Blood Thirsty Ballerinas

Atlantic City Ballet goes ghoulish (fangs and all) for annual Dracula production.

McElroy in full costume performing as one of Dracula’s brides.
McElroy in full costume performing as one of Dracula’s brides.
Photo by Frank Veronsky

The red-haired ballerina sits in the dressing room under the bright lights, applying white foundation to her already pale face. Then comes the contouring, hollowing her cheekbones to simulate a skull. Next are the heavy eye shadow and black liner, both as exaggerated as the long, fake lashes she glues to her lids. Then, dark red lipstick. And finally, the fangs.

Caitlin McElroy is preparing to go on stage at the Jim Wise Theater at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark. She is one of three blood-sucking brides in the Atlantic City Ballet’s annual fall performance based on Bram Stoker’s macabre 1897 work, Dracula.

The ballet tells the story of Count Dracula, the infamous nobleman and vampire from Transylvania who is looking to move to England. He hires a well-meaning London lawyer, Jonathan Harker, who quickly discovers he is trapped in the castle at the mercy of three seductive vampire brides. Ballerinas dripping with fake blood pop out of coffins in dramatic Victorian-era costumes.

This year, the Circus Maximus Theater inside Caesars became the company’s new home, replacing the Celebrity Theater in the Claridge Hotel. For Dracula, the audience likes to come in costume, and there are usually a few vampires in the crowd. Since the show last year didn’t end until midnight on October 31, the group celebrated Halloween early. Another of Dracula’s brides, Sara Lonngren, and her husband, Craig, the company photographer, threw a costume party at their apartment in Medford. The couple met while working together in the ACB, and Craig actually proposed to Sara after one of the Dracula performances. “I had to take my fangs out!” she laughs.

Lonngren grew up in Medford and has played one of Dracula’s three brides since she joined the ACB in 2006. She has grown into the role over the years, she says. “You let go when you get more comfortable; you’re not thinking about the steps now, but, Who is this character? How can I make her more evil?” When she’s not training with the company, she teaches dance at three South Jersey studios, including the company’s affiliated performing-arts academy in Atlantic City and Egg Harbor City.

Phyllis Papa, the ACB’s founder and artistic director, says at least four couples have married since meeting in the company. Papa, who has perfect posture and straight blond hair that reaches past her waist, was born and raised “in the Italian section” of Trenton. She started dancing when she was five under the direction of her mother, Mary Papa, who owned the Royal Ballet Academy in Hamilton. By 13, she was a charter member of the Princeton Regional Ballet Company, and at 17, she joined the prestigious American Ballet Theatre in Manhattan. At 20, she became the first American to join the Royal Danish Ballet.

Papa founded ACB in 1982. Though the group has several Japanese and European transplants, the Garden State is well represented. McElroy still commutes from her hometown of Stratford. She also teaches at four studios in her free time, including the ACB academy.

The troupe stays busy with roughly one production a month. Before Dracula, the company performed Sleeping Beauty, and in December the group will dance their annual Nutcracker run. Last year, the company revived Swan Lake after a 10-year hiatus. Papa also invites the members to take on creative roles. Last year, Lonngren got to take the lead and choreograph Moulin Rouge. “Caitlin was Satine, which is perfect,” says Lonngren. “My own red-headed Nicole Kidman.”

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