Stella Abrera, principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre in New York City, says, “Ballet is a universal language. It’s enjoyed all over the world because it moves people everywhere. Any person from any culture can appreciate ballet.”
A Dancer of Merit
In December 2016, Abrera was in her home state of California to perform in Ballet Theatre’s “Nutcracker” at Segerstrom Center of the Arts in Costa Mesa. She sat down with me to reflect on her art and long career. She was promoted in 2015 and at age 38, when most dancers are contemplating the next chapter, she is locked in on her next show.
For over twenty years, she has been immersed in company life, which includes husband Sascha Radetsky who retired from Ballet Theatre two years ago. “The feeling of camaraderie is unique to this type of work, especially when you go on tour together. It’s a bonding moment,” she says.
Stella underscores her integration into the ballet community to show that a devoted group of peers, teachers and balletomanes has been her main support system since she moved from Pasadena to New York at age 17. Last year, she was annoyed by publications that anointed her Ballet Theatre’s “First Filipina Principal Dancer” because the label, in a subtle way, attributed her promotion to ethnicity, spotlighted a single segment of her longtime followers and discounted the wider ballet community that embraced her from the start.
She has always controlled her destiny with every goal earned by foresight and stamina. Nothing came her way by chance or other invisible forces. Those who watch Stella perform bear witness to a new horizon in human endeavor.
Not to suggest Stella disregards her Filipina heritage. Many of the little girls she is pictured with on Instagram are Filipina. She would welcome an invitation to return to the Philippines to perform between ballet seasons.
A Teen Takes a Risk
No person knows the struggles Stella faced to secure a berth in a prestigious ballet company as intimately as her mother, Aurora Abrera. Today she can look back at the experience of letting her daughter go to New York with fondness and vindication that she and husband, Jack, won by surrendering to their daughter’s will.
When Stella asked her parents for consent, Aurora recalls the arguments against a cross-country move: “Why not get into college like her older siblings and major in dance? She’s too young to go to New York. We don't know anyone there who can look after her. Just look for a local ballet company.”
Eventually Aurora made the decision that spared Stella a lifetime of grief over what could have been. “We saw how determined she was so we relented, but with the condition that she already have a job before moving there,” Aurora remembers the advice and outcome. “She was accepted at ABT as an apprentice, then a few months later she was part of the corps de ballet.”
Stella could not be denied after she had made irreversible sacrifices. Her mother knows Stella’s gamble and the payoff. “She gave up graduation rituals at South Pasadena High and took a GED exam instead. While the rest of her class was excited about going away to college, she already had a job doing what she truly loves.”
Stella overflows with gratitude to her parents for enabling her to live her dream. “I admire my parents for trusting that my drive was going to get me somewhere. They knew I could always get educated but not always have a career in ballet. I broke the mold in my family. The rest of my siblings took the more conventional route of going to college after high school.”
Committed to Dance
Stella acknowledges, “I realize how lucky I am to have a career in something I’m so passionate about. Of course, there are days when my body is in pain or I’m feeling fatigued or things don’t go right. In general, I’m always quite motivated to keep moving forward.”
Rigorous training and love for dance have kept Stella closer to the apex than the twilight of her career. “All dancers at every stage of their career want to keep improving. I’m constantly changing as a person. The steps may stay the same but my interpretation of them is always evolving and will continue to evolve with changes in my body.”
Stella is a realist. Someday when she takes her final bows, she plans to work as a répétiteur, a type of coach who works with different companies to help dancers master the steps to ensure correct interpretation of a specific ballet. A dancer with 52 ballets and counting is eminently qualified.
View the American Ballet Theatre calendar at ABT.org for upcoming performances at Metropolitan Opera House in New York City and on tour. Also explore other ballet companies that are worthy of attention and close to home or coming to town. Notable companies include Ballet Met in Columbus, Ohio, Grand Rapids Ballet in Michigan, Jessica Lang Dance in New York City, Ballet Arizona in Phoenix, Joffrey Ballet in Chicago, Ballet West in Salt Lake City, Dance Theatre of Harlem in New York City, and Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle.
Seeing American Ballet Theatre is on Anthony Maddela’s bucket list. He’s saving up while working at the Watts/Los Angeles WorkSource Center at the Imperial Courts public housing project.
More articles from Anthony Maddela