Stella Abrera's name ("stella" means "star" in Latin) proved prophetic in the final stretch of her 24-year career at American Ballet Theatre. Abrera joined ABT's corps de ballet in 1996, was promoted to soloist in 2001 and, finally, after an uncommonly lengthy stretch, principal in 2015, making her the first Filipina American to reach the top rank in the company's history. Her farewell season, like much of the performing world, was interrupted by the COVID-19 outbreak. ABT's spring U.S. tour was postponed, and her scheduled June 13 farewell performance of Giselle was canceled alongside the rest of the company's annual eight-week engagement at the Metropolitan Opera House. But the turmoil hasn't darkened her outlook. Now, at 41, she is excited for her new role as Kaatsbaan Cultural Park for Dance artistic director.
You're retiring just five years after being named principal. How have you prepared mentally for this moment?
Around 10 years ago, I suffered a really epic back injury that took me offstage for two years. Because of that, I've approached every show with the thought that this could be my last. It wasn't a doomsday feeling; it was like, "You better savor this." So I feel like maybe I had already prepared myself for the mourning process that I have witnessed in close friends who have retired before me.
If you'd known a pandemic would cut your final season short, would you have delayed retiring?
I don't know if it would have changed, even considering the circumstances. I knew that my physical strength and power were already on the other side of my peak. And I wanted to leave the stage still proud of what I could present physically.
Looking back, any favorite roles?
I have had highlights from different stages of my career: dancing In the Upper Room with Gillian Murphy as a fellow "stomper," taking part in Ethan Stiefel's retirement show with all of my close friends, dancing with my husband, Sascha Radetsky, my ABT Giselle debut.
Abrera in Giselle
MIRA, Courtesy ABT
What are you looking forward to next?
As the artistic director of Kaatsbaan, I began a summer coaching and training initiative for young professional dancers in the ranks of apprentice to year five corps de ballet. This demographic is kind of a waiting area. They're paying their dues. I offer two weeks for a small group to work on the pas de deux and solos that they don't really get to work on during their season. I ask them to choose one dream role, like Juliet or Odette/Odile, and then I also ask them to pick a solo that's within the realm of their next possible step, such as the Swan Lake pas de trois.
What dream role would you have chosen?
Like many dancers in my generation, I was obsessed with that taped Baryshnikov Don Quixote show at the Met. So I was definitely trying to be Kitri for many hours as a kid. That did not come true for me in my grown-up life. I don't think anyone does every single role that they ever wanted to do. But I'm still okay with it. I feel like I have had a very full experience as a professional dancer.
Advice to young dancers?
Be as open as you can be to learning, and observing people around you—in all ranks, in all departments, the whole company. You have to work hard, but you also have to take a step back and look at the big picture: our role as dancers, the importance of art and the impact it has on our culture. Don't get stuck in a tunnel.