INTERVIEW: Former Cincinnati Ballet Principal Kristi Capps

By Lisa Stephenson

On a stygian afternoon that promised more winter than spring Kristi Capps tucked into a reheated bowl of soup during a rehearsal break with the Cincinnati Ballet Company. Seemingly weightless, with gentle eyes and a cautious but genuine smile, Ms. Capps anticipated the end of her tenure with the Company, leaving behind a legion of devoted fans.

Ms. Capps grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina. The scaffolding of her career started at the age of nine when she saw a television production of The Nutcracker with Gelsey Kirkland and Mikhail Baryshnikov, prompting her to ask for dance lessons as a Christmas gift. Three summers in New York followed, at the School of the American Ballet, before she entered the Harid Conservatory and, ultimately, graduated from the North Carolina School of the Arts.

“There were times when I didn’t know if I would make it as a dancer,” she said. “I didn’t know if it was what I wanted to do. I missed my school proms. I missed football games. I missed homecoming. The teenage years are a tough time because you’re trying to figure out who you are – which we really do all during life. I had doubts because I was told that I wasn’t good enough and wasn’t as accomplished as other dancers. Maybe it was a negative approach to work harder – I think they beat us down to build us back up. I knew that it would be a hard life, with a limited career, but I didn’t think about it that way. I just wanted to dance. My concern was whether or not I was good enough. It wasn’t about the struggle.”

He parents completely supported her choice (“They sacrificed so much”). At one point, when her younger brother also enrolled in the School of the Arts, her mother took an apartment near the school to give support and to provide a home away from home.

After high school Ms. Capps danced with the Atlanta Ballet for three years. The Company utilized trainees and apprentices, so she danced in highlighted roles until her career veered to the West.

“A new company was starting in Los Angeles that promised a union contract and the opportunity to tour. It sounded wonderful on paper, so four of us left Atlanta to join an organization that never materialized,” she said. “Fortunately, in January of 1996 I came to Cincinnati as a corps member to fill in for an injured dancer, and was promoted to principal dancer in 2000.”

There are 23 members of Cincinnati Ballet and their day begins with classes (exercise, warm up, barre exercise, technique, Pointe work) that are followed by six hours of rehearsal. The personal aspects of their life are left outside the door. “It’s what we love to do,” she said, “but at the same time it’s a job. It’s hard to separate the two because it’s emotionally and physically exhausting, and we are so exposed. We give so much but it’s very fulfilling.”

While European cultures embrace ballet as a part of their heritage, the tradition has not become a mainstay in America. Russian dancers, for example, are accustomed to lengthy contracts and theatres are filled year round. With more performances a dancer is able to relax, to become comfortable in a role and to add the subtle nuances that evolve from experience in front of live audiences. For Cincinnati Ballet the hours and days that tumble into weeks of rehearsal can culminate in a mere three performances for most productions.

Ms. Capps has embodied the premier roles of Juliet, Giselle, Cinderella and Aurora, and has been touched by the lives of those ranked superior in the profession: Suzanne Farrell, with whom she danced at Kennedy Center (“Amazing”); (Sir) Freddie Franklin (“Bar none, the most incredible man . . . a true original); Patricia McBride and Balanchine dancers (“I’m so fortunate to have shared their knowledge. It was an honor to be in their presence”).

A career in ballet offers a double edged sword. Countering the beauty of its execution and accolades from the audience is an inner, constant striving for perfection. “We’re only human,” Ms. Capps said softly. “And we shouldn’t be afraid to make a mistake. If you fall out of a pirouette . . . it’s just a pirouette. It’s not brain surgery. Forgive yourself. We are different every single moment of every single day, and it’s easy to become frustrated if you expect too much. Dancers can get depressed, we get tired and our bodies hurt. But if it’s your dream you have to persevere and know that you can’t be ‘on’ all of the time.”

Her long-termed future plans are undecided at the moment. She hopes to join her husband, a dancer with the Colorado Ballet, and she’d like to return to school to study marine biology. Ms. Capps loves the outdoors, so camping, rock climbing and bike riding in Denver will be on the agenda.

“I’ve had a great career in Cincinnati,” she said. “I’ve been given so many hours of everyone else’s lives and hearts – coworkers, choreographers, members of the crew and wardrobe, ballet masters and mistresses. A career is not done alone. A ballet company is a family and everyone becomes part of your life. I will miss this family. It’s quite a beautiful thing because not many jobs have this structure. But we are so in tune with each other that you bear your soul, which allows you to become something more than you are.”