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AC Ballet: A Company Worth Keeping

After years of artistic exile, the Atlantic City Ballet has returned in triumph to its namesake city.

With his lithe, sinewy physique and tousled blond hair, Kristaps Lintius looks like a younger version of his idol, Russian ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov.

Like Misha and his contemporary, the late, great Alexander Godunov, Lintius hails from Latvia, hoped to make his name in Russia, but eventually came to the United States to work and learn. He took the scenic route, traveling from Italy to Finland to Greece and Russia before heading stateside.
“A family friend told me I needed to come to the United States,” says Lintius, speaking in near-perfect, lightly accented English. “And she is right. Everything here is bigger. This is the biggest journey in my life, to the U.S.”

The ambitious dancer did not go to New York, Boston or San Francisco to pursue his American dream. He landed, of all places, in South Jersey. Now a member of the Atlantic City Ballet, Lintius performs with a gifted international company that comes from the four corners of the world ? Europe, Asia, Australia and North America ? to train and perform at the Jersey Shore.

ABCs of the ACB

Show of hands: Who out there knew Atlantic City had a resident ballet company?

If you’ve missed this treasure so far, OK, you’re entitled to a pass. In recent years, the ACB has been ina sort of artistic exile, based at Richard Stockton College in Galloway Township, and seldom performing in the city that gave it its name. But now the dancers are back in town, thanks to a grant from the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, and a renewed commitment from a city that realizes it needs the arts to be a truly world-class destination.

Any given morning, the hard-working corps of two dozen dancers can be found in a modest rehearsal room at Boardwalk Hall, toiling at the barre or preparing for upcoming shows like “Coppelia.” In this informal space, the company hosts occasional “Up Close and Personal” performances, inviting people to watch samples of the repertoire, meet the performers, and talk with founder and artistic director Phyllis Papa.

Papa is an alumna of the Royal Ballet Academy, New York’s famed American Ballet Theatre, and the Royal Danish Ballet in Copenhagen, among other prestigious dance companies. She first came to Atlantic City in 1982, lured by an arts grant and the opportunity to build a professional company from the ground up. Papa recruited 11 dancers from New York to join her. Then the funding dried up, and in a mass grand jete, most of the dancers left town. Thanks to Papa and a handful of willing performers and apprentices, ACB persevered through the lean times.

The Show Must Go On

“We started with nothing,” remembers Papa, who scrounged second-hand costumes and sets for early shows. Without a dedicated performance space, the troupe danced where it could, including casinos like Harrah’s, the old Golden Nugget, Resorts and the Claridge.

“We did 64 performances of ‘The Nutcracker’ at Playboy,” says Papa. “Then a new regime came to town and decided that people who go to the ballet don’t gamble. They didn’t think it was important to the city.” Casino magnate Steve Wynn and Resorts executive Steve Norton, both known as patrons of the arts, moved on, and the company found itself foundering in its home city. The group relocated to Atlantic Cape Community College for a time, and then Stockton put out the welcome mat. Though ACB continued to rehearse at Boardwalk Hall during the summer ? it was too drafty in the off-season ? Stockton’s performing arts center became its home stage.

Not Your Granny’s Ballet

In a city that thinks of entertainment as celebrity DJs (Pauly D, anybody?) and reality TV stars (anyone named Kardashian, Jenner or Hilton), the arts ? especially ballet and classical music ? can be a hard sell. To attract a broader audience, Papa weaves modern-dance and jazz elements into classical choreography, and makes some unexpected choices when it comes to the scores.

“For example, in ‘Dracula,’ there’s a whole scene where they’re doing jazz and modern movements on pointe,” she says. “And none of the music is classical; it’s taken from Japanese cartoons and vampire movies. It’s innovative. It’s not what most people think of when they think of ballet.”

See a clip here:

Of course, the classics are hardly neglected. Also in the repertoire are Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” and “Sleeping Beauty,” and Bizet’s “Carmen.” And each Christmas season the company performs the beloved “Nutcracker Ballet” for rapt audiences.

Here’s the traditional holiday production of The Nutcracker:

In its “Stages to Schools” program, which takes a traveling arts curriculum into local classrooms, the company presents Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain,” Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf,” and the perennial “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” made famous by Mickey Mouse.

Baby Steps

Former ACB board chairman and ballet enthusiast Bill Cradle says bringing the ballet back home is “a step in the right direction” and a way to enliven the arts community in a city best known for neon lights and clanging slots. But it’s just the first step.

“To really have a city experience, you need a level of culture ? a ballet, an orchestra, a major art gallery,” Cradle says. “We need to develop Atlantic City as a whole place, not just a town where you come to the casinos or go shopping and eating.”

With Papa’s relentless drive, the ACB has lasted almost 33 years, and doubtless will flourish in its new home base. This summer, the company will return to dance for the public at Kennedy Plaza on the Boardwalk.

For dates, visit www.acballet.org; check in often for performance information.

You Should Be Dancing

Check out this moving clip taped at Kennedy Plaza on the Atlantic City Boardwalk. Papa and the dance troupe invite people affected by Hurricane Sandy to help choreograph a ballet that will later be titled “In the Eye of the Storm.” The dance, says Papa, “expresses without words the feeling they had from Sandy.”

Returning at last to its home base, the Atlantic City Ballet has “done a full circle,” says Papa. Or as it’s called in dance class, a pirouette.

Welcome back, AC Ballet.