American Ballet Theatre Promotes Filipina-American Stella Abrera to Principal Dancer

Stella Abrera (Ballet UK)

Stella Abrera (Ballet UK)

By now, I’m sure you’ve heard that New York City’s American Ballet Theatre (ABT) recently promoted dancer Misty Copeland to principal, making her the first Black principal in the company’s 75-year history. But that wasn’t the only important promotion that was made.

Stella Abrera became the first Filipina-American to ascend to the rank of principal. (Two promotions, two history-makers this round for the ABT, if you’re keeping track.) She was born in the Philippines and moved to the U.S. when she was four years old. Beginning in Pasadena, Abrera also studied ballet in San Diego and Sydney, Australia. She joined ABT in 1996, and became a soloist in 2001. Abrera’s various roles have included the titular role in “Cinderella,” Emilia in “Othello,” and Clara and The Snow Queen in different versions of “The Nutcracker.”

Ballet is an art form notorious for having little diversity. I hope Abrera’s promotion (and Copeland’s) opens the door for more non-white dancers.

 

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Diversity Amongst Principal Dancers in Top Ballet Companies: By The Numbers

San Francisco Ballet's Yuan Yuan Tan and Davit Karapetyan in George Balanchine's 'Scotch Symphony,' 2012 (Odette's Ordeal)

San Francisco Ballet’s Yuan Yuan Tan and Davit Karapetyan in George Balanchine’s ‘Scotch Symphony,’ 2012 (Odette’s Ordeal)

It’s a well-known fact that classical ballet companies aren’t known for their diversity. With the news that American Ballet Theatre (ABT) dancer Misty Copeland has been promoted to principal, I was curious to see just how (non-) diverse the major ballet companies are.

First, I identified the top classical ballet companies in the U.S.: ABT, New York City Ballet (NYCB), San Francisco Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, and Houston Ballet. (I didn’t look at Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet because the company doesn’t use traditional levels, as far as I could tell.)

Next, I looked at each company’s roster, looking for diversity. I decided to narrow my search to solely the principal dancers to save time. I then made a spreadsheet of my findings:

Principal Dancer Diversity at Top Ballet Companies Excel Spreadsheet

Principal Dancer Diversity at Top Ballet Companies Excel Spreadsheet

The first glaring thing is none of the companies have any Black principals at this time. (Copeland will change that when she begins her new position in August.) Every company listed has at least one principal of Asian descent, and San Francisco has two.

Here’s how the various companies break down.

American Ballet Theatre (ABT):

ABT has 15 principal dancers. Four Latino/Latina dancers make up 25%+ of the company’s diversity.

Houston Ballet:

Houston Ballet has the smallest group of principals with just eight dancers. The one Asian dancer and one Latina dancer combine to make up 25% of the diversity.

New York City Ballet (NYCB):

NYCB has the highest number of principal dancers at 24. Latino/Latina dancers comprise 12%+. Though not noted above, NYCB also features one dancer of South Asian descent.

Pacific Northwest Ballet:

This company has the worst diversity score. No Black or Latino/Latina dancers, and only one Asian dancer, in a group of 12 principals.

San Francisco Ballet:

With six dancers among 20 principals, San Francisco Ballet’s Latino/Latina contingent make up 30% of that company’s diversity, the largest of the studied cohort. Though not noted above, the company also features one dancer of South Asian descent.

Misty Copeland is American Ballet Theatre’s First Black Principal Dancer

Misty Copeland in 'Swan Lake' (Vanity Fair)

Misty Copeland in ‘Swan Lake’ (Vanity Fair)

Last week, the American Ballet Theatre (ABT) in New York City promoted dancer Misty Copeland to principal. Copeland is the first Black woman to attain the level of principal (the highest level possible for a dancer) in ABT’s 75-year history. (ABT has previously had one Black man reach principal: Desmond Richardson, who achieved the level in 1997.) Since she’s considered a classical ballet dancer, this is all the more rare.

Copeland is considered to be a ballet prodigy since she began studying at age 13, and began dancing in pointe shoes a mere three months (!) later. She came to the larger public’s attention when she starred in the now-famous UnderArmour 2014 ad spot “I Will What I Want,” which featured her dancing. Since then, Copeland has written a biography and a children’s book, appeared on the cover of “Time” for their 2015 Top 100 list, and was the subject of a documentery, “A Ballerina’s Tale,” that premiered at the Tribeca 2015 Film Festival.

Copeland’s notable roles include the titular role in “The Firebird,” Swanhilda in “Coppélia,” and the dual roles of Odette/Odile in “Swan Lake.” The “Swan Lake” roles were significant for Copeland, and the rest of the ballet world:

It was a symbolically significant moment in American arts, in which a black woman danced the role of ballet’s famed white swan—and sold out all of her performances from the moment tickets went on sale months earlier.

Copeland became a member of ABT’s corps de ballet in 2001, and was promoted to soloist in 2007. She’ll start as principal dancer on August 1st.