Humble roots lifts American Ballet Theatre’s Stella Abrera

Misty Copeland is not the only principal dancer to make history with the American Ballet Theatre (ABT). While the world has swooned for several years over Copeland, the first African American ABT performer to make the principal dancer list, Stella Abrera created some history herself by becoming the first Filipino American principal dancer a couple of years ago at a time when breakthrough generated global headlines for ABT.

Like Copeland, Abrera is no novelty act. She’s been at this dancing thing for quite some time and has had to overcome an obstacle or two to be in the position she is in today, including overriding a terrible injury that nearly derailed her dance career. Before her climb to international stardom would become complete with ABT, the malady that Abrera suffered put her career on the pause button for a while.     

Sarah Lane and Herman Cornejo in The Nutcracker. Phtoo: Doug Gifford.

“I did suffer an intense injury about ten years ago,” Abrera said. “It took me off stage for about two years. It was a back injury I have to keep an eye on and manage every single day. I have to keep my body strong for that not to an issue again.” 

Those two years being on the sidelines was a deeply reflective period for Abrera, who overcame this difficult challenge by going through intense rehabilitation work and therapy with the aid of spiritual and mental support from her husband, family, friends, and her ABT family. 

“As you can imagine, it was one of the lowest points of my career, ” Abrera said. “It was really tough.” 

ABT has 15 principal dancers. These are the performers at the top of the ABT food chain. Abrera, who joined the company in 1996 and was promoted to the soloist rank at ABT in 2001, is what one may consider being an old-school dancer because of her longevity in the business. After 23 years of dancing with ABT, Abrera could be what you may consider to a be a senior member of all the principal dancers at ABT.

Before beginning her longtime relationship with ABT at 17, Abrera, a SoCal girl to heart with her Pasadena-raised background, went through her preliminary dance studies at Le Studio, West Coast Ballet Theatre, and the Royal Academy of Dancing. Here she is today, still grinding away at doing something she loves to do. She’s still going strong. 

The Nutcracker
American Ballet Theatre Principal Dancer Stella Abrera. Photo courtesy of American Ballet Theatre

“I’ve been with ABT for 23 years and I actually never forget that it has always been a great company,” Abrera said. “Since I was a little girl I’ve always wanted to join it and I never take it for granted that I have the privilege to call it my company. There are many different things about ABT that I love. [One] is the fact that they do all kinds of different repertoire from the super classical ballets like Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty, and Giselle as well all the way to the other spectrum…so I love the diversity and the repertoire and the environment.”  

Growing up in South Pasadena, Abrera said ABT was the only dance company that she had a desire to dance for.

“I suppose that I did envision this only because that was my girlhood dream, to join the company and to try to fulfill as much as my career dream within this company,” Abrera said.  

For the greater part of two weeks, Abrera and the rest of the ABT dancers have graced the Southern California fan base with their presence at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California, as they continue their storied history of performing the classic The Nutcracker, which concludes its run this weekend. Abrera (Clara the Princess), like Copeland, is one of the lead dancers in the joyous and celebrated ABT production.     

The Nutcracker has become such an amazing family tradition all over the country, all over the world,” said Abrera. “It is really part of the holiday season for so many people so it’s a great deal for me to play the lead in the production because I love the version so much. It’s exceedingly difficult to dance, but it’s also exceedingly beautiful. The score is genius. Putting all those things together, knowing that this ballet is part of the celebration of the holiday season as well as the extent of beautiful choreography to stunning music, it’s very special.”

As much as she loves and appreciates The Nutcracker, there are a couple of other popular ABT shows that ranks among Abrera’s ABT favorites. Romeo and Juliet and Giselle are right there at the top with The Nutcracker for Abrera. Because she’s been part of so many wonderful productions that ABT has produced, this was a close call for Abrera when asked if she had an all-time pick.      

“That’s tough to say,” Abrera said. “It’s [The Nutcracker] one of my favorites. My favorite? We do so many. My personal favorite is Romero and Juliet. Another favorite would be Giselle. There are so many beautiful ballets that we do. I’m lucky I gotten to dance to so many of them.”   

With so much legwork behind her at this point in her career, Abrera said her main focus now is to close her career on the right note. 

Sarah Lane and Herman Cornejo in The Nutcracker. Photo: Doug Gifford.

“The biggest challenge at this point in my career would be to finish; finish with no injuries and keeping my body in tip-top shape in order to maintain a rigorous schedule,” Abrera said. “There’s definitely have been some glitches, but in general I’ve had long periods of getting through each season relatively unscathed.”  

As ABT wraps up its latest Orange County trip, Pasadena is not too far away in the back of Abrera’s mind. 

“It’s always special for me to come back home and perform,” Abrera said. “It’s always very special to be home. I have such warm nostalgic memories from living in South Pasadena. It is a really great community. It’s a small town in the middle of a metropolis.” 

Some of those special moments for Abrera is when her father would give her driving lessons in and around the Rose Bowl. 

“That’s where I learned how to drive,” Abrera said. “That’s where my dad taught me how to drive in the parking lot when there weren’t any football games or anything. That’s how I would learn to drive through that beautiful Arroyo Secco Parkway [road] from South Pasadena to Pasadena every day. That was kind of my commute after school to go to ballet class.” 

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