The Single-Minded Drive of ABT Principal Skylar Brandt
American Ballet Theatre typically schedules a long layoff after its marathon season at the Metropolitan Opera House, a moment for its tired artists to breathe. But Skylar Brandt doesn’t really do downtime.
After moving out of the Met’s basement dressing rooms each July, she books sessions with her coaches, the former ABT stars Irina Dvorovenko and Maxim Beloserkovsky; finds a willing partner (“I usually go for the younger guys,” Brandt says, “who don’t mind lifting on repeat”); and heads back to the studio. It’s time to rehearse the principal roles she might be considered for the following season.
“Everyone else is on the sofa eating bagels,” Dvorovenko says, “and she’s with us two to three hours every day for weeks. ‘Let’s do Swan Lake for fun! Let’s do Corsaire for fun!’ ”
Brandt’s single-mindedness powers a prodigious technique. Her followers on Instagram and TikTok know the impossible solidity of her balance, the ease with which she can sail through six (or seven, or eight) pirouettes. She performs with an assurance rooted in her exhaustive preparation. Onstage, she is all sparkle and brilliance, every facet honed and polished. “Her security and confidence out there give you a sense of peace,” says friend and fellow ABT dancer Connor Holloway.
Of course, there was no Met season last year. There won’t be one this year, either. But Brandt, who achieved principal-dancer status during a Zoom meeting last September, hasn’t eased up during quarantine. Though ABT has only partially returned to its studios, Brandt’s coaching sessions with Dvorovenko and Beloserkovsky have continued (they’ve formed a COVID-19 “microbubble”). Preparing for hypothetical future performances is familiar territory for her.
Brandt, a native of Westchester County, New York, grew up around ABT. Her parents took her and her two older sisters to theater, music and dance performances of all kinds; ABT’s story ballets captured her imagination. “I was sold on the music, the costumes, the story lines, the dancing,” she says, adding that she was awed by stars like Dvorovenko, Julie Kent, Nina Ananiashvili and Angel Corella.
She began training at Scarsdale Ballet Studio and went on to study independently with Valentina Kozlova, Fabrice Herrault and Susan Jaffe. By age 12, she’d enrolled at ABT’s then–brand-new Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School. “I knew I wanted to be in ABT, and I figured, if you want to be in ABT, you go to ABT,” she says. “You want them to put their print on you.”
Brandt’s drive was evident from the beginning. “Even when I first met her as a student—she was a little bit of a thing, this butterfly in the classroom—she was always alert, very serious, very hardworking,” says ABT director of repertoire Nancy Raffa. At JKO, Brandt molded her body and technique to the ABT ideal.
“I had a lot of natural coordination, but as far as legs, feet, extensions—I really had to work on all of that,” she says. “That’s partly where the work ethic comes from: If I stop, a lot of these things will just leave my body.”
Her hard work carried her steadily upward. In 2009, at age 16, Brandt joined ABT II (now the ABT Studio Company). The following year, she earned an apprenticeship with the main company, and in 2011 she joined the corps de ballet. Strong, reliable and hungry, she was soon dancing soloist and even occasional principal roles on top of her corps workload. It was, she says, exhilarating, and exhausting.
She felt a rush of relief after her promotion to soloist in 2015. Free of corps duties, performing just a few times a week, she found herself with an ample—and, then, disorienting—amount of free time. “It was great, for a little bit,” she says. “Then I realized I needed to work more on my own to remain fulfilled.”
Brandt amped up her private coaching sessions, beginning to rehearse more regularly with Dvorovenko and Beloserkovsky. Eager for challenge, she wanted to learn all the classic ballerina roles, not just the twinkly soubrette parts she’d already begun to perform. “I figured I’d prepare everything, and then hope that I got to dance it,” she says.
The company’s artistic staff took notice. “I remember a period where she’d be sitting up against the mirror in front of the studio, fully erect, watching rehearsal,” Holloway says, “and every once in a while a rehearsal director would say, ‘Hey, Sky, can you jump in and try this impossible role?’ And she’d stand up so calmly, somehow be fully warm, and know every count.”
Artistic director Kevin McKenzie began asking Brandt to sub for injured principals with some regularity. Her first full-length principal role, Medora in Le Corsaire, came that way. “I love pressure,” she says. “And it’s exciting to introduce yourself to an audience that thought they were going to see, like, Maria Kochetkova. They have no idea what to expect from this little soloist.”
That said, nobody aspires to be a pinch hitter. And Brandt felt uneasy about that reputation, not wanting to develop a career based on others’ misfortunes. She began to push for official chances at the types of roles she’d been getting secondhand. “I never want to be the squeaky wheel—I want the work to speak for itself,” Brandt says. “But I realized that being candid about what you want can also earn you respect. I told Kevin, ‘You know, I’m going to have to come in here and squeak on occasion.’ ”
At the end of the 2019 Met season, McKenzie mentioned Giselle as a possible upcoming opportunity. Brandt began preparing the role with Dvorovenko and Beloserkovsky. They first addressed Giselle‘s technical challenges—the second-act adagio, with its exposed lines, felt out of Brandt’s wheelhouse—and then dissected it artistically. “There’d be a level of vulnerability missing in one moment, and Irina and Max would say, ‘Angle your head just a little more, like, 10 past 12 on a clock,’ ” Brandt remembers. “It was that specific, and that’s exactly what I need.”
After returning from the post-Met layoff, Brandt checked in with McKenzie, who implied that Giselle was no longer a possibility for her. But she saw a “TBA” on the casting calendar for a February performance at the Kennedy Center. She inquired about it and asked for consideration. “I just wasn’t going to take ‘no’ for an answer this time,” she says.
Ultimately, Brandt got two shows of Giselle: the date she’d asked about, and another one three days earlier—subbing, in typical fashion, for an injured principal. Raffa was deeply impressed by Brandt’s distinctive interpretation. “Skylar really had something to say about the role, a unique way of showing quality and not just quantity on the stage,” Raffa says.
Fresh off her Giselle triumph, Brandt was preparing to debut Aurora in Alexei Ratmansky’s The Sleeping Beauty when the world screeched to a halt in March. She moved back home, riding out the pandemic’s early months at her parents’ house in Westchester.
One very Skylar way to use downtime: attending Harvard Business School. Early in quarantine, Brandt completed the school’s Crossover Into Business program, which pairs athletes with MBA student mentors for a semester. She’s since continued working independently with her HBS mentors. “The business side is such an important part of dance,” she says. “These days, every ballet dancer is expected to be a brand, which means they’re essentially a businessperson.”
Brandt sees, clear-eyed, Instagram and TikTok as the branding tools they’ve become. “Social media is such a weird, narcissistic thing, but I get that it’s also necessary and ordinary these days,” she says. “And it’s a world stage.” Leery of dance Instagram’s obsession with perfection, she often shares posts showcasing her goofball sense of humor—at odds with her serious studio persona, but true to her off-duty self.
“She’s so vibrant and funny, which tends to come out in what she’s wearing,” Holloway says. “She’s always the one in the goofy leotard. She has this pig purse she carries that’s woven plastic with pearls, which is the most Skylar thing.”
Brandt credits her family for her ability to be deadly serious about her work but not herself. Close-knit, well-grounded, a little bit madcap, they remain fixtures in her life. Her parents, just a train ride away from New York City, have become surrogate relations to ABT dancers who are far from home. “We’ll go out to a really nice restaurant, and her mom will bring stick-on fuzzy mustaches that we all wear through dinner,” Holloway says. “That’s very much the Brandt brand.”
Brandt is aware that most ballet hopefuls don’t have supportive families with large homes in Westchester. Her understanding of her own privilege, she says, is one of the engines driving her work ethic: She was given advantages—endless private classes, a cultured childhood in New York—that she dares not squander.
During the pandemic, she has reflected on the other ways privilege has shaped her life. Following the death of George Floyd, ABT hosted diversity, equity and inclusion training sessions, in which company artists of color shared their experiences. “I’ve always been so uber-focused on my own growth and development,” Brandt says. “Now I’m more aware of the extent of the trials and struggles that others have gone through. It can’t just be about my work. It’s got to be about everyone in this collective.”
At the end of last summer, as ABT grappled with both an overdue racial reckoning and a protracted pandemic, Brandt assumed promotions were off the table. Becoming a principal was both a happy and a strange surprise. “It was this thrilling moment: I achieved my childhood dream, everyone’s screaming into the Zoom screen,” she says of the announcement. “And then there was this feeling of, Well, now I want to get out there onstage! I want to grow in these new shoes! And I can’t yet.”
Once ABT resumes performances, Brandt hopes to start checking roles off her dream list: Kitri in Don Quixote, Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, Odette/Odile in Swan Lake. “We’ve been working recently on Swan Lake, trying to find different colors within the white and the black,” Dvorovenko says. “She naturally projects light. Now we’re looking for the depth, for the darker parts.”
In some ways, the promotion has only pushed Brandt to work harder. “If I wasn’t intense before, now I’m really hyper-focused,” she says, with a laugh, “because it feels like it’s all within reach.” But as a principal, she can also breathe a little easier, having reached the top of the mountain she’s been climbing for a decade and a half. “My goal, once we’re back, is to feel freer to let go onstage as I grow into these roles,” she says. “I want to relish it all a little more.”