On June 9, 2022, American Ballet Theatre announced the appointment of former principal dancer Stella Abrera to acting artistic director of the famed Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School for the 2022-23 academic year. The news came as part of a wave of global ballet leadership changes made over the summer, marking a new generation of professionals at the helm.
Abrera, who dazzled audiences for 24 years at ABT, retired in June of 2020 and became artistic director of Kaatsbaan Cultural Park in Tivoli, New York, home to the lauded annual Kaatsbaan Summer Intensive. She continued to teach for the ABT company and Studio Company regularly during her two and a half years at Kaatsbaan, returning to ABT full-time on August 21 to begin her duties as the head of JKO.
Dance Teacher had the pleasure of speaking with Abrera over the summer about her recent appointment, her hopes and goals for the year ahead, the importance of challenging and empowering students, and more.
Becoming the acting artistic director of the JKO School is a big deal! How did this come about?
I’ve always loved ABT. I’ve invested most of my adult life as a professional there in some capacity, but only as a dancer up until this point. When I saw the position [at JKO] open, I had come to the realization after my few years of teaching at Kaatsbaan that I have such a passion for helping the next generation of dancers gain the tools and skills they need to help themselves reach their dreams. I proposed the idea to Kevin [McKenzie], and after some interviews and conversations with both him and Susan [Jaffe], and [ABT executive director] Janet Rollé, I was very blessed to be granted the position in June.
As of August 20, I have stepped away as an official member of Kaatsbaan to focus on my duties at JKO. But I will always have a huge, special place in my heart for Kaatsbaan. It’s an incredible artistic sanctuary, and I’m thrilled that I was part of that team.
You began the position on August 21, and the first day of classes was on September 12. How has it been so far?
Moving into the office and starting to plan with the team was a mixture of emotions. Things are falling into place quite quickly, but I’m looking forward to diving in on the first day of classes. I feel energized and happy to be involved in the organization where I have such deep roots—with the chance to help future generations gain those roots, too, whether it’s at ABT or in other places.
I also feel a sense of trying to brace myself for the unexpected, which I know will happen! There will always be surprises to navigate, so I’m grateful that there’s a team in place that I work well with; we have a strong dynamic already.
What are some of your plans and goals for the JKO School?
My number one vision is to help the dancers to be good citizens and have artistic integrity. That will be of paramount importance to them as they find their own way and discover how they want to present themselves in the world—whether as dancers or not. I want to help them gain those tools so they can feel empowered to move forward with confidence.
Another goal is to have the students be educated in the ABT style, have a really robust curriculum in classical ballet technique, and get as much experience with superstar faculty that is in place now—it really is a superstar faculty! Having teachers who can inspire students to understand what it means to push themselves is hugely important. Because in the end, when you find yourself in the middle of a challenging dance, you’re the only person who can get yourself through it. Teachers have to be skilled in empowering the dancer, helping them find that self-motivation, perseverance and strength to take themselves to the next level.
What will the curriculum look like?
Dancers need to be versatile. In this day and age, all professional dancers need as many tools and experience in different genres under their belt as possible. Having the classical ballet technique as a base is very important, but they’ll be supplemented with weekly character, Graham modern technique, cultural enrichment and music appreciation classes.
I’ll also be introducing weekly contemporary classes and choreographic workshops this year; the dancers should get a taste of the choreographers who’ve been the pillars of ABT. I’d like to give the students as many incremental goals and performance opportunities as we can afford, whether preparing for the big end-of-year performance or for in-studio showings, exams or assessment classes.
There is also a robust wellness and student-life program, which we’re working to develop further. So there’s a lot for the students to do and soak in. I hope they can do so while building a sense of community and congeniality.
What are you most excited for this year?
I’m excited to introduce the dancers to new choreography with the addition of choreographic workshops, where they will regularly be challenged to learn and hone their creative skills. The workshops in place for this year will host [renowned choreographer and former ABT member] Gemma Bond, who I worked with at Kaatsbaan. I’ve actually been in discussion with her the past two months to shape the choreographic curriculum at JKO; to continue developing that program will be exciting to see this upcoming year. If all goes well, the best work that comes out of the workshops will be presented at the final shows in May.
And while I sure had some fabulous training growing up, I’m excited to join the school that I would have loved to have gone to. With the infrastructure that’s already in place and all the incredible things that are already happening there, to be able to step in and contribute what I think will help the dancers move the art form forward is incredible.
Any parting thoughts?
This is just the beginning of a very exciting adventure for me personally, and hopefully the dancers will feel the same way as they embark on their individual journeys this year. It’s a relief coming out of the pandemic knowing everything we’ve endured and learned has given us lots of perspective. I think we can move forward with a really wonderful sense of adventure, enlightenment and curiosity.