FIGURE of grace and regality, Stella Abrera smiles with the same familiar warmth that gives away her Filipino roots. Though raised in the United States since she was four, the Filipina ballerina has proudly maintained the values and culture that come from the land of her birth.
As part of the American Ballet Theater (ABT), a world-renowned classical ballet company based in New York, Abrera has tirelessly worked with the drive and discipline to execute every move to perfection.
Beginning as an apprentice for the company at age 17, her hard work has earned her a spot as one of 10 sought after soloists in ABT, invited to perform on different stages around the globe.
It was on September 19 that Abrera along with ABT principal dancer James Whiteside, graced the main theater of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) for the very first time. It was a one-night only performance of Giselle, which served as the opening salvo of Ballet Philippines’ “Blue Moon Series,” featuring the company’s award-winning works in line with its 45th anniversary.
“I’ve never performed in the Philippines before. This is my first invitation from Ballet Philippines (BP), but hopefully it won’t be my last,” Abrera told The Sunday Times Magazine in a one-on-one interview at The Traders Hotel along Roxas Boulevard in Pasay City.
“There are so many emotions I feel in my first-time performance in the Philippines. It is the country of my heritage, and to share such a big part of my life here is a big deal for me,” she continued. “I love the ballet Giselle, which makes it more wonderful, and it takes a lot of pride to be able to perform in CCP.”
Abrera happily shared that she instantly felt a connection with other Filipino ballet dancers when she began rehearsing and teaching a series of classes. In fact, she was impressed with the talent that met her at BP.
“It was really fun rehearsing for Giselle with the other members of the company,” she gushed. “The story felt very real while we were on stage. Giselle is a story about a girl who comes from a small village, and she’s good friends with everyone. Being with other Filipino dancers, it was easy to get into character,” Abrera related.
“I also noticed many standouts among the BP dancers. They have fantastic work ethics and high performance quality. I can feel that they are able to reach the audience all the way to the back of the theater.”
Coming from a two-week performance in Australia, it was fortunate that the Filipino-American dancer found time to visit the country, and able to perform for her countrymen.
As the youngest of five children, Stella Abrera chose a different career path from her brother and three sisters. Her Filipino parents were both migrants to the United States, but constantly moved the family to different countries because of her father’s work as a civil engineer.
“Both of my parents are Filipino. My father moved to the US when he was six, while my mother moved in her 20s. But they always kept a strong connection with their families in the Philippines and we spent many summers here,” the 36-year-old ballerina narrated.
She talked about how her parents met in Loyola Marymount University in California, fell in love, married and built a family from there.
It was when her father was on assignment in the Philippines that baby Stella was born at the Makati Medical Center, allowing her to spend earliest years in the country until the family returned to California when she was four.
“It’s funny that we’re of Filipino descent, but I was the only one born here. As a child, I’ve kept lots of memories on our stay in the Philippines. I always remember there was lots of food! Authentic Filipino food is hard to come by in the US,” she lamented.
Growing up in a huge Filipino family in the US, Abrera has always been in touch with her heritage, more so because her parents had a close circle of Filipino friends.
While her brother and sisters took up different professions, the youngest of the Abreras tip toed into ballet at a young age with the help of her sister.
“During college, my sister took up modern dance classes, and she thought it would be a good activity for me to try, so she put me in a small ballet class when I was about five years old. I loved it right away, and ever since, I’ve always been involved in the dance,” she recalled.
“It was fun to pretend to be someone else,” she added, “and I had a natural feeling for rhythmic movement.”
As her siblings worked for degrees in civil engineering and dentistry, Abrera maintained she wanted to become a professional ballet dancer.
“I enjoy the feeling of using my whole body to express myself. My sister did some classes but never pursued it professionally. It was at the age of 12 or 13 that I knew for sure that I wanted to become a professional ballet dancer,” she related.
A dedicated dancer, Abreara started out with twice a week ballet lessons until she went to dance class every day. That lasted for a number of years while she was still attending regular school. She would do her academics in the morning, and would practice ballet until 9 p.m., until she finally entered ABT at 17.
“After my classes at 4 p.m., I would be in ballet until about 9 p.m., which is a lot for a child—but I loved it and was always driven to dance. I was lucky my parents were supportive. They also sacrificed a lot, not to mention the cost of pointe shoes and costumes, so I feel really lucky,” she gratefully shared.
While she was a teenager, Abrera’s family moved to Australia for her father’s work. It was during those years that she received intensive training at the Halliday Dance Center where she joined several performances with the Royal Academy of Dancing, until the family’s return to California.
“I never went to formal ballet school. I first started with Le Studio in Pasadena and performed at the Pasadena Dance Theater, and then I went into the San Diego Ballet School. When my family moved to Australia, I became part of the Sydney Halliday Dance Center where I did work with Royal Academy of Dancing,” she narrated.
“The Halliday Dance Center was headed by petite twin sisters. They were very classical but were fierce, they were spitfire and that’s where I got my foundation and discipline,” Abrera told The Sunday Times Magazine.
Shortly after their return to the US, Abrera auditioned for the ABT.
Her drive to succeed and her passion for ballet earned her an apprenticeship in the highly acclaimed ballet company—a fulfillment of a dream that she still lives to this day.
“When you are 17 you feel are invincible. I was ready to go full steam ahead and with much enthusiasm. Of course I was nervous—it was a big deal. But ABT was a dream that I always held on a pedestal, so to be part of it mind blowing, and it was definitely a learning curve,” Abrera admitted.
As a young ballerina, she started in the company in 1995 much like everyone else—at the bottom. “You are the lowest of the low, the bottom of the feeding chain, you are like nothing,” she laughed at her description.
But for the passionate young dancer, to be accepted in the ABT meant that she had to know her place.
“At the back of the rehearsal hall and always at the back of the line,” she added. “You really have to pay your dues.”
With the help of ABT’s Georgina Parkinson, Abrera was able to learn and develop her skills quickly. As her mentor, Parkinson also boosted her confidence and taught her to give her 100-percent in every performance.
Despite all her hard work, however, Abrera humbly and realistically admits that luck also plays a part in moving up in one’s career.
“Of course you have to work really hard but luck also plays a part, say when the director picks you for feature role,” she related.
Focused on becoming the best dancer she can be, she never minded competition within the company. For her, everything was about giving her best in every performance, coupled with good work ethics, which together earned her the position of ABT soloist in 2001.
“I don’t remember really looking at anyone else or comparing myself with anyone in the company. I just remember giving my best every time I was asked to dance. It also matters what one person thinks—other people will work just as hard but if your dancing doesn’t suit the director’s taste then you can’t really luck out. It’s an interesting dynamics. It’s a matter of feeling,” the ballerina mused.
To keep improving, she always analyzes her weak points in her techniques, and to this day work hard on the different elements of the dance to perfect her moves.
“No one thinks they are perfect but most ballet dancers drive for perfection in this business,” she said. “If that meant adding an extra inch to a jump or an extra turn in my pirouette, I’d do it with endless practice.”
Contrary to Hollywood flicks like Black Swan or Center Stage (where Abrera’s husband of eight years Sascha Radetsky plays the lead male role), competition within dance companies are friendly and empathetic.
Of her memorable performances, her favorites include her premiere in Gamzatti at the Metroplitan Opera House; as well as her first solo performance as the Winter Fairy in Cinderalla, nerve-wracking as it was.
Eventually, she also played Cinderella in the full-length ballet.
“To tell story from beginning to end is a lot of responsibility, but it’s also fun,” she said.
She further cited as a highlight in her career playing Twyna Tharp’s In the Upper Room for a Paris stage.
She recalled, “It was an out of body experience! You reach a point of such exhaustion, with the music driving, the audience’s energy building up—it’s a 45-minute performance in full blast music, which I could go on and on about!”
Luckily, good genes, constant dancing, and cross training make it easy for Abrera to indulge in another passion—food. A self-confessed food enthusiast, she revealed how she loves to cook, and of course to eat. Among her favorite Filipino fares are adobo and longganisa, and the mangosteen fruit.
She is happily married to a handsome American ballet dancer with whom she enjoys sharing a deep love for the art.
“We have been together for over 15 years. Our timing took a few years but while I was starting at ABT, he asked me out and we’ve been together since. It’s great that we get to spend a lot of time together, tour and travel, and understand each other’s career and what it takes to be in this profession. We completely understand the times when one of us isn’t at home,” she said.
While she Abrera remains busy with her dancing duties in ABT—a full 36 weeks with the company, and another six weeks of personal contracts—she spends the rest of her time off with her husband in their “cabin in the woods.” There, they immerse themselves in the beauty of nature, which is another hobby they have in common.
Personally, she plans to teach ballet in the future but for the moment, she is also busy with her newly established charitable organization, “Steps Forward for the Philippines,” which provides educational access for underprivileged children. Her first project came in the form of a new school in typhoon-ravaged Guiuan, in Leyte.
Asked for her advice to aspiring Filipino dancers, the visiting balikbayan said, “Work hard and try to do as much research as you can. There are many great things on Internet now—videos of top dancers in the world. Cross train on other muscles to strengthen your body, and most importantly, play hard as much as you work hard.”
Looking back at Stella Abrera’s graceful journey to the top of her career, her formula for success is indeed to the point and spot on.