Ballet Stars

Her Time: American Ballet Theatre's Stella Abrera is Relishing Life as a Principal Dancer

Stella Abrera photographed by Nathan Sayers for Pointe.

This is Pointe's December 2016/January 2017 Cover Story. You can subscribe to the magazine here, or click here to purchase this issue.

At some point during her long career with American Ballet Theatre, Stella Abrera started to think it would never happen; paradoxically, this gave her a kind of peace. But on the evening of May 23, 2015, there she was, onstage at the Metropolitan Opera House, finally performing one of her dream roles: Giselle. It was a moment that had been long deferred. In 2008, as she was preparing for this same part, she was sidelined by an injury. And it turned out to be a serious one, a herniated disk and trouble with her sciatic nerve, which caused pain and debilitating calf weakness and kept her out of commission for almost two years. When she came back, she felt unsure of her body and her future, unable to do the things she had done before almost without thinking.

Yet seven years later, she got her second chance, filling in for another injured dancer. And a remarkable thing happened: The moment Abrera stepped onstage, responding happily to Albrecht's four taps on her cottage door, it was as if she had been dancing the role her whole life. Her Giselle was sweet without being sappy, trusting without having the word “victim" written across her forehead. The jumps were confident, the turns clean, the arabesques limpid. The transformation from woman to wraith was gradual, the love between her Wili and Albrecht still touchingly human. “Stella allows herself to go as far as she can in a particular direction, without ever going over the line," Kevin McKenzie, ABT's artistic director, explains. “She has the taste to make the judgment call and the ability to know where the line is."


Abrera in "The Leaves Are Fading." Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy ABT.


Abrera was still a soloist, a position she had held for 14 years. But not for much longer. On June 30, 2015, the same day as Misty Copeland, she became a principal dancer. The promotion came as a complete surprise. She says: “At my age"—she was 37—“and with the amount of time I had been out I didn't think it was going to happen. I thought, My career is going to be over soon, I'd better just go for broke whenever I go out onstage." It's a funny thing about dancers—it's often when they stop trying to please others that they do their best dancing.

To become a principal at 37 is an anomaly—proof not only of Abrera's talent, but of her willingness to stay the course in the long, frustrating road from injury to full recovery. At the time, her promotion was somewhat overshadowed by Copeland's; outside of the company, there had been scant speculation about Abrera's chances, and little publicity afterwards. Nevertheless, “It was enough for me," Abrera says, quietly, of that time, “because the amount of emotion I felt was beyond."

Like Copeland's, Abrera's achievement was also a milestone: She became ABT's first Filipino-American principal. It is a distinction that is only now beginning to sink in. “People started to ask, 'How does it feel to be the first?' and to me it was like asking, 'How does it feel to have long hair or to be a woman?' " But then she started to hear from young Filipino-American dancers, who said they looked up to her. Almost without realizing it, she has become a symbol of achievement and success.

Career Interrupted

Abrera's path to ABT was somewhat circuitous. Because of her father's job as a civil engineer, the family moved frequently. She started ballet in Pasadena, then moved to a school in San Diego, West Coast Ballet Theatre. Some of her formative years were spent in Sydney, Australia, studying at the Halliday Dance Centre, a program that uses the Royal Academy of Dance curriculum. It was during her final RAD exams, held in New York, that she met Ross Stretton, then ABT's assistant director, who suggested she audition for the company. At 17, she left home to become a professional dancer. It was not easy: “I could sense the dread in my mom's face. It was hard for me. But there was no way I wasn't going to do it."


Abrera as Gulnare in "Le Corsaire." Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy ABT.

Things were proceeding smoothly. She was offered a soloist position in 2001, and was soon dancing plum roles like Lilac Fairy in The Sleeping Beauty, Emilia in José Limón's Moor's Pavane and Gamzatti in La Bayadère. Then, injury struck. In 2008, when she was preparing to dance Giselle, she hurt herself during a rehearsal for a new work; by the end of that rehearsal, she had a persistent calf ache. After 14 months of cortisone treatments, physical therapy, swimming and rest, she came back and tried to approach dancing the way she had before. (“I'd always gone for things, that's how I liked to roll.") But a little over a year later, she reinjured herself.

When Abrera returned after five months, she found herself hampered by fear: fear of pain, of hurting herself again, of having to give up altogether. As she puts it, “I had a lot to lose." Watching her face this ordeal, soloist Craig Salstein, who regularly teaches company class, could see she was afraid she might have to stop dancing. He approached her about devising a gradual, steady program of customized ballet classes to get her dancing again. “I told her I was going to jump into the dark hole with her and together we were going to look for the light switch." Abrera trusted him. (By all accounts, Salstein is a kind of dancer-whisperer and has gone on to work with other dancers suffering from injuries.)

They worked together for four months, during his breaks and lunch hours, doing barre in a room without a mirror so that she could feel things internally, working on the bare essentials: posture, turnout, balance, elongating the spine, straightening the legs. “We started with pliés," he says, “and I would ask her, 'Can you go on? Can we move on to third position? How about fifth?' " Little by little she got her technique back, and, more importantly, her confidence. Abrera's attitude toward Salstein's assistance is simple: “He got me back onstage."

Steadily but slowly, over the course of years, Abrera regained her strength and became accustomed to a new, safe range of motion. Recently, she's gained even more confidence. Things just seemed to work better: “I kept discovering that I could trust my body—it continues to surprise me."


Abrera as Aurora in "The Sleeping Beauty." Photo by Gena Schiavone, Courtesy ABT.

A Principal At Last

Since her Giselle debut, she has taken on one role after another: Sir Frederick Ashton's Cinderella and Lise in his La Fille mal gardée; Lead Maiden in Alexei Ratmansky's Firebird, the Queen of Shemakhan in his Golden Cockerel and Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty; and a lead role in Benjamin Millepied's Daphnis and Chloe.

She's particularly strong in roles leavened with humor, like Lise in Fille. Onstage she can be uninhibited and fun, with a real comedic verve, which can come as a surprise given her almost regal beauty. “She's such a goofball in real life," says ABT principal Gillian Murphy, a close friend since both competed at the Prix de Lausanne as teenagers. (Their husbands, Ethan Stiefel and Sascha Radetsky, are also close, and the four often travel together.) Her ability to be goofy onstage seems to be connected to an innate modesty combined, paradoxically, with confidence: “She's not defined by her beauty," Murphy says.

It's a special mix: modesty, mixed with self-knowledge, refinement and bravery. “She's a deeply honest person," remarks Radetsky, who retired from ABT in 2014, “and I think that shines through in her dancing." Perhaps it explains why she had the air of a principal dancer long before the day she became one. “In most of our heads she was a principal," says soloist Alexandre Hammoudi, who has been paired with her regularly in ballets like Don Quixote, The Nutcracker and The Sleeping Beauty.

Despite the heightened pressure, Abrera has found herself loving dance as much as ever. “Nothing has changed for me on the inside," she explains. “I'm savoring the present; I think it comes with time and experience. It's the joy of art. I feel privileged to be part of that."

Show Comments ()
Trending
Rachel Hutsell Photographed for Pointe by Jayme Thornton.

This is Pointe's June/July 2018 Cover Story. You can subscribe to the magazine here, or click here to purchase this issue.

"I'm very cautious by nature," Rachel Hutsell says over herbal tea at Lincoln Center between rehearsals. You wouldn't think so from the way she moves onstage or in the studio. In fact, one of the most noticeable characteristics of Hutsell's dancing is boldness, a result of the intelligence and intention with which she executes each step. (What she calls caution is closer to what most people see as preparedness.) She doesn't approximate—she moves simply and fully, with total confidence. That quality hasn't gone unnoticed.

Keep reading... Show less
popular

Looking for your next audition shoe? Shot at and in collaboration with Broadway Dance Center, Só Dança has launched a new collection of shoes working with some pretty famous faces of the musical theater world! Offered in two different styles and either 2.5" or 3" heels, top industry professionals are loving how versatile and supportive these shoes are! Pro tip: The heel is centered under the body so you can feel confident and stable!

Ballet Stars
Jacques d'Amboise and Adrian Danchig-Waring in conversation at the National Dance Institute. Photo Courtesy NDI.

"Jerry, throughout his life, wanted a world where races, cultures and people came together without conflict and hate and anger, but lovingly, to make a community." These words were spoken earlier this week by Jacques d'Amboise at an event titled Upper West Side Story: A Celebration of Jerome Robbins, hosted by National Dance Institute, which d'Amboise founded in 1976 to provide free arts education to children in New York City and beyond. D'Amboise then reiterated his point by quietly singing the famous refrain from West Side Story, which Robbins choreographed and directed for both screen and stage: "There's a place for us."

Keep reading... Show less
Editors' List: The Goods
Courtesy Soffe, Dicsount Dance Supply, Danskin. LeaMarie leotard photographed by Jayme Thornton

Considering we practically live in our dance clothes, there's really no such thing as having too many leotards, tights or leggings (no matter what our mom or friends say!). That's why we treat every sale as an opportunity to stock up. And thanks to the holiday weekend, you can shop all of your dancewear go-tos or try something totally new for as much as 50% less than the usual price.

Here are the eight sales we're most excited about—from online options to in-store retailers that will help you find the perfect fit. Happy Memorial Day (and shopping)!

Keep reading... Show less
News
Joffrey Ballet dancers Christine Rocas and Dylan Gutierrez in "Giselle." Photo Courtesy Spring to Dance Festival.

For the first time since its inception 11 years ago, Dance St. Louis' annual Emerson Spring to Dance Festival — May 25 and 26 at the University of Missouri–St. Louis' Touhill Performing Arts Center — will be curated by someone other than festival founder Michael Utoff. That job fell to newly hired programming consultant Terence Marling.

Hailed as "arguably the best dance buffet in the Midwest" by the Chicago Tribune, the popular festival is known for championing lesser-known regional dance artists and companies. It will retain that focus under Marling, along with representation by more familiar names such as Houston Ballet, Joffrey Ballet and Marling's former company, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago.

Keep reading... Show less
Ballet Stars

La Fille Mal Gardée, or in English "The Wayward Daughter," is one of the oldest story ballets still in modern repertoire. The tale's enduring magic lies in themes of youth, following your heart and true love, along with playful bits of entertainment, like the clog dance and ribbon pas de deux. As Lise, Russian-born ballerina Valentina Kozlova captures the character's spirited innocence. Dancing alongside her as her beloved Colas is Chris Jensen, star of Switzerland's Basel Ballet. This clip of their ribbon pas de deux from Basel Ballet's 1986 film is as lighthearted and charming as it is technically brilliant.

Keep reading... Show less
Ballet Training
Thinkstock

I'm 15 and want to be a professional ballet dancer. I have ballet five times a week, contemporary once a week and rehearsals year-round. It is 15 to 20 hours a week. When I hear about dancers doing 30-plus hours a week, I worry that I dance too little. Is my schedule enough? —Caroline

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

Videos

Sponsored

mailbox

Get Pointe Magazine in your inbox

Sponsored

Win It!