Stella Abrera Charts A Path For The Next Generation Of Filipino Ballet Stars

Photographed by Harold Julian

For all the success she’s seen in her own career, the sky is still the limit for Stella Abrera.

Stella Abrera made headlines in 2015 when she became the first Filipino-American to be promoted to principal dancer, the highest rank at ABT, one of the most renowned dance companies globally. 

When she retired from performing in 2020 after a 24-year career, she went on to pursue leadership roles, first as the artistic director of Kaatsbaan Cultural Park in Tivoli, New York, and now, as the newly minted artistic director of ABT JKO School.

Photographed by Harold Julian

Hers is a career any dancer would envy, but the pathways she has forged for promising youth in the Philippines makes Abrera nothing short of inspirational. She returned in April to the country of her birth, to host a series of performances and master classes, in partnership with Sofia Zobel-Elizalde, director of STEPS Dance Studio in Makati. The performance tour featured ABT’s Studio Company (the junior company of ABT) with world-renowned pianist Cecile Licad. Directed by Abrera’s husband, Sascha Radetsky, the opening gala on April 20 benefited Ayala Foundation’s CENTEX schools (Center of Excellence in Public Elementary Education). STEPS offers dance education to economically disadvantaged youth at CENTEX public schools in Tondo, Manila and Bauan, Batangas. 

“The Ayala Foundation and CENTEX help identify talent in music, dance and other art forms and they cultivate that in the children, giving them opportunities they otherwise wouldn’t have,” says Abrera. “It’s quite incredible work and whenever we go to the Philippines on these trips to raise money for CENTEX, we visit the schools. It has got to be one of the most moving, touching experiences that I’ve had. The kids are so authentic, so genuine.”

“And they’re talented!” adds Radetsky.

It isn’t the first time Abrera has traveled to the Philippines to give back. In 2014, she set up a small charity with Operation USA called Steps Forward for the Philippines, to raise funds for a school in Guiuan that was heavily impacted by super typhoon Haiyan. After guest-starring with Ballet Philippines in a performance of Giselle, she traveled to Guiuan to visit the school children and deliver supplies. In New York, Abrera was introduced by a mutual friend to Zobel-Elizalde, and a new friendship–and meaningful collaboration was formed.

“Stella and I instantly connected because of our Philippine roots,” recalls Zobel-Elizalde. “It was after this meeting that Stella called me saying she wanted to put together a gala of ABT stars in the Philippines. I immediately agreed as it was such an honor to work with Stella who was a principal dancer with ABT at the time.”

With Elizalde’s help, Abrera curated, directed, and danced in a series of galas in Manila in 2018 and 2019 to benefit the students of CENTEX. “What struck me most about working with Stella was her grace and elegance in everything she did.

Photographed by Harold Julian

Stella is a great leader, incredibly hard working and has a strong vision of what the finished product should look like. I believe we both share the passion for dance and excellence in dance training,” says Zobel-Elizalde.

In addition to this year’s gala at the Samsung Performing Arts Theater in Circuit Makati, ABT Studio Company also performed free shows at Cebu and Davao.

“The initial impulse for all of these performances is to democratize ballet and the arts in the Philippines,” says Radetsky. “I think that aligns with ABT Studio Company’s mission which is to engage a very broad audience, taking ballet to all corners of the globe and to all communities.

Growing Representation

The youngest of five children, Abrera moved from Manila when she was four years old. She grew up in South Pasadena, California, where she began studying ballet at the age of five. She joined ABT in 199 after winning the gold medal at the Adeline Genée Awards, one of the world’s most prestigious ballet competitions. Despite growing up in the U.S., her parents still cultivated a strong sense of connection to their Filipino heritage.

Photographed by Harold Julian

“We still have a lot of cousins in the Philippines and my parents were very much connected to our culture through the food we ate, our humor,” says Abrera. “They also had a network of friends, about five Filipino American families, who were like our extended family in the States. It was like having a little Filipino community outside of the Philippines.

She met her husband while they were both dancing at ABT. During her 24 years in the company, ABT never toured to Manila and Filipino representation within the company was rather scarce.

“I remember there were two Filipino dancers that preceded me, Brendali Sta. Ana and Cristina Escoda, who is now the director of Artistic Administration at ABT,” says Abrera. “There was one other Filipino dancer who joined the company towards the end of my career, Jeffrey Cirio (who is now a principal with Boston Ballet).”

It makes Abrera’s work even more poignant, bringing ABT stars to the Philippines and teaching master classes to develop local dancers. Both Abrera and Radetsky, who will be teaching classes during their upcoming visit, recognize the unique talent inherent in Filipinos. “They’re all very hard workers; disciplined and curious,” says Radetsky.

“I also think they are very instinctual in their musicality,” adds Abrera.

After the first gala Abrera performed in 2018, two young STEPS students were discovered by Radetsky, both of whom ended up receiving scholarships to study at the ABT JKO School later that year. Elwince Magbitang, a former CENTEX scholar, is now a dancer in AB’s corps de ballet and has already performed soloist roles including Lead Gypsy in Don Quixote and Puck in The Dream. The other student, Vince Pelegrin, is now a member of the ABT Studio Company and will be among the performers during this month’s tour. A former STEPS Foundation scholar, this trip feels like a special homecoming for Pelegrin since his family has not seen him dance in five years.

Photographed by Harold Julian

“Ballet has taught me discipline, sacrifice, and most importantly, respect for my work, for others, and for myself,” says Pelegrin, A dream of his is to one day dance in Romeo and Juliet.

“Both Sascha and Stella have been powerful mentors to these two boys and have guided them through their ABT journey,” says Zobel-Elizalde.

Lasting Influence

In the spring of 2022, STEPS opened the Stella Abrera Dance and Music Hall at the CENTEX Batangas campus. Having the school in Batangas where underprivileged children can receive quality arts education is particularly significant for Abrera, whose paternal grandmother hails from the province.

“It feels poetic and meaningful, through Sofia’s incredible vision, to be part of some young people’s lives and help them find their love for music and dance,” says Abrera.

Last fall, Abrera served as international ambassador and jury chair for the first edition of the Youth Grand Prix Philippines, part of the prestigious Youth America Grand Prix, one of the industry’s leading ballet scholarship competitions. For all the success she’s seen in her own career, the sky is still the limit for Abrera, who will lead the next generation of dancers as she assures the helm of the ABT JKO School.

“I am so excited that I have this position.” says Abrera. “I can have an even more direct impact on the lives of talented and deserving students.”

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