After ABT’s Australia tour from August 28 to September 7, ABT Soloist Stella Abrera visited her native Philippines with a dual purpose: perform Giselle with Ballet Philippines and help schoolchildren in Guiuan, a city devastated by Super Typhoon Haiyan last November. Before her visit, Stella set up Steps Forward for the Philippines, a charitable fund dedicated to helping children in the city in partnership with Operation USA. “This was a good opportunity to use my visit to the country as a performer to go beyond that to try to give back to the region,” Stella said in an email interview.
Guiuan is a town in the province of Eastern Samar in the Philippines with a population of nearly 50,000. The town was devastated by Super Typhoon Haiyan last November; almost all of the buildings and structures were destroyed by the sustained winds of 195 mph and gusts as strong as 235 mph, leaving the community’s 50,000 people homeless. The typhoon was the most powerful storm in recorded history ever to make landfall. After the storm Mayor Christopher Gonzales said “If you want to look at our municipality, it’s total damage; 100% damage.” About 80% of the community’s residents depend on fishing for a living and many of the fishing boats were damaged by the storm. For more detail, see CNN, FT, and Wikipedia.
It was a hectic trip for Stella; after her final performance in Australia on September 7, she flew to Manila to start rehearsals with the company September 9. Taking a break from rehearsals on September 14, she took an overnight trip, flying from Manila to Tacloban, then driving three hours to Guiuan to visit a school supported by her charity. After the visit, a drive back to Tacloban with a tour of the city the next day. Then back to Manila for three more days of rehearsal, culminating in the September 19 performance with ABT Principal Dancer James Whiteside.
The school that Stella is helping is the Ngolos school in Guiuan, pictured above. The school is being rebuilt by Operation USA and Honeywell, and will be furnished and supplied by partners including Stella’s charity. Stella’s charity has raised $18,000 to purchase items such as desk/bench combos, chalkboards, textbooks, audio-visual equipment, and computers. Many of the donations were from her ABT colleagues and the dance world. Steps Forward for the Philippines is taking donations up to November 15 before school opens. Click here for more information on Steps Forward.
“I visited the school construction site in Guiuan that Steps Forward for the Philippines is helping to supply,” Stella said. “When I arrived, about 30 kids greeted me, each carrying a sign printed with an individual letter that together spelled out ‘WELCOME MISS STELLA!!!’ It was one of sweetest things I have ever experienced. I was moved and humbled, and couldn’t help but become emotional. The kids proudly showed me around the site and after the tour, I gave out some fun school and art supplies I had purchased in Manila. Then I met the principal, a teacher, and a local husband-wife team who have been working with the school and the kids since the storm.”
“As we drove from Guiuan to Tacloban, I saw people all along the road dragging scrap metal for use in building and repairing their homes. There were long stretches of cement roads that had been washed away, and tall tree trunks with no branches—just leaves up at the top of the tree. I saw children playing by the road and fishermen working or taking swim breaks. There is so much natural beauty there amid the destruction. It is a tropical paradise—with pristine white-sand beaches ringed by coconut trees and spectacular rock outcroppings.”
“Evidence of the typhoon’s ravages was everywhere in Tocloban, as well. Enormous ships that had surged onto the island and crushed many people still sat in the middle of shanty villages. There was a once-beautiful 5-star hotel, struggling to rebuild. The hotel’s terrace stood several stories above sea level, but its flower boxes were lined with seashells. Many of the island’s largest structures were still mangled. As in Guiuan, galvanized steel shanties and tarps with NGO names on them were everywhere. There were mass graves with markers that listed entire families—huge families, a dozen members lost to one storm,” Stella said.
After her tour of Guiuan and Tacloban, Stella went back to Manila for rehearsals and the September 19 performance.
“The performance of Giselle with Ballet Philippines was my debut of the role, and I had a wonderful experience. There was a lot of press and positive anticipation surrounding the show. Everyone seemed excited to see ABT dancers, and I was proudly embraced as a fellow Filipina. The audience was kind and appreciative in their ovations during the show.”
ABT Principal Dancer James Whiteside was Count Albrecht, the male lead. “James is a very strong and giving partner, both technically and artistically; I was at ease with our partnership and felt the freedom to really focus on telling the story.”
However, the show was almost cancelled; on the day of the show, Typhoon Mario hit Manila and caused much flooding and power outages throughout the city.
Jude Bautista has excellent coverage of the event (click the above photo for his website):
Parts of the city had already lost power as safety precaution against the floods. The lobby lights and air-conditioning had to be sacrificed for electricity on the stage. She assured me it was all systems go for the Giselle performance although the Phil Philharmonic Orchestra would not be there. Ballet Philippines President Margie Moran insisted the ‘show must go on’. There was a palpable anxiety even as people trickled in. The winds had somewhat died down but the rain was still pouring.
Sections of Metropolitan Manila had already been inundated since yesterday. Classes, government offices had all been cancelled. The widely anticipated NAKED TRUTH fashion show by BENCH very wisely rescheduled their mega event. BP did not have that luxury as lead stars Stella Abrera and James Whiteside were due to catch a flight back to the U.S. the very next day. It was this stormy, windy, terrible night or Abrera will not be able to perform in her country of birth any time soon. The American Ballet Theater soloist who had carved out a successful career abroad very graciously agreed to perform here. Abrera & Whiteside had to go back to similarly urgent and important rehearsals and shows there.
The show went on without the live orchestra. After the performance, Stella took a long flight back to New York, just in time for rehearsals for ABT’s Chicago performances.