In Cincinnati Ballet's Romeo and Juliet, a world premiere with choreography from Artistic Director Victoria Morgan, perhaps no moment depicts passion and plight more than a kiss between the star-crossed lovers. In rehearsal last week, I saw the famous balcony scene, the marriage scene and the powerful crypt scene, each with its own kiss between the same two lovers. Each was very different in what it represented. How a simple kiss can carry so much weight in a full-length ballet chock full of crowded ball scenes, political intrigues and dashing fight scenes is an intriguing question.
Who better to ask than Meridith Benson, principal dancer, appearing as Juliet opposite Rene Micheo (also appearing in the roles are Anna Resnik and Alexei Kremnev). It's their first pairing since Benson returned to Cincinnati Ballet last year. Morgan's plan to present the ballet was a powerful lure to Benson, who had just opened a school and started a fledgling ballet company in Chicago with her husband, Mario de la Nuez, after performing and touring with Ballet Theatre of Chicago and Joffrey Ballet.
"I was flirting with retiring [from dancing] altogether," she remembers. "Thank God I didn't. It would have been a very bad mistake.
When I left, a lot of people thought I was crazy. I had a big following here. I'm glad it worked out that I could come back."
Benson was convinced she had to leave Cincinnati. She'd grown complacent.
"I was just doing 'whatever,' " she says. "I needed pushing, I was too comfortable. For an artist that's dangerous. And I had an incredible experience in Chicago."
What happened? "Well ... I grew up. I was stuck on one level. It was scary, but I made a big name for myself. I was actually known as the prima ballerina of Chicago!"
She's always loved Prokofiev's score for Romeo and Juliet.
"I remember at 10, sitting in my parents' living room, listening to the ballroom music over and over ... and practicing crying," she confides. "I mean, I really did. It seems absurd, but the music is so tragic. It's so powerful in this day and age of divorce to think of killing yourself over love."
Benson also can't say enough about her onstage partner's help igniting the passion between the two young lovers.
"We had a partnership when I was here before. We danced Ben Stevenson's Three Preludes, which will go down in both our careers at the top of our list, or maybe (after Romeo and Juliet) the second," she says mischievously.
She says Micheo, too, has been "through the mill in this career," jumping around from company to company. "It's a hard life."
Benson is amazed and delighted to be back with her old partner, dancing in such an "incredible, emotional role."
She confirms the importance of the kiss because, though it's a small thing, in context it's so magnified by the focus. It's the sealing of their fate together.
"In the balcony scene, we worked on that kiss probably more than any step in the whole ballet," she says.
It's truly a thrilling moment, and exquisite. The kissing during the marriage scene is also joyful, but all too brief. Perhaps it's the crypt scene that's most wrenching.
In it, Juliet has poisoned herself convincingly enough that she appears dead. Romeo tries in vain to revive her limp form. In despair, he poisons himself and expires just as she awakens.
It's here Prokofiev's score brings home all the pathos and tragedy when she discovers him. There's no more poison, but Juliet, finding strength to unite herself in death with her lover, stabs herself. And as she dies, she drags herself to his prostrate form, wraps his arms around her and, with her hand, brings a final kiss from his lips to hers.
ROMEO & JULIET will be presented by Cincinnati Ballet Friday through Sunday at the Aronoff Center's Procter & Gamble Hall.