Stella Abrera, the current artistic director of Kaatsbaan Cultural Park and recently retired American Ballet Theatre principal dancer, corresponded with Ballerina Book Club about her favorite books, early-age reading obsessions and how literature informed some of her dancing roles.
With stages closed last year, Abrera carved out space on the Kaatsbaan campus where dancers could continue creating. She has hosted residencies for dance companies like ABT, Dc New York City Ballet and so many more.
If you’re based in the New York area, make sure to check out the live outdoor dance shows at Kaatsbaan as part of its Spring Festival, slated to kick off May 20. And in the meantime, you can catch Kaatsbaan in the ALL ARTS series “Isolation to Creation,” which features artists coming together in the Hudson Valley to create new works.
- “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt: Could not put it down.
- “Educated” by Tara Westover: If you need to be inspired and have a change of perspective … this.
- “The Pillars of the Earth” by Ken Follett: Gotta love an epic historical fiction novel.
- “Lincoln in the Bardo” by George Saunders: Heartbreaking prose.
- “Cold Mountain” by Charles Frazier: A devastating Civil War odyssey.
What was the last book you recommended to a friend?
“Educated” — I think to you, Bells!
What’s your reading style? Where and what time of day?
On vacation, by a body of water, on a cozy chaise, in the afternoon. 🙂
What was your relationship to reading as a kid?
Obsessed — reading while walking, in the car on road trips (so much so that I missed all the scenery), spreading out pillows in the middle of the living room floor on rainy days and devouring a whole book in one afternoon. Loved it. Miss having time to do that …
Did reading ever inform how you’d portray a role, particularly literary characters?
Full-length ballets came into my rep much later in my career, so I relished diving into the books after which the ballets were modeled. Those deep dives definitely gave me clearer insights as to how to approach a particular role, and sometimes guided how I approached certain acting scenes or steps.
I found these especially helpful for roles such as Tatiana (in “Onegin”), Juliet and Giselle. Even for the whimsical and kooky Ratmansky/Ryden creation, Princess Tea Flower in “Whipped Cream,” I found a very cool old book called “The Book of Tea,” written by Okakura Kakuzō in 1906. It gave me ideas as to how to approach that character given the beautiful, ancient tea ceremonies and traditions that are prevalent in some cultures.
How did you get into ballet as a profession?
I fell in love with ballet as a kid when my sister brought me to beginner ballet classes. It quickly became a passion, and then soon a vocation. I entered international ballet competitions with the support of my parents and ballet teachers, and at the age of 17, I was invited to audition for American Ballet Theatre. A contract opened up soon after, and I was lucky to be asked to move to New York from Los Angeles in a week’s time. Absolute dream come true!
To date, what has been your favorite part of being the artistic director of Kaatsbaan Cultural Park?
In contrast to the darkness brought on by the pandemic, a major bright spot was being part of a team that created the Kaatsbaan Summer Festival — a nine-week, free dance and music festival that took place all outdoors and on the gorgeous expansive grounds of Kaatsbaan throughout August and September of 2020. To be able to provide artists and audience members the opportunity to create and enjoy live art once again was simply magical.
Come to the Kaatsbaan Spring Festival opening on May 20!
What’s a passion outside of your public persona that people might be surprised to know about?
I enjoy road trips in Big Sky Country with my husband, Sascha. We rent a big pick-up truck and sleep in the bed of it, under the stars, at different campsites every night. Now that we have a Newfoundland puppy, we have to figure out how to fit him in with us (he’s eight months old and 85 pounds and growing).
Favorite pasta recipe?
Carbonara, of course.
Favorite book store?
What was the last book you read?
“Where the Crawdads Sing” by Delia Owens
What are you looking forward to reading?
Being so completely engrossed in a story that a whole day can pass in a moment.
What book have you read over and over again?
“A Year in Provence” by Peter Mayle — fun escape to France book 🙂
What advice would you offer to someone trying to break into your field?
Work your butt off, be kind and don’t be afraid to dream big.
Top Image: Stella Abrera. Photo: Hanna Bass.