How Skylar Brandt Became One of the Youngest Principals at American Ballet Theatre
Skylar Brandt stands deep in concentration, all five feet, three inches of her, as her body prepares to take flight. The curtains rise, and she glides nimbly on to the stage with graceful sylph-like movements, arms widely stretched out. Once she slowly lifts her gaze, her supple body responds intuitively to the music executing a string of sharp piqué turns. There is elegance and control in Brandt’s leaps that have amplitude, despite the demanding technicalities of the choreography. Tonight, Brandt is Giselle, the tragic heroine who falls hopelessly in love with the philandering Count Albrecht and eventually saves him from death.
Her electrifying debut as the titular character of the ballet-pantomime illustrates the qualities that make Brandt such an enrapturing dancer. Dazzling footwork aside, Brandt portrays a range of emotions: part equanimity, part deep, aching melancholy, which makes her interpretation of this iconic role a gratifying experience for the spectator.
Like professional athletes, the precise synchronicities required when transitioning from a glissade into an explosive grand jeté takes years to acquire. And Brandt has spent practically her entire life perfecting it. At eight, she already had her heart set on becoming a principal dancer with the prestigious American Ballet Theatre. Two years later, she danced Paquita and went on to spend five summers at ABT’s New York Summer Intensive programme honing her terpsichorean talents. From 2006 to 2009, she was a National Training Scholar at the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at ABT, and received the Bender Foundation Scholarship in 2009. That same year, she joined the ABT Studio Company, where she subsequently rose up the ranks and earned the coveted position of principal last year.
At 28, the newly minted star is at the zenith of her career, yet has an incessant drive to delve into new roles that showcase her versatility, well-honed techniques and artistic prowess. While the demands of ballet can be rigorous, Brandt manages to keep an active social media presence, giving fans an intimate snapshot of her life both off– and onstage. Earlier in May, Brandt made her “Swan Lake” debut with Boca Ballet Theatre, so we caught up with her to talk about her training, what it takes to succeed as a professional dancer and the cost of artistic perfection.
High Net Worth: Since the tender age of eight, you had set your sights on being in the American Ballet Theatre. What inspired that dream?
Skylar Brandt: I’m originally from New York, and grew up with the privilege of watching ABT performances. I fell in love with ballet and all it entailed, including the music, costumes, characters and stories. I thought that having an occupation where adults played dress up and told stories with their bodies sounded like the most amazing career path. However, I quickly discovered how difficult ballet was. Since I’ve always liked a good challenge, it made me more determined to achieve my goals.
Were there any dance artists who have had a heavy influence on your life?
Irina Dvorovenko, Angel Corella, Nina Ananiashvili and Marcelo Gomes from ABT. They all have the ability to tell a story and move me emotionally, which is something I wish to possess as well. Now, I’m so fortunate to be working closely with Irina Dvorovenko and Maxim Beloserkovsky as my private coaches, who guide me in reaching my own artistic standards and instilling the qualities that I’ve admired in them.
If you weren’t dancing ballet, which genre would you be doing? We hear that hip hop holds a special place in your heart.
I do love hip hop and try to take classes as much as possible, though I’m not great at it. My sister was a hip hop dancer for the Knicks basketball team and I always wished I could move as coolly as she can. The works of Parris Goebel also inspire me and I could watch her choreography again and again. I’m also jealous of the dancers in Nederlands Dans Theater or Batsheva Dance Company who are able to move their bodies in such extreme and seemingly impossible ways. If I weren’t dancing ballet, I would aspire to be in either NDT or Batsheva, or performing their works.
Image credit: Nisian
At the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, you worked hard to mould your technique and body to the ABT ideal. What does that encompass?
ABT looks for strong dancers with clean techniques and clear musicality who are open to learning. At the JKO School, we took a variety of classes including regular technique classes in French, Italian and Bournonville styles, pilates, variations, character and modern. It was important for us to be well rounded and exposed to different types of dance. Seeing as ABT has varying styles in its repertoire, dancers must be able to adapt. And studying at the JKO School prepared me for that.
Do you think that is a realistic standard for most dancers or should ballerinas be free to express themselves in whichever way they like?
I think that the two go hand in hand! It is always a good thing to be versatile, and with versatility comes freedom of expression. The more a dancer is able to adapt to various styles, the better, as it will provide more opportunities for different choreographers to work with you.
What does it take to succeed professionally and commercially as a ballerina?
You need a strong work ethic and a clear mind to succeed professionally and commercially as a ballerina. In my opinion, the work in the studio is number one. It is easy to get sidetracked by Instagram and other social media engagements, and while they are important and can bring in a fair amount of additional income, the drive to continuously improve one’s technique and artistry is what pushes a dancer forward.
As ballet dancers, we are almost entirely responsible for ourselves and our work. So, a level-headed mind and clear priorities should guarantee continued success, but what makes you happy is also important. I feel that if the quality of the dancer’s work is good, commercial success will follow—on top of being able to communicate well, read contracts and make smart branding decisions. Personally, I try to remain as true to myself onstage and off.
Image credit: Nisian
Can you describe your creative process when preparing for a role?
I like to focus on the bare structure of a role first by learning the steps and working on the aesthetic with my coaches. Next, I try to coordinate my body with the movements and work out all the technical details. Once I begin feeling more comfortable, I focus on the artistic points of the character. I examine what my face is doing and every other small detail, from the placement of my fingertips to the way I use my eyelashes. Preparing for a new role is all-consuming. There is a lot of research involved like watching videos of other renowned dancers in the same role as well as analysing videos of myself in the developmental stages. Often, there comes a time when I must let go of the rigidity of the technique to make space for artistic interpretation, so as not to look too coached or academic. The most fun part of the process is when I can start to play with a character and add my own voice to whatever I’m trying to express with a given piece of choreography. If I’m reprising a role, the rehearsal process is much faster.
You landed your first full-length principal role, Medora in “Le Corsaire,” after subbing for Misty Copeland. Was there any fear people might regard you as merely a stand-in?
I had no fear going into my premiere of Medora. I was given just a few days’ notice that I would be dancing on the opening night and only had the weekend to learn the entire three-act ballet. There were no huge expectations placed on me as the circumstances to prepare were less than ideal because I was jumping in to save the day. Aside from the pressure I placed on myself to do well, I was just pumped to be filling in for the performance. It was an awesome feat to be able to learn the choreography so quickly.
How much does musicality play into your performance?
I rely heavily on music to inform my dancing. Especially in more abstract pieces, music guides me to discover what I should be feeling, how I should be emoting and the way in which I should be interpreting the choreography. If anything, I feel a huge responsibility to live up to some of the most incredible classical scores in history. Dancing to music is one of my favourite things about being a ballerina. The marriage between music and dance can be so special and impactful if the two are in perfect harmony.
You were promoted to principal dancer at ABT during a Zoom meeting last September, which is the ultimate accomplishment. What were the contributing factors to your rise to the top?
Over the last several years, I’ve had the opportunity to dance many principal roles, filling in for injured dancers which have allowed me to gain more experience and demonstrate my abilities as a ballerina. But I believe the pivotal moment that led to my promotion was my debut in “Giselle.” I have always been cast in more upbeat, spritely and technical roles, but the multi-dimensional qualities of Giselle provided a departure from roles of that nature. I was given the chance to showcase my versatility with this performance, so I think my director may have realised that I was capable of more than he originally thought.
You also made your “Swan Lake” debut in the middle of a pandemic. How did you feel about that entire experience?
It was surreal to think that I made such an iconic debut in the middle of a pandemic. “Swan Lake” is a ballet that I had not envisioned myself dancing, so it felt like a monumental challenge to begin tackling the role. I had not performed a full-length ballet for over a year and wasn’t sure if I had enough performance stamina. Despite being aware of all of this, I prepared myself for the role with the help of my coaches Irina and Max. I felt a lot of anticipation knowing that not only would there be a live audience at the theatre, but that it would be live-streamed all over the world. I wanted so badly to do well and was very emotional and relieved after the first performance was over. I’m immensely grateful for the chance to have made my Odette/Odile debut with Boca Ballet Theatre and hope to be able to perform it again at ABT or elsewhere in the near future.
As they say, art often imitates life. What is the difference between Skylar Brandt onstage and off?
Every time I perform, I transform into a different character or creature depending on the ballet. I become larger and more expressive both physically and emotionally. You can’t hide anything when you are performing; you are quite literally bearing your soul to the audience. While I am able to play all different kinds of characters from swans to princesses to villains, the core of my being remains the same. Oftentimes, I meet people at the stage door and they comment on how much smaller I am in real life. People don’t know that I tend to be goofy and silly at home, which is a departure from the serious artist I strive to be onstage.
Image credit: Nisian
Is it difficult being a perfectionist like yourself?
I hold myself to such high standards and it can be difficult when I feel like I’m not doing my best. My mood and confidence get greatly affected. For example, when I’m unhappy with a performance, I can get really down on myself to the point where I feel mortified. This sometimes ruins my experience, but I hope that over time, these extreme feelings will fade.
What, in your opinion, is the cost of artistic perfection?
There is so much sacrifice that is required of dancers to achieve any kind of artistic success. I don’t even think the word “perfection” is accurate as perfection in ballet seems unattainable. But from a young age, I had to give up many things (like sleepovers, birthday parties) to pursue ballet. I was often exempted from P.E. because I didn’t want to risk hurting myself. I also refrained from skiing or doing any hazardous activities. I moved from my childhood home to train in New York City, and put my training first over my social life. Even now, I often have to make sacrifices to accommodate my career, but I love ballet so much. When I go to classes or rehearsals, it doesn’t feel like work. I know how lucky I am, as most people can’t say that they’re so passionate about what they do.
Do you have to be strict with your diet all year round? People have the impression that dancers have to be pin-thin.
Contrary to popular belief, there is a wide range of body types in ballet. I eat everything, but I try to be healthier during intense performance seasons to ensure top performance. Dessert is still my favourite meal of the day. With everything that we as dancers burn off while we train and perform, I always find room to enjoy cookies or ice cream.
Hero image credit: Paulo Garcia