It is a simple fact that Alondra de la Parra is inspiring; aged forty-three, she’s already considered one of the greatest living conductors of today, and she has arguably created the room for women to be seen in a particularly male-dominated artistic field. Her achievements are impressive. She was the first Mexican woman to conduct in New York City, she composed and conducted the 2016 Rio Olympics theme, and she has been a cultural ambassador for her home country for nearly ten years.
‘I’m here now in Primrose Hill as a conductor for the new Royal Ballet, Like Water for Chocolate, working alongside Chris Wheeldon.’
Like Water for Chocolate is the much-anticipated ballet adaptation of the 1990s novel of the same name. Exploring the story of a young Mexican woman forbidden to marry, thanks to matrilineal family traditions, her feelings manifest in the food she creates – and with magical consequence. This will be the first Mexican adaptation performed by the Royal Ballet, and with one of Mexico’s most lovely literary exports.
‘I first read the book when I was fourteen years old. The fact that the Royal Ballet of England is taking a story from a different culture, from a book written in the last thirty years, for a new ballet… It’s a huge deal, for not only my country, but the ballet world in general.’
‘I was speaking to the Mexican Minister for Foreign Affairs [Marcelo Ebrard], saying that we couldn’t dream of anything better to promote Mexican culture to the world. We were both so happy and proud.’
Choreographer and colleague Chris Wheeldon is nearly a lifelong friend of Alondra. Aged just twenty-three, she met Chris for the first time as she founded the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas, an orchestra dedicated to promoting the works of the American continents.
‘Our aim was to make the music of the Americas, from Canada to Argentina, part of every orchestra’s core repertoire.’
‘And we’re now getting there – twenty years ago, it was very difficult to find the music, its scores and materials, but part of our work was giving opportunities for composers to be seen and amazing Latin American artists…’
‘It was Chris’ idea to develop this ballet. I’ve been the creative consultant for everything that is Mexican to do with it, advising composer Joby Talbot on the Mexican musical influences… Joby, although British, has been inspired by the music of the Americas for this piece.’
Throughout this interview, her children, aged four and six, are playing football in the park. I remark that they must be well-travelled for their short age – she confirms that this is in fact one of several times they’ve visited London. Alondra tells me her career has taken her across twenty-two different countries, so she too is remarkably well-travelled for her age (or indeed any age).
Her background in dance has influenced the way she approaches conducting, too. Having done some ballet training, and growing up with a stepmother in the Mexican National Ballet, it’s been a consistent theme across her life. She tells me that conducting is nothing like dance – a common misconception – although it might look similar. Rather, as a conductor, she is a conduit: the music flows through the conductor to the orchestra and then to its dancers.
‘It’s a tricky but beautiful thing, [conducting], because you’re just passing something through from you. And the dancers, in a way, receive it, make it their own, and then finish it.’
‘I love conducting ballet, because I connect with the dancers in a different way than I connect with the music. We have to trust each other, guess what the other is going to do, and there’s a little bit of following and being led from both sides. You have a point of contact somewhere between you, but it is one that can be let go of at any moment, but doesn’t if you have trust in each other. When I have felt that point of contact at the Royal Ballet with a dancer, it’s been one of the most exciting and satisfying moments between two human beings.’
On the music that gives her inspiration outside of the classical realm, she tells me that although she feels it is obvious, the Beatles are one of her favourite bands.
‘I’m well-accompanied by a couple million people in my love for the Beatles. But there’s a reason they’re so great. When I was very young, I’d listen to them, and I’m still to this day amazed by every song.’
Like Water For Chocolate plays at the Royal Ballet between the 2nd and 17th of June; Alondra de la Parra conducts all performances with the orchestra of the Royal Opera House. Buy tickets at roh.org.uk.