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By Janet Light
Kristi Capps was the corps dancer who made dancegoers snap to attention when she joined Cincinnati Ballet 12 years ago. You were quickly drawn to her pleasant proportions, preternaturally arched feet and handsome legs, and a sweet open face that seemed made to portray Juliet.
Flash forward to her lean, honed silhouette today. She still possesses an endearing innocence, but she is a far more expressive and powerful dancer. Walking serenely with her partner in the opening of Balanchine’s Chaconne, or shaping with her toned limbs a hyper-kinetic anagram in Jorma Elo’s Plan to B, Capps pulls the viewer in with her intelligence, self-awareness, and deep absorption in every role.
Promoted to principal in 2002, Capps has danced the popular classics with honor and has stretched herself in new contemporary works. Visiting choreographers, says artistic director Victoria Morgan, vie to cast Capps in their ballets. “Kristi has beautiful line and physicality,” says Morgan. “She looks great in those contemporary pieces because she can really move like an animal.”
In regional ballet there are some excellent dancers, but many tend to move on after a few seasons. Capps, 34, chose to remain in Cincinnati, and she has never stopped growing. Grit, determination, all-out hard work, and a natural impulse to be a team player have helped propel her through the company ranks to become CB’s senior ballerina.
Capps grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina, and was studying piano at age 9 when she was captivated by Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland on TV in The Nutcracker. She asked her parents for lessons. For a few years, her younger brother Stuart (who eventually danced with New York City Ballet and in Twyla Tharp’s Movin’ Out), and even her mother and father took classes locally. “We ended up spending every hour at the studios,” she recalls with a grin. At 14 she left home for a year’s study at the Harid Conservatory in Boca Raton, Florida. She then entered North Carolina School of the Arts as a high school sophomore, a year later than most of her classmates.
Her primary teacher was the formidable ex-NYCB ballerina Melissa Hayden, who steeped the class in Balanchine choreography. In summers, faculty member Guyla Pandi took a small group to the Hungarian State Ballet School in Budapest for lessons in Russian technique with teachers from the Kirov.
Because of those influences, says Capps, “I feel more comfortable in classical roles and in Balanchine ballets.” In contemporary works by choreographers like Luca Veggetti, she has learned to “allow myself to be off balance and see where that will take me.”
About NCSA, she says, “It was an awesome school and a tough class, which was great; it made me work. But those are hard years in anyone’s life. Your body is changing, you don’t feel good in your skin, and you are just trying to find yourself.” She went through periods of self-doubt and considered applying to college.
After graduation, with Melissa Hayden’s encouragement, Capps moved on to three happy seasons as a company member at Atlanta Ballet, then directed by former NYCB principal Robert Barnett. In 1996, when she joined Cincinnati Ballet, the company’s ballet mistress, Johanna Wilt, noted Capps’ promise and strong work ethic. “Kristi was always the first to get the combination,” says Wilt. “She is musical and she is a perfectionist.”
Capps has also sought enriching new experiences on her own. For years she used summer layoffs to study and perform in Chautauqua, New York, in the program established by former NYCB principals Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux and Patricia McBride. She blossomed amidst the camaraderie, inspiring classes, and new repertory, where she could attempt all kinds of roles, including dramatic ones.
She has also welcomed unusual opportunities. She describes as “a treasure” the 2004 Cincinnati revival of Léonide Massine’s Seventh Symphony, a Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo masterwork not seen in half a century. In the ballet’s great lamentation scene—with references to the Crucifixion—Capps recreated a grieving mother who was part of an ensemble of mourners, yet separate from it. “Human, but a kind of goddess” is the way Capps says she envisioned the character.
Even with her beautiful legs and feet and strong torso, Capps still had to overcome technical hurdles. Her hyper-extended legs, for instance, are not assets when it comes to bourrées. She has learned to relax the knees to make them appear effortless. And because of her high arches, she has learned to pull back in her toe shoes to do hops on pointe.
To dance dramatic parts “from the inside,” she has experimented and delved into research. She rents tons of dance videos when approaching a dramatic role, and she tries to rehearse without looking in the mirror. “Once you see it, you start to judge yourself and it’s not coming out real. You’re not acting through emotions, you’re watching yourself act. You have to feel it.”
Morgan praises Capps’ maturity as a performer but knows that she has had to unlock an inner confidence. “Kristi has had to overcome a tendency to play down her own abilities,” notes Morgan. “The hardest part of a performance for her is the bow. She’s very, very modest.”
Capps’ curtain calls have grown warmer and more spontaneous through the years. She still seems happiest when moving swiftly to the wings with arms outstretched to bring company music director Carmon DeLeone onstage for a bow. (CB is one of the rare regional troupes that still performs with a live orchestra).
In 2001, by then a soloist, Capps filled in as a third-cast Swanilda in Kirk Peterson’s Coppélia. Dawn Kelly, who was also in the corps at the time, says, “I was taken aback at how beautiful she was even then. Being third cast never deterred her from working as hard as she could. She attacked it as if she was first-cast.”
Peterson, Cincinnati’s resident choreographer, subsequently cast Capps as Kitri in his Don Quixote. She brought surprising fire and fun to the character, as if she’d found something deep in her personality that could relate to the role.
“She’s so open,” observes Peterson. “That’s the thing a choreographer looks for—a dancer who checks their ego at the door and surrenders themselves to the process. And she’s a very sensitive artist. She has nuances that are emotionally accessible to a choreographer that are wonderful to mold.”
Dancing Don Quixote, says Capps, later enabled her to say yes when ABT star Angel Corella needed a last-minute partner to dance a Don Q suite for a gala in Spain. (He had invited Cuban soloist Adiarys Almeida, but she had visa problems and recommended Capps.)
“I hardly slept on the plane, I kept going over the choreography in my mind,” Capps remembers. “I barely had a rehearsal the night I arrived; the next morning was dress rehearsal and tech, and then the performance.” Once onstage, she says, “I was kind of beside myself. It was cool! He was concerned that I would feel comfortable. He was very generous that way. Thankfully our versions were very similar.” She returned to Spain a month later to dance in another gala organized by Corella.
Capps’ Coppélia debut proved serendipitous in her private life. Her Franz, also an 11th-hour appearance, was a newcomer by way of Colorado Ballet, Kirov-trained Dmitri Trubchanov. The two realized later that they had each formed a small crush on the other before ever being paired onstage. They eventually became off-stage life partners. Last year, on a bike trip in Europe, they became engaged.
Capps says their dance partnership has been crucial to her confidence in dramatic roles. Because of his Soviet training, “Dima can walk onstage and be a prince,” she says. “There is nothing better than dancing with him.” Their 2004 performances of Victoria Morgan’s Romeo and Juliet were a high point of the season: fiercely alive with youthful passion and heartbreak, but sufficiently distilled so that nothing was permitted to go over the top.
Last spring Capps was paired with the polished, Perm State Ballet-trained guest artist Alexei Tyukov, in Eldar Aliev’s A Thousand and One Nights, based on the classic tales of Scheherezade. As a stern potentate and his discontented queen, the pair’s dashes toward the audience, ornamental poses, and Soviet-style lifts brought pantherine excitement to the ballet. In recent seasons, she and Tyukov have performed Swan Lake and Giselle with growing rapport.
This season Capps is looking forward to dancing the local premiere of Twyla Tharp’s sizzling Sinatra Suite and other works. She is also thinking ahead to the next phase of her life. She wants to eventually teach yoga and study marine biology. (She’s spent time in Costa Rica working on sea turtle conservation.)
But until that distant point in the future, she says, “Dance has been such an essence of my life for so long that it’s hard to think of ever moving away from it.” She talks about the freedom of being onstage: “Once you hit the stage, you’re away from the mirror, the scrutiny of rehearsal. You’ve done all the preparation you can. It’s the final release. All your senses are on fire.”
Last summer she went to Russia with Trubchanov to visit his family in their tiny village. “We were picking berries. I’m one of those people who’ll pick the berries until the bucket is full. I don’t want to leave it half full. I’m like that with dancing. A performance brings everything full circle. I like taking class, I like rehearsing, but what means most is completing the circle.”
Janet Light writes about dance from Cincinnati, OH.