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Becoming Juliet: Two dancers take on the demanding role

They’ve read the play, watched the films and learned the choreography.

Now, Company dancers Adrienne Benz and Caitlin Valentine are preparing to take the role of Juliet to the theater for the 2017 Columbus premiere of Edwaard Liang’s Romeo and Juliet.

Romeo and Juliet just has that heart-wrenching passion and the traumatic ending,” Benz says. “It’s a powerful, powerful love story on paper, and then to transform it into a ballet—there’s just something very special about it.”

Even if you haven’t read the play, there’s a good chance you’re familiar with the story. Written between 1591 and 1595, Shakespeare’s tale of young lovers kept apart by feuding families has been a literary classic for centuries. Thanks to renowned composer Sergei Prokofiev, Romeo and Juliet was transformed into a ballet in 1938, premiering at the Mahen Theatre in Brno.

Liang, a renowned choreographer and BalletMet’s artistic director, first choreographed the work in 2012 on Tulsa Ballet. In the studio, he encourages both Benz and Valentine to become their own Juliet.

“Edwaard just gives us so much freedom,” Valentine says. “We can take each step and make it our own… Not many people in [his] role would allow their dancers to be that free.

The Juliets have rehearsed separately and together, allowing them to develop their own approach to the character.

“I feel like audience members who come for both casts will see very different interpretations of it because we’re different people, and our take is different,” Valentine says. “[Edwaard’s] way of setting this ballet has helped make really unique couples.”

But, both dancers admit, everything could change once they get to the theater.

“When we get what we’ve rehearsed in the studio to the stage, we’ll be told, ‘Oh, that’s not reading.’ It’s different from the audience’s point of view compared to the studio,” Valentine says. “This week is a whole new week trying to discover how to make it the best possible performance.”

The production also features the Columbus Symphony playing Prokofiev’s acclaimed score live.—a first for Benz, who’s never danced Juliet to live music.

“There’s nothing like the score,” she says. “It will give you all the feels, goose bumps, tears. It’s so amazing.”

Romeo and Juliet will also double as a last for Benz, who officially retires from the stage at the end of the season. She’ll take her final bow Sunday, April 30.

Her career at BalletMet, marked with countless rehearsals and performances and extraordinary beauty and grace on stage, has spanned 14 years. Columbus audiences have shared many milestones with Benz, including when she danced the role of Odette/Odile in Swan Lake while three months pregnant.

“[It] was a feat, and I’m proud to say that I did that,” she says.

Romeo and Juliet is particularly special to Benz, as she’s always been drawn to story ballets.

“I love developing a character,” she says. “Mina in Dracula was great… Juliet is at the top of the list of my favorite roles and why it’s amazing to finish this way.”

As for what she’ll miss most, for Benz, the answer is obvious.

“Definitely performing,” she says. “This weekend will be an emotional one in a lot of ways.”

See Edwaard Liang’s Romeo and Juliet, April 26-28 at the Ohio Theatre for a spectacular end to our current 2023/24 season.

Gifs: Jen Zmuda, Dancers: Caitlin Valentine-Ellis, Miguel Anaya, Adrienne Benz, David Ward