Under the scorching sun, a group of grade school students merrily sings Filipino folk songs while teachers stream in and out of the school’s gymnasium. Many of them are already in line beside the gleaming new establishment that is to open. Anticipation and excitement fill the air. This is a very special day. Moments later, a van pulls up, and out steps the guest of honor, Stella Abrera.
The seasoned dancer is no stranger to this kind of fanfare, for she has visited the CENTEX Schools, the flagship education program of the Ayala Foundation, before. Last year, the principal dancer of the American Ballet Theatre wowed Manila audiences with her charity gala in partnership with the Ayala Foundation titled, “An Intimate Evening With Stella Abrera.& American Ballet Stars” Due to the recital’s overwhelming success, Abrera and her friends from ABT will return for an encore performance on November 7 and 8.
But aside from this much-awaited second installment, Abrera travels to Batangas to inaugurate a very special dance studio established in her honor: the Stella Abrera Dance and Music Hall. It is this studio that solicited the grand preparations and the buzzing excitement at the CENTEX campus of Bauan, Batangas. The newly erected dance studio, which began construction last June, is painted in an understated white with a striking rainbow-colored mural of its namesake ballerina doing what she does best. The opening of the studio marks the beginning of the school’s After Hours program, an initiative of Steps Dance Studio. Steps was founded 25 years ago by Sofia Zobel Elizalde, who is more than thrilled to welcome Abrera to the Philippines again.
After Abrera, Elizalde, and the rest of the Ayala Foundation team lead the ribbon-cutting, the guests trail behind and enter the studio’s gleaming interiors lined with mirrors, barres, and sound equipment. While attendees inspect the studio and students start pouring in, a teary-eyed Abrera is emotional over the honor of having an entire establishment named after her.
Abrera started her ballet career when she was around the same age as the CENTEX dancers today, who waltz centerstage to the sound of classical music. They are exceedingly graceful and very, very talented, and the guests are delighted by their repertoire of performances. Every now and then, Abrera makes remarks as a proud spectator. She’s had her fair share in the spotlight in the 24 years she’s been on stage.
The making of a successful ballerina
Stella Abrera was born in the Philippines and raised in the United States. Growing up, she had a childhood filled with music. Her mother was a classically trained pianist who had taught her two siblings how to play the piano. As for herself, her interest in dancing began at the age of five when her older sister had suggested she take ballet classes because she was becoming a “couch potato.”
“I was watching cartoons on TV,” Abrera says, laughing. The young Abrera proceeded to enroll at Le Studio in Pasadena, California, and continued her studies at the West Coast Ballet Theatre in San Diego. To further hone her skills, Abrera later trained at the Halliday Dance Center in Sydney, Australia for three years.
“I had a very happy childhood with a loving family. Our house was always full of music and laughter—I have a large, boisterous family (with four siblings). My father’s career as a civil engineer relocated us often, but I’m so grateful that I had those wonderful learning experiences throughout my childhood.”
In 1995, Abrera competed at the Royal Academy of Dance’s Adeline Genée Awards, where she bagged the Gold medal. This caught the eye of Ross Stretton who suggested that she audition for the American Ballet Theatre in New York. Fast forward to 1996, Abrera accepted a role in the company. Three months later, she was promoted into the Corps de Ballet at the impressive age of 17. By 2001, she was appointed as a soloist.
Pirouettes on the world stage
Abrera is well known as the first Filipino-American to ascend to the rank of principal dancer in the American Ballet Theatre. This took place in 2015.
“The day I was promoted to principal dancer was a wonderfully joyous day that I will never forget. Yes, of course, there were difficulties leading up to this day as I had already been a dancer with ABT for 19 years.” But, as with any other career, she has experienced major obstacles along the way.
“The main difficulty I faced was an injury. There are only so many leading roles to dance, and limited performing opportunities, and 50 other women in the company with whom to compete. My long-term back injury which took me off the stage for about two years definitely impacted my career trajectory.”
That didn’t stop her from scaling greater heights, as proven by her long list of achievements. She has taken on countless leading roles in productions such as Giselle, The Sleeping Beauty, Frederick Ashton's La Fille Mal Gardée, Ratmansky's The Golden Cockerel, The Firebird, and played major roles in grand shows such as Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet, and The Nutcracker, among others. She has also created roles in various productions, some of which she has starred in herself.
“I’m certainly grateful for the opportunities to dance dream roles since I’ve been promoted—Giselle, Juliet, Princess Aurora, Tatiana (in Onegin), Lise (in La Fille mal Gardee), among others.”
Even with these accolades under her belt, Abrera still keeps herself busy at ABT. Just recently, she wrapped up the company’s fall season wherein she performed in The Seasons and Apollo.
Apart from dancing, her many hats include being a teacher, a coach, a producer, and wife to Sascha Radetsky, a former ABT soloist who is now ABT Studio Company’s artistic director. (Radetsky will also be participating in the upcoming charity gala as the director.) The two have been together for 21 years, and outside of their marriage, they also share a relationship as co-workers. Abrera and Radetsky work alongside each other at the Studio Company where she is a part-time instructress. Her morning ballet class is typically followed by rehearsals and gym training, her afternoons are rounded out by checking on the dancers at the studio. It’s evident that Abrera has been playing the role of teacher lately, especially with the intensive ballet camp program of Kaatsbaan Dancer Center (Tivoli, New York) wherein she is the director.
“I am also planning the second year of Pro-Studio/Stella Abrera, which is a teaching and coaching initiative that I direct for young professional ABT dancers also at Kaatsbaan in the summer.”
Acts of kindness
After the CENTEX students take their last bow and numerous speeches are given, it is time for Abrera to address the audience who had come to celebrate not only the opening of the dance studio but her entire career as well. And, those who follow Abrera’s career closely know that this internationally acclaimed ballerina is not in it solely for herself. On her laundry list of things to do, she makes time to share her God-given talents to fight for causes she believes in and to nurture the youth.
“My heart is just so full of gratitude [and] the honor that it is to have my name on [this studio] is one that makes me feel very humbled, and I will do everything I can to make sure it continues to nourish and give every opportunity to the children of CENTEX Batangas to explore all their artistic qualities, to find the love of dancing art and music,” she says in her speech.
Abrera’s CENTEX involvement isn’t the first time she has gotten involved in philanthropic work. In 2014, just before she performed as a guest principal dancer with Ballet Philippines, she had witnessed the damage brought by Typhoon Haiyan and was compelled to help those who had been affected. Consequently, she began her own fundraising initiative titled “Steps Forward for The Philippines” and partnered with Operation USA, an organization that provides on-ground emergency relief during natural disasters. Through the organization’s assistance, she was able to find a school to help rebuild.
“A couple of days before my performance, I was able to visit the school, which was still under construction. About 25 children came along to say hello and to give me a tour of their new school. It was one of the most moving experiences of my life, meeting those children.”
In 2018, she approached Sofia Zobel Elizalde with the idea of having a charity gala in Manila, and Elizalde immediately thought of having CENTEX schools as the beneficiary. This was the beginning of her CENTEX journey, anchored by her close collaboration with Elizalde who also shares her passion and love for ballet.
“Sofia and I have a great working relationship and often have so much fun that we forget it’s work! I have so much admiration for her… I’ll never forget the visit all the dancers made to the CENTEX school in Tondo. They prepared a beautiful thanksgiving presentation for us—not a dry eye among us!”
“An Intimate Evening with Stella Abrera & American Ballet Stars” was met with overwhelming praise, but it was the very core of the project that had drawn Abrera to commit her entire being into bearing such a wonderful production. Ayala Foundation’s CENTEX (Center of Excellence in Public Elementary Education) program aims to provide quality education for economically disadvantaged families, with two campuses to date (Tondo and Batangas). Through the foundation’s partnership with Elizalde’s Steps Dance Studio, CENTEX students are provided the opportunity to immerse themselves in the arts through the After Hours program. Such artistic opportunities are generally rare in a public school setting, but through the program, students are able to learn beyond the four corners of their classroom.
“The fact that we were able to do a second installation of our CENTEX charity gala is such an honor and privilege. We love dancing for the wonderfully appreciative Manila audiences, coupling that with the knowledge that it benefits the children of CENTEX makes these galas a true joy,” she says. And evidently, the children were equally happy to meet the leading lady who performs with a purpose.
Nurturing the youth
Back in New York, she plays mentor to two young Filipino dancers, Elwince Magbitang and Raye Vince Pelegrin, who were Steps scholars themselves. She and Radetsky had observed the two boys during last year’s Manila visit, and were so impressed that they urged them to audition for the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, one of the most prestigious dance schools in America. Elizalde helped the boys create their audition videos.
“We submitted them to Cynthia Harvey, the school’s artistic director, and vouched for the boys, expressing how much we believed in their work ethic and potential. We were elated to find out that Cynthia accepted them both into the highest level, giving Vince a full-scholarship. It was incredible to track their progress over the year.”
Since Radetsky had then taken the helm of ABT Studio Company, he was more than thrilled to offer Magbitang a contract once a spot was available. Pelegrin, on the other hand, was granted another full scholarship, and the two continue to push boundaries in New York one performance at a time.
“I think it’s obvious how proud I am to have played a small part in their journey. Sascha and I simply made the introduction to ABT, and Sofia found generous sponsors to help the boys travel to NYC and live there. The boys put in the hard work to maintain their spots. I look forward to following their careers in the future,” she exclaimed.
Abrera will be performing alongside Magbitang in the upcoming charity gala, as well as other apprentices of the ABT. The fact that Abrera not only dances for the youth but with the youth is a true testament to her desire to nurture the talents of the future generation of dancers. Collaboration is her way of giving back, and it isn’t a one-time stint.
Transitioning to a new chapter
As the inauguration’s program comes to a close, Abrera, Radetsky, Elizalde, and the rest of the team crowd together with the students for the standard photo op, but even behind the cameras, Abrera is very much engaged with the children, and she is especially proud of the dancers for their stunning performance. She makes wacky faces, makes them laugh, and expresses how much she admires their work.
Perhaps, it is this role of active supporter and mentor that Abrera will be most occupied with, now that she is nearing the final days of her career as a dancer. Earlier this month, she announced that she will be retiring in June of 2020 as a dancer of the ABT.
“I announced that I will retire from ABT this spring, with my farewell show being Giselle at the Met on June 13, 2020. I have had such a challenging and fulfilling 24-year journey at ABT, and I decided I was ready and excited to see what life was like from the other side of the proscenium. I’m looking forward to expanding the programs I mentioned earlier at the gorgeous Hudson Valley dance center, Kaatsbaan, and I will, of course, remain available to be involved at ABT whenever possible. I’m also open to exploring other dance projects, both as a producer and as a dancer,” she says. As for the specifics of her new leadership roles, she says that these are still under wraps.
Whether it’s through her student programs, collaborations, and charity galas, Abrera has always been a dancer for others. It is this purposeful art that makes her a cut above the rest, the ballerina to watch onstage and offstage. Perhaps her immovable posture and stately stance are grounded by the fact she lets others grow as well, and she plans to sow more of these seeds in the future. Right after her brief Manila performances (followed by a well-deserved weekend break), she will be heading to Los Angeles for another charity gala, which will benefit the Aveni Foundation and its mission to cure cancer.
But before her promising future unfolds, Manila audiences can look forward to her second show in partnership with the Ayala Foundation. Under the direction of Radetsky, she’ll be starring alongside fellow principal dancer James Whiteside, six ABT apprentices, and 12 members of the ABT Studio Company. The fact that the accomplished ballerina is dancing alongside her brood of bright emerging artists is a poignant nod to the ongoing narrative of Abrera’s career, and how it has come full-circle.
“Dance has shaped my life is so many ways. I didn’t realize when I was a child that this really fun activity was actually teaching me invaluable life lessons: discipline, the merit of hard work, perseverance, determination, teamwork, and self-awareness,” she says as a nod to how the After Hours program has changed the lives of many Steps students and scholars.
Truly, dancing goes beyond the choreography and Stella Abrera chooses to share her music with others, even after the final curtain call.
Catch Stella Abrera, James Whiteside, and the bright young stars of the American Ballet Theatre Studio on November 7 and 8, 2019 at the Maybank Performing Arts Theater. Tickets can be purchased on TicketWorld Manila.
Photographs by JOSEPH PASCUAL
Styled by PJ PASCUAL
Produced by ALICIA COLBY SY, assisted by HANNAH LAZATIN, CHELSA GLORIA, and NICOLE CRUZ
Makeup by PATRICK ALCOBER for MAKE UP FOR EVER PHILIPPINES
Hair by PATTY INOJALES
Shot on location at CENTEX BATANGAS