On the Importance of Hard Work, Self Advocation, and Having Fun: An Interview With Skylar Brandt

Skylar Brandt has been part of the American Ballet Theater troupe for a full decade now – with her upcoming hard-earned debut in the role of Giselle this fall in mind, we chatted with the young artist about her childhood, the importance of personal branding, and the ubiquity of dance videos on social media.

Mordents Magazine: Hello Skylar, how are you? What are you doing these days?

Skylar Brandt: I’ve been very emotional these days! I am currently in my last week of rehearsals before the opening of my Fall Season with American Ballet Theatre. It has been about 18 months since the company has last performed, so I am filled with excitement, joy, nerves, and anticipation. I find myself crying of happiness and gratitude at random points of the day. I am thrilled to be making my New York debut in the iconic role “Giselle” and have been dedicating almost every second of my days and nights to rehearsing and perfecting the role.

Photo by Arthur Elgort

MM: 2020 marked a full decade since you first began dancing for the American Ballet Theatre. Can you remember the first time you went to an A.B.T. performance?

SB: Being from New York, I was so fortunate to have attended many ABT performances as a child. I cannot say which was my very first, but I remember treasuring each time I went to the Metropolitan Opera House to watch. I would dance around the famous fountain at Lincoln Center Plaza before and after each show, and I would enjoy getting little candies and “Orangina’s” at the concession. I peered into the orchestra pit with amazement at the sheer number of musicians, and I would lay back in my seat and watch the chandeliers rise just before the curtain went up. Everything was magical at the ballet.

MM: You’ve had a childhood rich with activities and pursuits of all kinds of interests, even apart from dance classes: Philharmonic concerts, Broadway performances, soccer and tennis practice, piano lessons… It’s obvious dance was your most favorite of all these activities – but what was your least fun childhood pastime?

SB: I must say, if I wasn’t dancing, all other activities bored and frustrated me. All I wanted to do was dance. On my first day at soccer camp, a boy kicked the ball so hard into my stomach, it knocked the wind out of me. When I was on the tennis court, I was annoyed that the racquet was so heavy in my hands and that I couldn’t see over the net, let alone hit the ball in. In order to get out of taking piano lessons, I told my mom that I required long, slender fingers for ballet and that I did not want to build the muscle in my hands and arms necessary to play the instrument. I truly wanted to focus all the attention on my ballet. However, attending the philharmonic and other types of shows complimented my desire to learn more about the performing arts.

MM: Representing a new generation of ballet dancers, you’re not afraid to branch out and take up new challenges aside from the ones set to you on the theater stage. For example, you’ve taken part in “Big Ballet”, a Russian dance competition show. It’s hard to imagine any other country in the world that would produce a competitive TV show centered solely on ballet – how do you compare Russia’s reverence for this art form to the way it’s treated in the USA?

SB: When I agreed to participate in “Big Ballet”, I knew that meant that the stakes would be high. Seeing as ballet is so incredibly respected in Russia, I was both excited and nervous about the prospect of appearing in front of millions of critical ballet aficionados. But it was also because of this reason that I wanted to take the opportunity. It was so lovely to be in an environment where ballet is so revered and understood, unlike how it is in the States where ballet dancers are often confused with Broadway performers or are asked what their real jobs are. It is a privilege to dance in a city like New York where there is a large awareness of arts and culture, but I can’t say that this is true of most of the United States, at least to the degree that it is valued in many other parts of the world. I hope that with time and exposure, this will change.

MM: You’ve previously mentioned the importance of personal branding for artists today – what would be some hallmarks of the Skylar Brandt brand?

SB: I try to share the most honest and real parts of myself and my life’s work with my audiences. I really value authenticity and honesty, and therefore, I try to project that. From what I gather from those who follow my journey and career and are so thoughtful to write to me, I think that some of my hallmarks include hard work, self-advocating, and of course, having fun in the process.

MM: You’re active on both Instagram and TikTok, filming your daily practice sessions and short, fun routines. Considering that dance videos represent some of the most popular content on these platforms, do you think they can serve as a way to popularize ballet with a broader audience? Do you see a difference between popularization and bastardization?

SB: I actually find it kind of nice to see how many people (nonprofessionals included) are posting dance routines, as it demonstrates how dance is becoming more mainstream. Of course, there is a definitive difference between most dances we see on TikTok and other content produced by professional ballet dancers and dancers of other styles, but in my opinion, the fact that dance is being celebrated at all is wonderful. I wish that ballet garnered hundreds of millions of views like some of the TikTok trends do, but I can also appreciate the simple fact that ballet does not appeal to everyone.

Photo by Michael Cairns

MM: Many ballet dancers in the past, due to the rigidness of the repertoire in general, have spent their whole careers without ever originating a role. You, however, have created several! How does the process of debuting a role in a new ballet differ from playing an established character or taking part in an already famous routine/work?

Photo by Nisian

SB: The two processes are so varied, but they are both special in their own ways. When I work with a choreographer on a brand new piece, it is akin to a seamstress making a hand-tailored garment. Each step is created on the dancer from scratch, so the choreography usually lends itself to the dancer’s strengths and personality. It is wonderful to begin something new, as choreographers are usually open to the dancer’s input as well, so creating a new work becomes a highly collaborative process. It can also be challenging, though, when a choreographer is using the dancer’s body as their canvas. Repetition of new and different types of steps can be painful and tedious. Someone short and tiny like myself may often be asked to do scary lifts or partnering that could end in disastrous ways. A choreographer might invest much time into sections of choreography that ends up getting scrapped at the end of the day. It can be very exhausting but also rewarding to be a part of new works for these reasons. Established works and characters require a slightly different process. I find that there is more research involved in learning an already created work. There are usually wonderful artists that have interpreted the role before and so there is so much that can be gathered from watching and learning from dancers of the past (and present). The process becomes more about how to make the role your own as opposed to trying to navigate the role for the first time in history. I also find peace of mind knowing that already established works have proven to be physically possible, as I know for a fact that dancers have done the steps before I have!

MM: Being a principal dancer, you are awarded with numerous challenging solos, but the importance of duets can never be understated. What are the qualities a great dance partner must have, and which collaborations do you especially hold dear?

SB: As with any relationship, communication in pas de deux work is key. I find that when a partner is open and willing to listen and to also provide their own feedback, it makes for a recipe for success. There must also be chemistry in a partnership and that is not always easy to come by. I have been so lucky to have danced with so many incredible partners over the years, it is hard to pinpoint which ones have been most special. However, I am always honored to dance with artists who are older than me and have more experience than I. I always have something to learn from being onstage them, even when that something is not explicitly said. Of course, I also enjoy dancing with my closest friends because my existing bonds outside of the studio only strengthen my partnerships inside of the studio and onstage.

MM: During quarantine, you started giving out dance lessons online. What are the challenges, and what are the rewards of teaching ballet by way of the screen?

SB: The wonderful thing about teaching online is that I am able to connect with people all over the world. I have worked with students from Singapore to India, Israel to Indonesia, England to France, the list goes on. It is typically a fun challenge to figure out how to accommodate the time differences. But in all seriousness, it gives me a really nice feeling to be able to meet people I likely would never have the chance to meet and connect with otherwise. The challenge of teaching by way of the screen is the inability to be as hands on as I’d like to be. This said, I try my best to be articulate in my explanations of each correction and to demonstrate fully as much as I can to make the information as understandable as possible.

MM: After your upcoming performances this October in Giselle and Some Assembly Required (and of course, the obligatory staging of The Nutcracker in the holiday season), is there something new and exciting you’ll be working on for next year, and that you can share with us?

SB: I will be making a few special debuts with ABT that I cannot share quite yet but that I am ecstatic about… I will also be returning to Australia in January for a series of seven performances, so I am really looking forward to that.

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