After 14 years in soloist purgatory and two years of frustrating injuries, Stella Abrera is now the first Filipina-American principal dancer in the history of American Ballet Theatre. And she's just getting started.
This July, I was introduced to a Filipina girl in a ballet class in Brooklyn. She asked me, excitedly, if I’d heard the news about Stella Abrera. She was young, maybe 12 years old, so I smiled, lied, and said no. I wanted to give her the pleasure of giving me the good news, from one young Pinoy dancer to another.
A few weeks earlier, Stella Abrera had become the first Filipina-American to reach the rank of principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre. Her ascent was lauded by Asian-American and Filipino publications the world over, calling it “historic” and — considering almost two years of dealing with physical injuries — “nothing short of a miracle.” The 12-year-old girl I met was inspired by Stella’s promotion, that someone who looked like her could rise to the top rank at ABT, one of the most renowned ballet companies in the world.
When I tell Stella this story, she is gracious and humble. “But it makes me sad, in a way,” she says. “That means she feels different. I had the luxury of never feeling different.” Then she amends, “In the ballet world.”
We’re in a studio at American Ballet Theatre’s rehearsal space on a clear October morning. Stella sits on a yoga mat, at her spot by the barre. She’s in a Yumiko leotard and pink tights, naturally, and socks and a thermal vest to keep warm. Her long black hair is in a loose bun, bouncing with every nod of her head.
“It’s actually been a soul-searching time,” says Stella, “because I’m sure there are people who have felt — Filipino people — who have felt excluded or have felt different.” She pauses. Stella’s speech reflects her movement at the barre, with careful bends and well-thought stretches. “Just because I’ve never felt excluded or different, doesn’t mean that other people don’t.”
As Stella and I discuss her journey in the world of dance, other dancers begin to pour into the room for the morning’s ballet class. The mood is genial and the room fills with their chatter as they warm up. Everyone is absurdly beautiful, necks long and limbs taut, everything carved and sculpted to balletic perfection, most of them out of alabaster and marble.
Ballet, historically, has favored whiteness. It was popularized in the French court of Louis XIV, evolved in czarist Russia through imperial patronage, and, in America, demands a certain kind of access afforded mostly by the wealthy and white. This history results in the two major obstacles people of color face in the ballet world: economic access and a lack of diverse representation.
First, if you’re a dancer, pointe shoes, costumes, and private classes can be prohibitively expensive. Not to mention the cost of tickets to see the beautiful spectacle of ballet. And second, whether you’re in the audience or on stage, you’re bound to be surrounded only by white tutus and white sylphs and white swans. All that hard work only to be different, an outlier, an other.
So to hear Stella say “I’ve never felt singled out or excluded because of my skin color” is a curious surprise — though a pleasant one, nonetheless. “I don’t know if that’s because I grew up in very diverse cities,” she says. “I grew up in Los Angeles. I basically grew up in New York.” But ultimately, says Stella, “ABT is the place where I’ve actually felt the most accepted and at home.”
This is evident when the day’s ballet class begins. Stella’s confidence and self-assurance is palpable as she moves through the studio. You can always tell when a dancer loves a particular space: She’ll smile easily, she’ll effortlessly fly across the sprung floors, and she’ll go through class or rehearsal almost with eyes closed, as though she knows the room, the moves, the music like the backs of her hands en haut. For Stella, the space and the dance is hers. And she’s definitely earned it.
Stella’s career path was paved with passion, perseverance, and the support of her family and friends. She started dancing at 5 years old after her older sister, who’d been taking modern dance classes at college, suggested the younger Abrera sister might try it out.
“We’d play leap frog and skipped around with flowers,” says Stella. “That’s how I got bit by the bug.” When she was 11, she tried on her first pair of pointe shoes. And the metaphorical shoe fit. “Ever since then,” she says, “I knew.”
So she began intensive training. Stella’s mother and father believed in Stella’s talent and passion. “My parents were so supportive,” says Stella. “They did all the driving and waiting through classes and rehearsals. They did it with me for sure all through high school.”
The Abrera family’s home base was in Los Angeles, but Stella’s father’s job would take them out of L.A. for two to three years at a time. They spent some time in San Diego, then three years in Australia. No matter where they moved, her ballet education was a top priority.
“Once I really decided that I wanted to pursue it as a career,” says Stella, “that’s when I had guidance from ballet teachers to help me get into the international dance scene, which brought me into ballet competitions.” When Stella was 16, Ross Stretton, then the assistant director of the American Ballet Theatre, was adjudicating one of her ballet examinations. He gave her the opportunity to audition at ABT, and the company’s Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie told her she was in.
Stella joined ABT’s corps de ballet in 1996 at the age of 17. She was then promoted to soloist in 2001. She shined in roles such as Gamzatti in La Bayadère, Myrta in Giselle, and Hermia in Frederick Ashton’s The Dream. But after Stella enjoyed a great ride in her twenties, one that she describes as like a rocket, a physical injury threatened to put her out of commission indefinitely.
“It started after a very tough rehearsal,” says Stella. “I noticed my calf was aching, and I said, whatever, just push through it.” However, she began to lose strength in her muscles and she grew weaker. “It eventually got so bad, the ache, that my leg just was not functioning properly.”
Despite seeing several doctors and physical therapists, a proper diagnosis eluded Stella for nine months. “No MRI could tell me anything,” she says. “No nerve connection tests, no ultrasound, nothing. All the doctors were shrugging their shoulders like, ‘Sorry, this is a mystery.’”
Stella describes it as the most frustrating time of her career. “At that point, I was around 29, and I had established myself,” she says, “both in the company and in the dance world. Things were looking up for me, and then I get slammed with this.” She takes a moment and corrects herself. “Not slammed, actually. This injury crept in.”
Still, she tried to keep her head up. “I kept thinking, It’s going to get better,” says Stella. “But eventually months passed, and I was no longer able to walk properly, much less dance. At my lowest point, the grannies on the street with their walkers were faster than me.”
Eventually, Stella and her doctors hypothesized a diagnosis: a slight herniated disk and an overstretched sciatic nerve. “But there was nothing to prove this diagnosis that we had come up with,” she says. “We went forward blindly with treatment.”Thankfully, it was a leap of faith that paid off. “I found that cortisone injections in my back, in my spine, were helpful,” says Stella. “But then comes a load of trying. Trying to come back, trying to regain strength, and build my legs back up to the level where I could dance again.”
She describes how a good friend helped her train every day, giving her a daily ballet class for four months: “I had to just completely go back to basics and change how I approached my technique.” Stella takes a deep breath, stretches her legs on her yoga mat, and says, “It really was an epic journey.”
The physical rehabilitation was one thing, but the mental and emotional recovery was wholly another. “Somehow I never — I should have, maybe — thought about what I wanted to do in case I couldn’t dance again,” says Stella. “But I was so stubborn and determined to come back. Sometimes I’d have bad days when I’d slip down a few rounds and have to claw myself back up to where I was before. I just kept my head down, plodding forward, one little baby step at a time.”
Adding to the emotional load from her injuries were difficult losses in Stella’s life. She and her husband, former ABT dancer Sascha Radetsky, lost Radetsky’s father to cancer. Shortly after, Stella’s ballet coach and ABT ballet mistress Georgina Parkinson also died of cancer. Additionally, Radetsky had the opportunity to dance at the Dutch National Ballet, so he was away from Stella for a year. Everything that’d happened led Stella to reassess her priorities.
“I was so determined to come back to any role,” says Stella. “It wasn’t about even returning back to my standing in the company before my injury. I just wanted to dance again. I realized what a gift it is to dance.”
For 18 months, through injury and loss, recovery and return to the stage, Stella relearned everything. She changed her approach to the way she worked and danced, and continues to be grateful for her revitalized career. To go from trailing behind women twice her age on the streets of New York to dancing an Odalisque in Le Corsaire helped Stella realize how far she had come.
“I find a lot more joy in my work now,” says Stella, “because I’m so thankful to have a body that does what I need it to do.”
Back at the studio at ABT, I’ve been observing Stella from the sidelines. In both the swift exercises and the adagio movements, she possesses a steadiness and certainty the younger dancers around her lack. Her experience is evident in each brush of the leg, her love for ballet shimmering in every crest of an arm. Stella dances for herself.
When the first half of class is over, the instructor asks the gentlemen in the room to clear the ballet barres off the dance floor. I almost instinctively rise from my seat to help just as Stella approaches me, pointe shoes in hand.
“I’m just gonna bang my shoes outside,” she says. Stella’s pointe shoes, conventionally pink, today are white. She slams silk and cement against the floor in the hallway, joining a chorus of her colleagues. This is a trick every ballerina knows: To live and dance in objects so rigidly perfect, you have to break them in. And that’s when the fun really begins.
Since her return to the stage in 2009, Stella’s taken every opportunity she can to dance. One of these opportunities came in 2013: an invitation to visit Manila and perform the titular role in Ballet Philippines’ staging of Giselle the following year.
“It was at the Cultural Center of the Philippines and I had a fantastic time,” she says. “The company and everyone I encountered were so warm and welcoming. It was the first time I’d been back to the Philippines in 15 years.”
Though she was born in Manila, Stella moved to the United States at an early age. Her parents kept close ties with their extended family who still live there, so they visited the country almost every summer in her youth. However, as her ballet career picked up, there were fewer chances to visit.
So this time, Stella wanted to make her visit count. A few months after Stella received the invitation to dance with Ballet Philippines, the central region of the country was ravaged by Super Typhoon Haiyan, the deadliest Philippine typhoon recorded in modern history.
“I knew my traveling there would be a good opportunity to raise some money for the people in the region that was hit hardest, and so I did some research,” says Stella. She founded Steps Forward for the Philippines, in partnership with Operation USA. Through crowdfunding, Steps Forward raised roughly $20,000, which went to the restoration of a school in the coastal town of Guiuan, hit first and hardest by the typhoon.
In 2014, between her performances of Giselle with Ballet Philippines, Stella took a weekend to fly to Guiuan and tour the region. Even though roughly a year had passed since Haiyan made landfall in the area, Stella marveled at the evidence of catastrophic loss.
“It was completely mind-blowing and life-changing,” she says, “to see the actual devastation, even when so much time has passed. But it was really inspiring to see how resilient the people were.”
Stella also visited the construction site of the school Steps Forward was helping to rebuild. She brought with her school supplies from Manila and gifted them to the children who’d be attending the school once it opened. “They just welcomed me with open arms and were just so thankful for what little I could do,” she says. “It was a very moving experience.”
Once she completed her “ethereal” interpretation of Giselle with Ballet Philippines, Stella gave another lauded performance in the role as a guest in the Australian Ballet’s production of Giselle in April 2015. After all these guest stints as Giselle outside the United States, the directors at American Ballet Theatre must have taken notice, because they gave Stella another chance of a lifetime at home court.
When ABT principal dancer Polina Semionova withdrew from the 2015 season due to an injury, ABT needed a new Giselle for their spring production. For the uninitiated, Giselle has the titular peasant maiden fall in love with the duplicitous Prince Albrecht. She dies upon learning of his deceit in the first act, then returns in the second act as a spirit to perform marvelous feats of dance, aided by the power of love. Who better to step in than the phoenix Stella?
Critics raved about her one-of-a-kind performance. Jerry Hochman noted Stella’s portrayal was filled with a nuance that came only with a true understanding of the role, and Alistair Macauley in the New York Times called her "stylish," "heartfelt," and "devoted to dance itself." Both acknowledged that the crowd that evening was especially excited to see Stella in her first time as Giselle at ABT, evidenced by the applause that greeted her when she first stepped onstage. It was a belated opportunity, thought much of the dance world, one that likely secured Stella’s well-deserved promotion to principal dancer a month later.
When the 12-year-old Filipina girl I met shared the news of Stella’s promotion with me, she said, “That’ll be me one day!” She smiled all through class, danced her hardest and her best. I did the same. I told her, “Me too.”
Stella and her accomplishments are certainly deserving of aspiration. Her tenacity during her injury, her introspection in times of loss and recovery, and her unyielding dedication to dance from start to finish, all allowed her to never second guess her merit, talent, and spirit as an artist — all admirable traits, whether you’re Filipino or not.
But, of course, the Philippines is rightly proud of the newest Pinoy star in the global pantheon. “I’ve gotten so many beautiful comments on social media,” says Stella, “and shout-outs from young Filipino dancers, all saying ‘#PinoyPower.’”
Between her career and the charity work she’s begun, I tell her, the hashtag is appropriate. She laughs. Though Stella admits she’s never felt ostracized because of her race, she empathizes with the minority struggle experienced by those who share her heritage. “I’m very grateful for and humbled by the beautiful things they say to me,” she says. “I hope I can continue to inspire them.”
Stella’s back in the studio, pearly white pointe shoes on her feet, for the second half of ballet class. She’s ready for what’s coming next. But after a career that’s spanned almost 20 years, she’s still pleasantly surprised when fans write in with their praise and love. And she’s nothing if not grateful.
“I really do appreciate these amazing gifts I’ve been given, this promotion and this recognition,” says Stella. She adjusts her hair, a few black locks coming down to graze her cheek. “It’s not going to change how I work, as far as always trying to put my best foot forward and always trying to hone my skills.”
Stella stretches carefully, rubs her back and a leg. “It’s going to be great getting to explore new roles,” she says, “roles I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to perform, had I not been promoted.”
The ballet instructor gives the dancers an adagio to try in the centre. Stella marks and practices the movements with her hands as she speaks. “But we all just show up every morning and try to better ourselves,” she says, “and improve on what we did the day before.”
The pianist begins to play the opening bars of an adagio from Giselle. Stella smiles and says, “I’m just going to enjoy it for as long as I can.”
Through the rest of class, Stella moves as though carried by a breeze. She floats on air during jumps and spins like a tornado during pirouettes. When she gets behind the music, Stella swiftly catches up. She relishes in little moments of the choreography and radiates joy throughout.
And where other dancers stop themselves when they make a mistake, Stella pushes through and finds a way to land the phrase just so, as if that was what she’d meant to do all along. In shoes fashioned almost out of pearl, Stella is determined to finish what she began.
But truthfully, after her big banner year, it seems she’s just getting started.
American Ballet Theatre's fall season begins on October 21 and runs until November 1 at the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center in New York City.