Book a date at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City or on tour to see Stella Abrera, the first Filipina American principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre (A.B.T.).
Ballet, in particular, is best experienced in person with a full orchestra and eyes to appreciate the subtle artistry. As in sports events, high-definition television excels at capturing feats of athleticism, such as ballet’s leaps and lifts. TV puts the action ahead of the emotion. A great ballet company like Ballet Theatre glorifies a concert hall; within it, a lively dancer like Stella Abrera paints a wonderful memory whose luster lasts a lifetime.
Stella became a principal dancer on June 30, 2015. The promotion culminates a long journey that began at age 5 at the coaxing of eldest sister, Luz, who brought Stella to Le Studio Dance in Pasadena, California. She was 16 when she was invited to audition with A.B.T. after three years of training in the Royal Academy of Dancing method at Halliday Dance Centre in Sydney, Australia. Over 20 years later, she remains with A.B.T.
The Long Education of a Dancer
Fulfilling a rite of passage for ballet dancers everywhere, Stella’s first show was the “Nutcracker” at age 8. She became “serious” about ballet after participating in “Swan Lake” when she was 11. Early on, her training took on an international dimension through her father, Jack Abrera, a civil engineer who took his family along to assignments around the world. Stella was the youngest of Jack and Aurora’s four daughters and a son.
At A.B.T., Stella apprenticed for five months, belonged to the Corps de Ballet for five years, became a soloist in 2001 before her appointment to principal. “At that point, I’d done quite a few lead roles on top of soloing. It felt like a natural transition to relinquish the soloist roles I had done for 14 years,” she summarizes her history with A.B.T.
A.B.T. was founded in 1940, and Kevin McKenzie has been its artistic director since 1992. “Stella is one in a million—gifted with a beautiful physique and excellent training but more importantly, talented by virtue of intellect. An artist of her own making,” he states.
“I am filled with pride and happiness to gain this recognition from my director to represent A.B.T. at its highest rank of principal dancer,” Stella speaks directly to her fans.
“Bringing dance to America and American dance to the world” is not merely a marketing tag line. In 2006, A.B.T. was designated "America's National Ballet Company," by resolution of the United States Congress. Stella’s success advances the company’s vision to accentuate the “American” in American Ballet Theatre with members who reflect America's diversity when they perform on tours in the U.S. and abroad. The United States Department of State has sponsored performances overseas by these ambassadors of dance.
An Unstoppable Passion
Stella does not single out a specific ballet teacher or school for sustaining her passion. “All the teachers in America and Australia, and my parents, were encouraging. I was highly motivated myself,” she mentions an attitude that later helped her resume her career after a potentially tragic sciatic-nerve injury in 2008.
The regimen of a professional dancer is rigorous, as Stella nonchalantly describes. “Every morning there’s ballet class starting with an hour and half to get warmed up and hone our skills. On average, I rehearse three to four hours, but it varies every day depending on the ballet. During the most intense time of year, it can be seven hours. I also cross train with my own set of exercises at the A.B.T. gym.”
She elaborates, “My own gym routine includes jump rope and core strengthening, whatever I need to work on or train for.”
Right now, Stella is preparing for Tchaikovsky’s “The Sleeping Beauty” coming January 27th to 31st to John F. Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
Quietly Blazing a Trail
Given recent events in the news, black and white rhetoric justifiably dominates race relations in America. Naturally, Misty Copeland’s promotion to Ballet Theatre’s first African American principal dance (also last summer) would draw national attention, unintentionally obscuring the contributions of the 16 other principal dancers in the company; among them, the first Fil-Am principal dancer. If this other milestone had made magazine covers, publications would have struggled to identify the Filipino aspects of Stella’s dancing.
One irrelevant question a reporter can ask the ballerina is: How does your Filipino culture influence your art? Traditional ballet movements are meticulously defined. An Arabesque or fondu would be flawed if it revealed a hint of the Philippines.
While Stella was born in Manila, her upbringing was primarily American. She notes that her fellow dancers never make note of her Filipino heritage. “I grew up in LA. Everyone around me is from somewhere else. It doesn’t really come up because everyone has a different ethnic background.”
A First-Position Filipina
Stella may bask less in the spotlight than under crystal chandeliers. On stage, she delights in the music of classical composers Mendelssohn, Chopin, Bach, Mozart and is particularly partial to Prokofiev’s “Romeo & Juliet.”
For her elegance and lifelong devotion to her profession, Stella is cherished by Filipinos everywhere: “I’ve noticed some wonderfully supportive, sweet messages on my social media from Filipino dancers. I find that to be a lovely responsibility to have. I hope I can continue inspiring them to pursue their dreams.”
Stella cares for the plight of Filipinos. After Typhoon Haiyan, she raised $20,000 for Operation USA on Crowdrise through her charity, Steps Forward for the Philippines. In 2014, she performed in “Giselle” with Ballet Philippines in Manila.
Last Halloween, Stella did herself up as Manny Pacquiao. Her escort was wrestler Hulk Hogan as interpreted by A.B.T. soloist Jeffrey Cirio, who is half-Filipino. Stella’s costume was a fun penance for missing the Pacquiao-Mayweather match in spring while the millions who did buy “the Fight of the Century” on Pay-Per-View would probably, in retrospect, have preferred to have watched their ballerina dance.
Note: Residents in and around Washington, D.C., have a rare opportunity to see new Principal Dancer Stella Abrera with American Ballet Theatre dance at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. In ABT's production of "The Sleeping Beauty," she will perform the Lilac Fairy on Friday evening, January 29th, and Sunday evening, January 31st. On Saturday evening, January 30th, she will perform Princess Florine in the ballet's Bluebird Pas de Deux. For grace and imagination, Stella is not one to be missed. Visit ABT.org for these and later dates with destiny.
Anthony Maddela is the Southern California correspondent for Positively Filipino. He was born and raised in Seattle while his two children are Fil-Angelenos.
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