NEW YORK — The first time Stella Abrera stepped onto the stage with American Ballet Theater was in “Romeo and Juliet.” Granted, it wasn’t the most glamorous part. She was a townswoman. Sweeping a broom.
The role seemed distant, “like a beautiful star up in the sky,” she said, fluttering her slender fingers toward the ceiling of the press room at the Metropolitan Opera. “I wouldn’t allow myself to dream or to hope to do the role, because I would feel like it would be too painful if I didn’t do it. So I never allowed myself to want to do it.”
Abrera, as she often does when recalling to a painful moment in her life, laughed. A startling beauty with luminous eyes and a delicacy that masks the grit that helped her return to the stage after a debilitating 2008 injury, Abrera is set to dance the part that she refused to let herself crave. On June 14, less than a week after her 40th birthday, she will make her New York debut as Juliet, in the Kenneth MacMillan production.
Her career path hasn’t always been easy. Memorably, a hard-to-diagnose injury — problems with her sciatic nerve led to severe pain in her calf — forced her to withdraw from dancing “Giselle” and kept her away from dancing for a time (18 months off, six months on, six more months off for a relapse). But she persevered, and in 2015, two momentous events occurred: She performed “Giselle” and, the next month, at 37, she was promoted to principal.
“Stella had all the potential to be a principal years and years ago, and this injury just completely sidelined her,” said Kevin McKenzie, Ballet Theater’s artistic director. “Against all odds, she just fought her way back.”
When McKenzie promoted her to principal dancer — on the same day as Misty Copeland — it was late in the game. “There was this wonderful poetic justice in being able to promote her,” he said. “It was the joy of having seen the pause button go off and realizing that we could continue.”
At the time, Abrera’s promotion was overshadowed by that of Copeland, who was the first African-American woman to become a principal at Ballet Theater. That hardly mattered to Abrera, who was herself a first at the company — the first Filipino-American principal. “All I felt was complete happiness because my really good friend and I were promoted together,” she said.
About Copeland’s breakthrough, she added: “It was historic, and there should be a lot of celebration about it. I really admire and respect that woman’s work ethic and her poise. It takes a lot of strength in this ballet world. She represents us so well.”
Abrera still faces challenges. Like Copeland, who is 35, she contends with an older body (that calf still acts up), and is making her debut in parts that most principals have been dancing for years. “I had to actively try to squash away initial feelings of insecurity and self-consciousness, because they would have just completely sabotaged my whole process,” she said. “Being older and having had experience in other roles gave me the confidence to do that.”
Abrera, who is married to former Ballet Theater soloist Sascha Radetsky, also has a delicate strength that sets her apart from other dancers. Her elegant arms can appear velvety soft before stretching into sharp lines. She can flitter between humor and pathos. “I have a face that’s really malleable, and I’ve been told that I can do too much,” she said. “So I always try to make sure that I’m authentic, not cartoonish.”
James Whiteside, her Romeo, is in awe — his word — of the way Abrera can change so quickly in a role. “It’s devastating,” he said of her Juliet. “You have this innocent young girl who is head over heels with a boy from the rival family. You get to the end, and she is willing to kill herself in what doesn’t feel like a childish tantrum. It feels like it’s out of complete and utter devastation, and she has an ability to show that arc that I have rarely seen.”
Abrera’s malleability may have something to do with her training, which changed each time her family moved to a new city. (Her father worked as a civil engineer.) She was born in the Philippines and moved to California when she was 4.
Growing up, she spent summers in the Philippines with her grandparents. Last summer, she took a group of dancers there to perform in a benefit for the Ayala Foundation’s Center of Excellence in Public Elementary Education, which helps economically disadvantaged children.
At one school, Abrera and some fellow company members — Gillian Murphy and Isabella Bolyston among them — watched a “super intricate, really awesome performance by 7-year-olds who had just started training a year ago,” she said. “We were totally crying the whole time.”
Abrera, the youngest of five children, discovered dance through her oldest sister, who was already in college, taking modern dance classes.
“She’s the one who said, ‘Let’s go to the local ballet school, because you sitting here watching cartoons is stupid,'” Abrera said. “My first real memory was me crying leaving my first recital because we had a little leapfrog demonstration and my face got bashed into the floor.” But, she added, “I still wanted to come back.”
Before joining Ballet Theater, she lived in Sydney and trained in the Royal Academy of Dance method at the Halliday Dance Center. Ross Stretton, at the time Ballet Theater’s assistant director, adjudicated her final exams. He arranged for an audition with the company, which she joined in 1996. She became a soloist in 2001 and remained in that rank for 14 years.
In February, Abrera, opposite Whiteside, made her Juliet debut in Detroit. That performance surprised even her. “I didn’t actually think I would cry — actual, physical tears — and I was weeping,” she said. “The tears weren’t because I had convinced myself I was Juliet. It was more that I kind of dug down and extracted all of the horrible things that I’ve experienced. I let it bubble out.”
One of her favorite scenes is when Juliet, in despair, sits alone on her bed contemplating her next move as Prokofiev’s music swells. “Everyone can relate to that moment where you’ve hit rock bottom, and you’re just so internal,” she said. “It’s kind of a communal feeling with the audience.”
Abrera has spent years in the wings watching her idols and friends perform the scene. “As I was sitting on the bed and looking into the audience, it was like being in a movie,” she said. “You have to have no self-consciousness at that point. In those long acting scenes, when Juliet is by herself, you’re kind of naked. It’s not about the ballet training you’ve had your whole life. This is something more personal.” She laughed. “It’s ridiculously cool.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.