Stella Abrera photographed by Nathan Sayers for Pointe.

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

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."

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From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

Lydia Abarca Mitchell, Arthur Mitchell's First Ballerina, Builds On Her Mentor's Legacy in Atlanta

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.


For more than 25 years, coaching at Ballethnic has been a lifeline back to Abarca Mitchell's days with DTH. She had a stellar career, both with the company and beyond, but left the stage at age 30 after an injury sustained performing in Dancin' on Broadway. Her husband's job transferred them to Atlanta, where she transitioned to a full-time job as a medical transcriptionist while raising a family. Now retired from her second career, Abarca Mitchell continues to forward Arthur Mitchell's legacy, not only through coaching but also by building community among DTH alumni and writing her memoirs—a fairy-tale story of a child who came from the Harlem public-housing projects and became a trailblazing Black ballerina.

Abarca Mitchell grew up during the 1950s and '60s, the oldest of seven in a tight-knit family. She always danced, taking cues from Hollywood figures until a fourth-grade teacher saw her talent and encouraged her to seek formal training. The family couldn't afford ballet lessons, but Abarca Mitchell earned a scholarship to attend The Juilliard School's Saturday youth program, and later the Harkness Ballet's professional training program. But for all of those ballet classes, Abarca Mitchell never had the opportunity to see or perform in a ballet production. She didn't understand the purpose behind ballet's tedious class exercises.

When the fast-growing Harkness Ballet moved its scholarship students to the June Taylor Studio on Broadway, Abarca Mitchell remembers hearing live drumming, clapping and laughter coming from the studio across the hall. It was a jazz class taught by Jaime Rogers, who'd played Loco in the West Side Story movie. Abarca Mitchell started sneaking into Rogers' classes.

When Harkness informed her that her scholarship was exclusively for ballet, Abarca Mitchell left the program. She saw no future for herself in the white-dominated ballet world, and focused on academics during her last two years of high school.

At 17, Abarca Mitchell met Arthur Mitchell. He had made history as the first Black principal dancer with New York City Ballet, which he had joined in 1955, and had just begun to shape what would become Dance Theatre of Harlem when he hired Abarca Mitchell in 1968. Within a month, she was back on pointe. Within two months, she was performing in Arthur Mitchell's Tones. "I didn't even know what ballet was until I was onstage," Abarca Mitchell says. "All of a sudden, it was my heart and soul."

Arthur Mitchell made sure his dancers saw NYCB perform, and subsequently brought Balanchine's Agon, Concerto Barocco and other NYCB works into the DTH repertoire. "Physically and emotionally, I felt the connection of jazz in Balanchine's choreography," Abarca Mitchell says. "His neoclassical style was just funky to me. I could totally relate."

For the first time, Abarca Mitchell danced with people who looked like her and shared the same aspirations, she says, with a leader who "saw us through his eyes of love and achievement."

In Abarca Mitchell's 30s, after a performing career that took her from DTH to the film version of The Wiz to Bob Fosse's Dancin' and beyond, her husband's job took their family to Atlanta. She soon connected with Gilreath and Waverly Lucas. The couple, also DTH alumni, were influenced by Arthur Mitchell's model when they founded Ballethnic, seeking to create access for dancers of all backgrounds to develop as classical dancers and perform a repertoire that represents the company's culturally diverse home city. Over time, Abarca Mitchell became a trusted advisor.

Abarca Mitchell goes in at least twice a year to coach Ballethnic's productions—such as Urban Nutcracker, set in Atlanta's historically Black Sweet Auburn neighborhood, and The Leopard Tale, which features the company's signature blend of classical pointe work with polyrhythmic dance forms of the African diaspora. These final rehearsals give Abarca Mitchell a way to fast-track the transfer of her mentor's values.

Two dancers in blue and black practice clothes and face masks, the woman in pointe shoes, pose together in a first arabesque tendu. Abarca Mitchell steps out of a mirrored pose as she adjusts the fingertips of the male dancer.

Lydia Abarca Mitchell works with Ballethnic's Calvin Gentry and Karla Tyson.

Courtesy Ballethnic Dance Company

She recalls that Arthur Mitchell taught his dancers to present themselves at their finest—to enter a room with their heads held high and shoulders back—and to dress, speak and walk with dignity and self-respect. He reminded them that they were pioneers and ambassadors for Blacks in ballet. As the company gained international stature—Abarca Mitchell was the first Black female ballerina to appear on the cover of Dance Magazine, in 1975—he insisted the dancers remain humble and in service to the greater mission. But he was also a taskmaster. "No nonsense, no excuses," Abarca Mitchell says. "There was no slack. If he was rehearsing something that you're not in, you'd better be on the side learning it."

"He didn't throw compliments around at all. You had to really kill yourself to get a smile from him." After a run-through, she says, "you didn't want to be singled out."

Abarca Mitchell takes a slightly different approach, though she doesn't compromise on the values her mentor instilled. When coaching large casts of all ages and different levels for Ballethnic, she has found ways to inspire people without tearing them down. She calls it a "tough love" approach.

"I've got to make them want to do it. I don't want to beat them into doing it," Abarca Mitchell says. "I tell them, 'You're here because you want to be, and because you auditioned and were accepted. Now, show me why I should keep you here.'"

"I tell them, 'I'm here to make sure you'll look good—you know: 'That looks fake. Let's make it look real. Think about what you're doing, so that it's not just a gesture.'"

Arthur Mitchell instilled this level of emotional honesty in his dancers, and it was key to the company's quick success. "We were bringing a thought forward," says Abarca Mitchell. "We were bringing a feeling forward, so that the audience could connect with us."

In addition to her position as rehearsal director for Ballethnic, Abarca Mitchell is today part of 152nd Street Black Ballet Legacy, a group of DTH alumni who seek to give voice to people responsible for the company's success in its early years. "It's incredible," she says, "how many people took something from DTH and applied it to their lives."

As Ballethnic prepares to co-host the International Association of Blacks in Dance Conference and Festival in January 2022, Abarca Mitchell hopes to help strengthen the network of dance companies associated with Ballethnic, such as Memphis' Collage Dance Collective. "The dream is for all of us to collaborate with each other," she says, "so that it becomes more normal to see a Black ballerina, so it's not just a token appearance."

Today's young dancers face different challenges from what Abarca Mitchell faced. She finds that they're more easily distracted, and sometimes act entitled, because they don't know or appreciate how hard earlier Black ballerinas like herself worked to clear a path for them. But what she's passing on will benefit them, whether they choose to pursue dance careers or become doctors, lawyers, professors or something else entirely. "The principles are the same," she says. "Work for what you want, and you will achieve it."

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