Stella Abrera, on Moving Forward, Steadily and with Grit
In early March of 2020 the American Ballet Theatre principal Stella Abrera was in St. Petersburg, Russia, setting Alexei Ratmansky’s “Seven Sonatas” on the Mariinsky Ballet. She was so busy in the studio, she told me a few months later, that she was barely conscious of what was happening in the larger world around her. That is until her husband, former ABT soloist Sascha Radetsky—now director of the Studio Company—called to say he had booked her on the next flight out of St. Petersburg. Hers was one of the last flights to leave Russia in those days when the seriousness of the Covid pandemic was becoming alarmingly clear.
2020 was supposed to be an eventful year for Abrera, but not in that way. In June, she was scheduled to retire with a final performance of “Giselle,” the ballet she had first performed in the spring of 2015, the season in which she became a principal dancer. Her farewell performance didn’t happen. There were no streamers or bouquets, though there may have been private tears. Instead, her ABT colleagues held a surprise Zoom farewell, which had been disguised as a company meeting. “Any feelings of loss or disappointment were definitely tempered by the utter chaos and despair that the world is going through with the pandemic,” she told me at the time.
With characteristic pragmatism, she dove into her next task, leading the dance programs at Kaatsbaan, a beautiful property in Tivoli New York that runs dance residencies and training courses. Looking out at the lush green fields of the property, a former horse farm, she came up with the idea of building an outdoor stage and holding a summer festival there. And that’s what she did, in partnership with Sonja Kostich, Kaatsbaan’s ultra-effective executive director. The festival, which went on for over two months, was a turning point for the performing arts during this terrible Covid year.
By creating and instituting a strict set of safety protocols, the Kaatsbaan Summer Festival proved that it was possible to rehearse and hold performances safely before a live audience. Even after the first snowfall, the property has remained active, hosting creative residencies for everyone from the Dance Theater of Harlem to ABT’s Studio Company to Kyle Abraham’s AIM. It has been a lifeline for dancers and choreographers.
Recently, I caught up with Abrera. Our conversation ranged from reflections on her career to what she has learned in this very strange year, to her thoughts on the future of ballet.
I know we talked about this before when you were putting together the summer festival, but I wondered whether your thoughts about not having had an onstage farewell had changed at all. How do you think about that time now?
The truth is, I haven’t had full closure, because I haven’t moved out of 890 Broadway yet. [890 Broadway is the address of ABT’s headquarters in NY.] I have two lockers there that have had my name on them for basically 25 years. A whole life. I know it’s just stuff, and I know that I’ve definitely moved on with my life, and in my career. And I’m totally happy about it, but I have a feeling that it’s going to be a very raw, cathartic experience when it happens.
As far as the farewell performance, I was kind of dreading the performance itself, to be honest. I knew it was going to be really emotional. Ballet is so physically difficult, especially by the age of 40 or 41. I had such a wonderful time at the performance in February. So I feel like the universe let me off the hook while still giving me that last experience. After that performance in DC, James [Whiteside] and I had a moment. We wept. It was a really special. We have a really great rapport onstage and offstage. So, it was nice to have that as a final show. I’m okay with it.
You had such a long and in some ways difficult trajectory in your career, in part because of an injury that plagued you for years. What did it mean after all that to finally get the recognition, and the chance to dance all those roles?
We were sitting on the floor in that gigantic Met Opera studio, surrounded by the whole company for a company meeting. It’s the end of the Met season and you know that promotions are going to be announced. It’s hard to describe the feeling that I had when Kevin [McKenzie, Artistic Director] announced my name. He announced it last. I don’t think I’ve ever felt that combination of elation and incredulousness. And also, a flood of memories. Moments like limping along Ninth Avenue, crying, just trying to go a little bit faster than the little old ladies with their walkers. The memory of me being so frustrated with my body at one point, after I’d had another setback, that I went into a tiny back room at 890 and threw a foam roller across the room in utter rage and despair. It all flashed through my brain during those seconds after the announcement. But also this immense joy. It’s hard to articulate that overwhelming feeling.
When did you finally feel like you were a master of your craft? What was the actual tipping point for you internally?
Oh, I don’t know if anyone will ever feel like they’re a master of their craft. You’re constantly striving to improve every single day no matter how long you’ve been doing it. Your body and your approach are constantly evolving. I can’t speak for everyone. But I always felt like there was something, if not several things, that I could do better, in every performance.
So let me ask it differently. When did you allow yourself to believe that you deserved to be where you were, to dance these roles?
I thought to myself that if I ruined the last few years of my career with fear, it would be a real waste of an opportunity. When else was I going to be happy?
You’re now in a position of leadership, which is quite different in a way of from being a dancer. You have direct decision-making power. How has that affected your approach to your work and your way of thinking about yourself and about what you do?
In the last few years of my career I really took a close look at how a big organization like ABT works. It really does take a village. And I always want to be aware of how much each department contributes and appreciate it and tell them how much I appreciate it, how they’re seen. We have a small staff here at Kaatsbaan. Everyone has their department, obviously, but we also have to be really all-hands-on-deck and help out in all the different departments. So I think that that has been one of the best things that I learned from my time at ABT.
What has the last year taught you?
It reinforced my belief in the performing arts and in dance. I’ve been teaching so much on Zoom, and of course none of us can wait to get back to whatever normal is supposed to be. But what I’ve witnessed with the hundreds of young, passionate, determined future dance artists is really reassuring. It makes me feel like ballet is not dying. These future artists are going to make some serious magic happen. They really, really love it. They’ve been dancing in their kitchens for a year and they’re still there. That’s grit.
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