My sister took me to my first ballet class when I was 5,” recalls Stella Abrera, a lead ballerina with American Ballet Theatre (ABT), one of the world’s top classical ballet companies. “She was in college at that time and interested in modern dance, and thought it would be a good idea for me to check out the local ballet school.” That was the now-shuttered Le Studio Dance in Pasadena.

Young Stella was entranced by the art form. “It was a natural fit for me, music and performance,” she says in a telephone interview from New York, where ABT is based. Abrera had already been introduced to classical music by her mother, who had been a serious student of  classical piano. “I grew up in quite a musical household,” she recalls, "and I guess I was little bit of a ham.”

Still, many are called but few are chosen, as the saying goes. Abrera’s childhood discovery would grow and blossom into a marquee career. In June, her exceptional talent was recognized when she was named a principal dancer at ABT, her professional home for 17 years now.  “She has a pure classical style with a command of character to shade it,” says Kevin McKenzie, the company’s artistic director.With the promotion, Abrera, 37, became the first Filipina American to reach ABT’s top ranks. The announcement was made in tandem with Misty Copeland’s ascent to the same high status, making Copeland the first African American woman to achieve that stature. Those moves, part of the company’s recent diversity campaign to expand its dwindling audience, mark 2015 (also ABT’s 75th anniversary) as a truly historic year. 

While Copeland has gotten more publicity, including a 60 Minutes profile and the cover of Time magazine, Abrera’s tale is also remarkable. Both will be featured in a special fundraiser for the ABT Dec. 7 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel and in performances of the perennial holiday favorite, The Nutcracker, at Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa from Dec. 10 through 20.

Stella Abrera was raised in South Pasadena, in a home her parents occupied until recently. "My parents settled in South Pasadena in 1977, and I was born a year later," she says. While her civil engineer father’s job took them out of the area for two or  three years at a time, they would always return to South Pasadena, so she considers it her hometown.

Fortunately, her parents supported her balletomania, and her teachers showered her with encouragement. “They thought I had promise and that was motivating to me,” she says. Also, growing up the youngest in a family of five kids, Stella found that ballet enhanced her sense of identity. “It was nice to find a place for myself, my own unique niche,” she says. “I thrived in the studio and working hard was actually fun for me.”

When she was 10, her father’s career took the family to the San Diego area. Stella joined the West Coast Ballet Theatre, a semi-professional troupe of rising young stars. “That’s when I got really serious,” she recalls. “I danced for four to five hours every day after school, and all day Saturday and Sunday.” She was also learning jazz, tap, flamenco and modern, which at the time she considered distractions from her true calling. Now she’s grateful for that training, since ABT incorporates other dance forms into its repertoire. “Stella is uniquely ‘American’ in that her ability to assimilate different styles of technique is what gives her a versatility and comfort to be grounded for contemporary work and the classical canon alike,” says McKenzie.

After the family moved to Sydney, Australia, when Abrera was 13, she enrolled in a program based on the curriculum of the London-based Royal Academy of Dance. Three years later, she faced Ross Stretton, assistant artistic director of ABT, during a final exam. He was so impressed he recommended that she apprentice with them in New York. So at 17 she moved to the Big Apple, and, in less than a year, she joined the corps de ballet. In 2001 she became a soloist — she thinks it may have been because of her acclaimed turn as Myrtha, the merciless Queen of the Wilis in Giselle. Her career was rocketing upward — until physical injury nearly ended it.

Seven years ago Abrera suffered a severe back injury which, when combined with her sciatic nerve damage, made even walking difficult. She was sidelined for 18 months. Finally, after seeing a pain management specialist who ordered cortisone shots and daily ballet lessons, she began to recover. Abrera returned to the stage in 2009.

Ballet is her life in more ways than one. The day she auditioned for ABT, Abrera met fellow dancer Sascha Radetsky, who grew up in San Francisco. They quickly bonded, and married in 2006. Last year Radetsky retired from the company and now pursues writing, teaching and acting in addition to dance. “We’ve been together almost since the beginning of our careers,” Abrera says. She recalls how they would see each other every day at ABT and be able to share so much of what they were going through each day. “I’m now in a place of having to get used to not having him there,” she says wistfully.

While The Nutcracker is the warhorse of holiday-season ballet, Abrera has performed Clara in ABT’s production, choreographed by Artist-in-residence Alexei Ratmansky, only once before. Clara’s dreams set the ballet in motion, and most productions cast the character only as a child, but ABT’s also projects her into the future (a change pioneered by Russian choreographer Alexander Gorsky in 1919). “This particular version is quite interesting,” says Abrera. “In most versions there’s a pas de deux, usually performed by the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Cavalier. In the Alexei Ratmansky version, which is what we’re doing in Orange County, it’s performed by two adult leads [Clara, The Princess and Nutcracker, The Prince]. They’re representing the spirit of the young children.”

 

What is the greatest joy in being a ballerina? “It’s such a huge part of my life, it’s hard to articulate,” she says. “I love the whole process, from the first plié of the day.” Admittedly, it is a demanding art form, requiring intense devotion. “We do ask our bodies to do extreme things,” she says. “That’s the beauty of this art form — it’s athletic, but it’s also artistic, this beautiful balance between artistry and athleticism.”