, there's a show around the corner that we have to work towards. When the pandemic happened, not having that made us have to find motivation from within. You would ask yourself: how can I keep going as a dancer, as an artist? Because what I was aiming for is not there anymore’.
Yet she succeeded. It is her first season as principal dancer with the Royal Ballet, and she is working with one of the Company’s biggest choreographers. Whether building her early career in Brazil or maintaining a strict routine in lockdown, never knowing when the next performance would be, it is clear that Mayara Magri has overcome every obstacle. Her advice? ‘Try to feel yourself and your body, just go out there and be present so that you can react to the moment without preconceptions. Each day feels different. The body feels different every day. So be present’. We can’t wait to see what the future holds for her, too.
Magri in The Ilustrated 'Farewell'. Photograph by Tristram Kenton.
Like Water for Chocolate, based on Mexican novelist Laura Esquivel’s book (1989), will be Christopher Wheeldon’s third full-length work for the Company and is a co-production between The Royal Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. Music is by Joby Talbot, who worked closely on the score with Mexican conductor Alondra de la Parra, who conducts all performances, and Mexican guitarist Tomás Barreiro. Designs are by Bob Crowley, lighting is by Natasha Katz and video design is by Luke Halls. Mayara Magri will play Rosaura in the first cast.
Like Water for Chocolate, The Royal Ballet, 2 – 17 June 2022
The Royal Opera House, WC2E 9DD
2 June at 7pm
4 June at 1pm
4,6,8,9,11,15,17 June at 7.30pm
Tickets on sale now from £5 - £115.
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