American Ballet Theatre Principal Dancer Stella Abrera is running late; her subway train is delayed and so she is stuck, underground, with hundreds of other commuters on a cold, New York winter day after hours of rehearsal for Alexei Ratmansky’s critically acclaimed production of The Nutcracker. Such is the life of a professional ballerina in one of the world’s leading ballet companies, a life Stella has been living to the fullest since she joined ABT’s corps de ballet at the age of 17.
Stella spent what she describes as an idyllic childhood in South Pasadena and considers it her hometown. “I love when we tour LA because I get to come home. I do love that town so much” she says sighing, “growing up in South Pas, I just thought it was a wonderful place to grow up, a beautiful place with so much history; the orange groves, the old homes and all that fun tradition.” She loves the Rose Parade and football games and says that thinking about South Pasadena brings a feeling of warmth and nostalgia, “there is such a sense of community, the people are warm and the town has such charm. I am so grateful to have had that as my foundation to build upon and grateful my parents moved there!”
The family lived in the hills of South Pasadena where Stella loved going to Monterey Hills School from kinder through 5th grade. She found ballet when her eldest sister observed her as a five year-old sitting inside on the couch watching cartoons and told her, “you’re turning into a couch potato, come on! We’re going to the local ballet studio.” Her sister had been taking dance at LMU and took Stella to a South Pasadena dance studio run by Phillip and Charles Fuller and Cynthia Young, a company which has now grown into Pasadena Dance Theatre. She fell in love with it and eventually began a tradition of performing in their beloved production of The Nutcracker each year at San Gabriel Mission Playhouse. “Ahh! So many memories!” she squeals at the mention of those performances, “I did so many Nutcrackers there. Amazing memories of dancing in PDT’s Nutcracker, which is one of the most classic versions.”
Her father’s work as a civil engineer took them to San Diego and then to Sydney, Australia for a few years but they kept the family home in South Pasadena, coming home often and Stella would return each year to dance in PDT’s Nutcracker production. They returned to South Pasadena when Stella was 15 and she attended South Pasadena High School which, at the time, had no dance department. She was delighted to hear about Courtney Cheyne’s current SPHS dance program saying, “that is so wonderful to hear! I gotta come check it out!” In her junior year, her dream beckoned and she auditioned for ABT and was accepted. She took the high school proficiency exam and set out on her professional career. “It was big. And kudos to my folks,” she says, “they really saw how driven I was and how set on New York I was. They knew I was determined and not to be dissuaded!” Today her parents make the trek to New York City every year and rent an apartment for the entire two month ABT season at The MET. Proud parents indeed! Stella is the youngest of five children and tells us her parents are “never home, they’re always visiting one of us. They are awesome!”
She was made a soloist in 2001 and her long career as a professional dancer is something she is extremely grateful for, “I do know how lucky I am. It is something I never take for granted.” In 2015, during an end of season company meeting, it was announced to everyone, and for the first time to Stella herself, that she was made Principal Dancer.
“As you can imagine, such a long period of time from the day that I joined up to that moment, there were many journeys, some tumultuous to be had, that led to that day,” she explains. In fact, Stella suffered a severe sciatic nerve injury in 2008 that stopped her trajectory cold for two years. She went through periods of questioning but luckily, with a team behind her, she was able to recover and continue on her path. That day in 2015, after each announcement of a dancer being promoted to soloist, everyone cheers, she says, “it’s really a very supportive environment at ABT.” At the time, having overcome her injury, she had come to a place where she was extremely happy to be in the position she was in and was relishing every moment she had on stage as a soloist. To her, being promoted to Principal Dancer was like winning a lottery of the universe and says “there are no words to describe the elation, joy and disbelief; I had been a member of the company for 19 years at that point. It’s priceless; there is no monetary equivalent, just no words for me for that moment.”
Stella also happens to be the first Filipina American to become Principal Dancer at ABT. She says that while aware of the challenges facing minorities in a broader sense, she was lucky to have grown up in a culturally diverse city like Los Angeles. A few years into her new rank, she says that having received countless sweet messages from young dancers of color who tell her she inspires them has been humbling. “I realized that just by being myself, working hard, putting my best foot forward, giving it my all every day at work, I was an unwitting role model. Just by virtue of looking like them while holding a high rank in an elite company, I was giving them hope.” She adds that she assumes that one day the ballet world will just be so colorful, there will be such a spectrum, that it truly won’t be a prominent issue anymore.
And what advice would she give to aspiring young dancers? “Well I know there are so many talented dancers in California and I really believe that some of that comes from this great energy we have here, the sun, the beautiful weather, you just feel happy here and when you’re joyful you want to dance!” Stella says a career in the ballet world is not an easy one, “but when you fully commit to following that path and you do it with your whole heart, with all the determination and grit and love that comes from deep within you, then this tough line of work becomes a pure joy. As tough as it is, it’s so fulfilling in so many ways.” She adds that it teaches you many invaluable lessons for life, “the perseverance, the discipline, learning how to deal with disappointment…because even if you don’t end up pursuing a professional dance career, that love of dance will always be there to lift you up and be there for you; it carries on outside of the studio and guides you in life.”
Stella will be dancing the lead role of Clara, alternating with four other Principals, for the run at Segerstrom Center for the Arts beginning December 14. She has been dancing this role in Ratmansky’s version for a few years and says it is one of the toughest Nutcracker pas de deux in existence. “It’s really fulfilling to dance” she explains, “it’s really beautiful, definitely fun because you get to explore this whole character where you appear to be a grown woman but on the inside you’re still young Clara at heart. It’s like Clara’s daydream of her grown-up self is the pas de deux. So it’s fun to portray this elegant ballerina but then have these moments of sheer glee and elation that only a child can show. It’s a really fun twist that Ratmansky has put in there for us to do.”
Stella Abrera will be dancing the lead role of Clara in The Nutcracker at Segerstrom Center for the Arts Dec. 22 at 2pm with James Whiteside as the Prince/Nutcracker. Tickets are still available https://www.scfta.org/events/2018/the-nutcracker-abt or call (714) 556-2787.
ABT’s The Nutcracker runs Dec. 14 – 23, 2018 with Misty Copeland, Hee Seo, Isabella Boylston, Christine Shevchenko and Sarah Lane dancing the role of Clara in other performances along with James Whiteside, Blaine Hoven, Thomas Forster and Cory Stearns as the Prince/Nutcracker. This beloved classic brings a cast of more than 100 performers to the stage including California students from ABT William J. Gillespie School, and features dazzling sets and costumes by Tony-winner Richard Hudson, accompanied by Tchaikovsky’s timeless score.
American Ballet Theatre is hosting its annual Holiday Benefit dinner and performance on Monday, December 17, 2018 at The Beverly Hilton Hotel. Tickets are actually still available for this very special evening featuring a one-night-only special performance by the world-renowned artists of the American Ballet Theatre, including South Pasadena’s own Stella Abrera, along with fellow Principal Dancers Isabella Boylston, Misty Copeland, Sarah Lane, Hee Seo, Christine Shevchenko and Cory Stearns performing scenes from the Company’s unrivaled repertoire, followed by a post-performance dinner and dessert with the dancers. Four-time Emmy nominated, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award winning actress, Jennifer Garner will serve as master of ceremonies.
The 2018 Annual Holiday Benefit performance will include excerpts from the holiday classic The Nutcracker, created by celebrated choreographer and ABT Artist in Residence Alexei Ratmansky, as well as scenes from Ratmansky’s Harlequinade, which will have its West Coast premiere at the Segerstrom Center in January. This performance also features excerpts from Jessica Lang’s Garden Blue, Michelle Dorrance’s exhilarating medley of tap dance and ballet, Dream Within A Dream (deferred), as well as excerpts from ballet favorite Don Quixote.
Proceeds from the Holiday Benefit support American Ballet Theatre and its educational programs. Table packages begin at $10,000; individual tickets, $1,000. For information, please contact Kristin Bray at Levy, Pazanti & Huff at 310-201-5033, Ext. 3, or Kristin@lpaevents.com
Stella Abrera will return with ABT in January to dance the role of Pierrette at Segerstrom Center for the Arts in its West Coast premiere on January 17. Abrera will also dance in the January 20 matinee. Misty Copeland will make her debut as Pierrette on Friday, January 18.
Audiences are in for a delightful treat with this new production of a rare comic gem created over a remarkable 18 months by ABT Artist in Residence Alexei Ratmansky, inspired by the archival notes of Marius Petipa. Harlequinade is set to a score by Riccardo Drigo, played live by Pacific Symphony. The ballet features sets and costumes by Robert Perdziola, praised by Forbes as a “feast of colors and whimsy.” Harlequinade will be performed January 17 – 20 in Segerstrom Hall.