Joowon Ahn skillfully catches Stella Abrera’s fishtail dive in the “Wedding Adagio” of Don Quixote.
A dream come true for Stella Abrera, a dance event of a lifetime for Sofia Elizalde
ART DE VIVRE - Ricky Toledo, Chito Vijandre (The Philippine Star) - April 15, 2018 - 12:00am

‘There was not a dry eye among us... it was a rollercoaster of emotions,’ say the American Ballet stars upon meeting the Centex Scholars.

It was a dream come true for Stella Abrera: bringing her American Ballet friends to the Philippines for a show to benefit CENTEX (Center of Excellence in Public Elementary Education), Ayala Foundation’s program for providing holistic, quality and transformative education for children from economically disadvantaged families. She had already initiated a charity before to help in the restoration of a school in Guiuan after the devastation of super typhoon Yolanda in 2013 but this one was even closer to her heart because it was for a school that had the arts and dance, in particular, as part of its curriculum for turning out well-rounded individuals.  

In a touching gesture of gratitude and humility, Stella Abrera and the ABT stars lay out their bouquets for Sofia Elizalde during curtain call on the last performance night. “It was one of the most precious honors I could have ever received,” said Sofia. “I will never forget this moment for the rest of my life.”

It was also a dance event of a lifetime for Sofia Zobel Elizalde, founder and director of Steps Dance Studio, which awards dance scholarships to CENTEX students. Sofia had met the celebrated Fil-American principal dancer of ABT in New York and had talked about having a benefit show one day.  Everything fell into place when Stella found out that ABT had engagements in Singapore and Hong Kong and would have a break after that to be able to come to the Philippines.

After months of coordination and organization, “An Intimate Evening with Stella Abrera and American Ballet Stars” finally became a reality when the dancers touched down in Manila for Holy Week and visited the CENTEX School in Tondo. They were not quite prepared for what they encountered.  “There was not a dry eye among us,” relates Stella. “They got us right at the moment we stepped through the gates, with a wonderful presentation — the violin students started serenading us as we entered and they prepared a wonderful show.” 

“When the little ballerinas appeared, it was so moving, I started crying. It was a rollercoaster of emotions,” recalls Gillian Murphy, also an acclaimed principal of ABT who started dancing at age three. “They were so beautiful.  The fact that they have been training for only a year and that they could do those formations and steps at that age was quite extraordinary.” 

“Education is really everything and that was illustrated so beautifully. We really saw the impact that CENTEX makes on these kids, their lives and their family’s lives, and on all of us, it’s absolutely mind-blowing,” says Isabella Boylston, the talented and accomplished ABT principal everyone recognizes as Jennifer Lawrence’s ballet double in the recent Red Sparrow.

Jose Sebastian, Stella Abrera, Roman Zhurbin and Catherine Hurlin in a CENTEX classroom where they sang songs and recited poems with the students. Photo by Jojo Mamangun

If the ABT stars were overwhelmed by the encounter, you can just imagine the effect on the students who were face to face with their ballet idols familiar to them only on YouTube videos until now. What was even more astounding was that they were invited by Stella to dance with them in a segment of the show at Maybank Theatre. 

Having learned from the world’s greatest ballet masters and taking on the principal roles in performances through her 22-year career as a professional dancer, Stella is only too happy to be able to pass on her knowledge. As part of her visit, she and husband Sascha Radetsky conducted master classes at Steps. The first show on April 5 was also presented specially for students with an open forum.

The energy at that show was infectious. Aside from the dance students, there were even students who were watching a live ballet for the first time and could not contain their excitement. Stella Abrera is a cultural hero, after all, who has made the country proud by being the first Filipino to make it to the top rank of principals in one of the greatest ballet companies of the world. Although this is Stella’s second performance in the country, this is the first time for a group of ABT stars — some of the world’s most acclaimed dancers — to do a show here. It is also a very special program featuring the quintessential works of ABT, which you can usually see only in New York or in other cities during their world tour.   Even the costumes from the ABT productions were flown in. Multi-awarded production designer Gino Gonzales created sets that evoked a baroque theatre in Versailles, stylized with layers of arches and background panels printed with acanthus leaves and arabesques. Master lighting director Katsch Catoy executed the lighting design. 

ABT stars Isabella Boylston, Arron Scott, Catherine Hurlin, Joowon Ahn, Stella Abrera, Roman Zhurbin, Blaine Hoven, Gillian Murphy and Jose Sebastian during their unforgettable holiday at El Nido resort where they were impressed by “the beauty of the Philippines and the warmth of the Filipino people.”

Stars and Stripes Forever made a fitting opening number with the marching band music of John Philip Sousa, ingeniously choreographed by George Balanchine with classical dance steps to create the exuberance of a Fourth of July parade. Channeling the spunk of all-American teenagers, Isabella Boylston and Blaine Hoven brought out the fireworks in a spirited pas de deux that delighted the audience with their athletic prowess.  Known for her high jetés and extensions, Isabella managed the fast, complicated footwork admirably and moved freely through the balances.  Blaine Hoven was equally adept at displaying his well-honed technique and virtuosity.

The second number was pure poetry. Set to the haunting Concerto of Dmitri Shostakovich, Stella Abrera and Russian dancer Roman Zhurbin created enigmatic shapes in a stark space with controlled but fluid movements. Abstract as the dance vocabulary may be, they imbued it with so much emotion that you could feel the sadness and the yearning.  Stella’s line and technique are impeccable but what really distinguishes her as a principal and an artist are her innate musical and acting gifts that make even a non-narrative ballet like this one so complex and rich. She is of that rare breed that balletomanes refer to as the technically and spiritually superior ballerina who represents the “eternal feminine.”

Her artistry is even more evident in the balcony scene of Romeo and Juliet, another Kenneth McMillan piece where she turns into a pubescent girl ecstatically in love but with a grace and lightness in her step. Joo Won Ahn is her Romeo, played with a boyish verve that made him an instant favorite at CENTEX where the audience fawned over his K-Pop, boy-next-door looks. Make no mistake though, this gold medalist Korean danseur has the speed, power and clean finishing that make his fast jumps and turns around Juliet irresistible to the smitten ballerina. Their partnering was so convincing that Stella’s husband Sascha Radetsky, who is also the ballet master for the show, remarked: “I think this piece wasn’t such a good idea... Imagine all that kissing!”

Another pas de deux, but with a more comic bent, was Bier Halle featuring Gillian Murphy and Jose Sebastian in their Bavarian dirndl and lederhosen, dancing away en pointe to the merry polkas and waltzes of Johan Strauss II. The piece is one of Gillian’s favorites, choreographed by her husband, Ethan Stiefel, featuring some very demanding fouetté turns and battements which she executed flawlessly, never missing a beat.  Sebastian was a solid partner, swirling her through the air while doing some very rapid footwork, with clean lines in his jumps and leaps.

Catherine Hurlin and Arron Scott in perfect unison doing a grand jeté in Flames of Paris.

Gillian’s other pas de deux was more dreamlike, this time with Blaine Hoven in On The Water, choreographed by James Whiteside. It could have very well been inspired by the ABT group’s holiday in El Nido just the week before where the rippling emerald green waters were evoked by the piano accompaniment in Schubert’s score. Gillian’s musicality in her dancing came to the fore and, together with Blaine, they created exquisite movements that poignantly lament the passing of time. Gillian is a singular artist who holds you spellbound with her performance.

Catherine Hurlin, one of the younger and “crazier” members of the group, was a total revelation on stage in Flames of Paris. She has speed and strength with immaculate finishing, which was matched by her partner Arron Scott who did the coupé jeté turns and cabrioles impeccably with soft landings. They were a perfect pair for this number designed for outstanding ballet dancers who can display their virtuosity in classical pas de deux. 

The evening closed with the most meaningful of all the numbers, when Stella and the ABT stars danced with the CENTEX scholars — the reason why they came to the Philippines in the first place. They proudly held their own as the toreadors and Spanish dancers, showing fine technique and confidence in bearing. “I was quite impressed with how they danced this evening,” said Roman Zhurbin, the ABT soloist who led the toreadors and is noted by critics for his astute characterizations on stage. Sofia was so overjoyed: “The happiness in the room for these kids to dance with dancers of this caliber is an experience they will never forget.  I am so grateful to Stella for inviting them to dance.  What a moment it was for students on stage with topnotch dancers coming together for a beautiful ballet like Don Quixote.”

And what a moment it was for us and other balletomanes to witness such superlative dancing and exquisite artistry from Stella Abrera and the American Ballet stars. It was truly a privilege to share this intimate evening with them.

Stella Abrera with husband Sascha Radetsky and her proud parents Jack and Aurora Abrera

* * *

An Intimate Evening with Stella Abrera & American Ballet Stars was co-presented by Ayala Foundation, together with Ayala Group of Companies and Patek Philippe. The Ayala Group of Companies comprising Ayala Corporation, Ayala Land, Inc., Bank of the Philippine Islands, Globe Telecom, AirSWIFT, Raffles Makati, SedaHotels, El Nido Resorts and Steps Dance Studio have shown full support for this project. It is also supported by The Aivee Group, Distinqt, and Nespresso. Follow the authors on Instagram @ rickytchitov; Twitter @RickyToledo23 Facebook - Ricky Toledo Chito Vijandre.

SOFIA ELIZALDE STELLA ABRERA
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