Stella Abrera is principal ballerina of the American Ballet Theatre and the newly-installed artistic director at Kaatsbaan, a renowned cultural park for dance in Tivoli.
I met Stella at Kaatsbaan (pronounced cahts-bahn) one morning in late November to learn more about her work and to see the facility for myself.
Kaatsbaan is blessed by geography, occupying a 150-acre former horse farm just a stone’s throw from the Hudson River. It abuts downtown Tivoli, in northern Dutchess County, and was once the place where Eleanor Roosevelt rode her horses. The facility is spread across several buildings, from small studios to a 160-seat theater that matches the footprint of the Metropolitan Opera House.
Stella Abrera has been coming here for over 20 years, ever since she first joined American Ballet Theatre at the age of 17. Her career has spanned a diverse repertoire and countless accolades (the New York Times describes her as “a luminous principal dancer”), including recent profiles in both the Times (“The Poetic Justice of Stella Abrera’s Juliet“) and the New York Times Magazine (“How to Be a Principal Dancer at 41“).
This is her last season at ABT, and on January 1st, she’ll assume the mantle of artistic director at Kaatsbaan, alongside executive director Sonja Kostich, herself a former ABT ballerina.
What will your role as artistic director entail?
It will be mostly to program, to expand the programming, to help build the education department, to connect artists to this complex, to connect companies, private small companies, other dancers — all different types of dance, not just ballet — to come and create work here.
Basically just provide a cultural park for this area and give space and time to the major artists in New York City and around to really get some good work done. It can be so hard to find space — there’s nothing like this in New York City.
We’re implementing master classes for local people. I just taught a master class on Saturday, had a nice turnout just from local people who want to see what the center is all about.
These first few months will be transitional months for me because I’m finishing my career as a ballet dancer with ABT, so I’m still dancing full-time, but I’m laying down the groundwork so we can begin reaching out to different parts of the community within the area to get people here. I want field trips to happen. I want school kids to come here and observe rehearsals of these beautiful dance companies that are coming in from all over the place, and just expose them to what dance is. These will be the future dance lovers and art lovers, and it’s right here in their community.
How did you get connected with Kaatsbaan?
My boss at American Ballet Theatre is one of the founders. I’ve actually been coming here since I was a teenager. I joined ABT when I was 17, and I’ve been visiting this place since then. I’ve really grown to love this center.
My husband and I have a cabin across the river in Phoenicia, so we really got to know this area and fell in love with all the views around here.
What are some of the other places in the Hudson Valley you’ve enjoyed visiting?
We really fell in love with the other side of the river, where we’ve had our cabin for 15 years. We explore that area often. My husband and I like to hike, and my husband’s an avid fly fisherman. He says he’s terrible, but he’s obsessed with it. He’s also a former dancer with ABT.
Just exploring all of these areas near here, exploring different ways to go home over the river, hiking trails and waterfalls, those are all gorgeous.
What’s surprised you about being a creative person in the Hudson Valley?
What’s surprised me is that there are so many creative people who come from different backgrounds, who have so many different stories, who all work in different mediums…
There’s a real welcoming feeling towards artists here, and art and culture, and it feels like a really wonderful thread embedded in the fabric of this place. I’m grateful for that. The fact that it’s so close to New York City helps to explain that. I just love how peaceful it is here, which is a nice contrast to living in New York City.
What do you hope to see in the next 5 years for Kaatsbaan, and for the general creative community here?
What you said is definitely something that we’d love to do — to connect all the different types of artists and the huge network of artists that are in the area. It would definitely be great to get to know each other and to be friends and to partner.
Like I said, expanding the programming, bringing in dancers and choreographers who are up-and-coming, as well as established artists, to expose the Hudson Valley to all of that, and to expand our education, for sure.
What would you tell someone who lives in the Hudson Valley who’s considering a career as a professional dancer. Is that something you can do from a home base in the Hudson Valley?
I did it! I trained in my hometown school in LA, and I had the opportunity to audition for ABT through a summer intensive program, which is what we offer here. What’s cool is that, after 24 years at ABT, I have the eye and the knowledge to help train someone to do that, and to steer him or her in the right direction. New York City, the dance mecca of the country, is just two hours away. I could absolutely help someone who has that dream.
Of course, as we all know, a profession in the arts is going to be highly competitive, and a gamble. You dream big, and you work hard, and sometimes it still doesn’t happen. But I will always say that anyone who trains in dance learns so many incredible values that they can take anywhere — the discipline, the perseverance, the hard work, the work ethic. All of those lessons that you learn as little kids in their pink tutus skipping around and following directions, all of that helps.
What’s in the future for Kaatsbaan?
We’re in stage two of Kaatsbaan’s five-year revitalization strategy. Stage one was to hire Sonja Kostich, who’s this amazing executive director, to reestablish Kaatsbaan’s place in the creative community and to spearhead its revitalization.
Would you say Kaatsbaan was under the radar for a while?
It was. It was obviously doing good things because it’s still here, 30 years later, and it’s still pristine and all the dancers who comes here know what a special place it is. The founders put their feelers out, saying it was time to start searching for the new generation of leaders to help Kaatsbaan continue.
We’re hoping to make it flourish by reaching a broader network. That’s the idea.
What’s coming up in terms of programming?
It’s been very exciting to have Paul Taylor Dance Company come and perform here. We’re excited to have Mark Morris Dance Group come up here in May. And American Ballet Theatre Studio Company, which my husband directs, will be performing here in April. Alejandro Cerrudo, an amazing contemporary choreographer who comes from a classical background, has a small company, and uses all the technical capabilities that the facility offers to create his work.
Another thing that you can do here at Kaatsbaan is rehearse with all these technical elements, which is really hard to come by, especially in New York City. Usually you create a piece of work in a studio with just the dancers and the work, and then you quickly go to the theater with a lighting designer who has these ideas, and you — bang — smash it all together in like 24 hours, and you hope that it’s what the choreographer wants.
But here, you can spend three weeks in a residency trying out different ideas with lights, the fog machine, with all these cool technical elements, and have the space and the luxury of no stress to do that.
All summer we have a nine-week summer ballet intensive program which I’m directing. Teachers from great companies, all different types of dance, will be here for each of three 3-week sessions. For each session we’ll have about 50 students.
Right after that, I have a program called Pro Studio, and it’s a coaching and teaching initiative for young professional dancers. That’s also really exciting.This interview has been edited for length and clarity.