COVER STORY : SKYLAR BRANDT

Stories in the Spotlight : The Art of Ballet Dance

Skylar Brandt was born in Westchester, New York and began her training at the age of six at Scarsdale Ballet Studio. She attended the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at American Ballet Theatre from 2005-2009. Brandt spent five summers at ABT’s New York Summer Intensive, was a National Training Scholar from 2006-2009 and also received the Bender Foundation Scholarship in 2009. She was a silver medalist at Youth America Grand Prix in 2004 and 2008. Brandt joined ABT II in 2009, became an Apprentice with American Ballet Theatre in 2010, and joined the Corps de Ballet in 2011. She was promoted to Soloist in 2015 and to Principal in 2020. Brandt was awarded a 2013 Princess Grace Foundation-USA Dance Fellowship. That same year, she was featured in the film Ballet’s Greatest Hits.


In 2018, Brandt was the recipient of an unprecedented Special Jury Award for her performances on the Russian television show “Big Ballet.” In 2022, Brandt was named to the Forbes “30 Under 30” list of influential leaders and entrepreneurs. Her journey is a powerful one, blended with magic, perseverance, and true passion for her craft.


Walk us through your journey into becoming one of the most renown ballet dancers in the world?

I decided at the age of eight years old that I would become a professional ballerina. My passion and drive for ballet were unwavering. It surprised my parents to see how serious I was about pursuing the art form. In an effort to expose me to other pursuits, they engaged me in all kinds of activities (tennis, soccer, piano, etc) before allowing me to make the monumental decision of training for this career. Eventually, my parents realized that my one and only true passion was ballet and allowed me to dedicate myself to it exclusively. As most young dancers do, I made many sacrifices in order to follow my dreams. But because I loved what I was doing, they did not feel like sacrifices at all. I thrived in the studio, accepting each new challenge with the same excitement one might see in a child receiving a present. This isn’t to say that I didn’t experience burn out from time to time, but that feeling never lasted more than a few days.


When I was at dance I felt alive, fulfilled and most importantly, understood. As a child who was bullied at elementary school for being so different, I found comfort and solace in dance studios. At the age of sixteen I became a professional ballet dancer. I
worked my way up the ranks of the world renowned ballet company, American Ballet Theatre, until I was promoted to Principal Dancer in 2020, its highest ranking level. That moment was incredible. It was really the eight year old child in me that accomplished this. I had absolutely zero doubt in my young mind that I would become a ballerina. It was simple. There was no other option. I was going to make it and so I did. Although my decision was simple, my journey entailed countless hours, days, months and years of arduous work and singleminded determination. I attribute so much of my success to my family and teachers. They helped me every literal step of the way and I know that without them, I wouldn’t have been able to dream so big. I’ll always remember that and try to honor their support by working as hard as possible each and every day I am practicing my art form.

 


What is your greatest strength?

I think that my greatest strength also accounts for one of my greatest weaknesses. I have an enormous ability to take criticism and feedback, a quality that is imperative to any professional wanting to advance in their field. But because of this I often question and doubt myself which, although stressful, is necessary for self improvement. Ultimately, when I experience and actually see my own growth, it gives me greater confidence to go onstage and in turn, more joy in doing so.

Did you have a mentor in the field growing up, and if not, any idols you looked up to?

Being from New York, I grew up watching some of the world’s greatest dancers of American Ballet Theatre, the company I would later go on to join. I was fortunate to have been exposed to their live performances which were awesome and inspiring. I was also at the beginning of the YouTube generation and would get lost in rabbit holes of ballet, watching artists who I would not otherwise have had the opportunity to see in person. But the one person upon whom I heavily relied (and still do) for advice and mentorship was Larissa Saveliev, founder of the international ballet competition, Youth America Grand Prix. As a young dancer with no prior experience or background in the industry, I needed help and advice throughout my journey. Larissa was able to guide me and countless other dancers along our ways to becoming professional by sharing her wisdom and insights. Even today, I and others often call her for advice. She is always committed to doing whatever she can to help dancers.


What has made you consistent, and persevere through the arduous tasks that come with perfecting this skill?

Hands down, my support system. That system includes everyone from my family to my coaches to my community of peers and audience members. As mentioned before, I will be forever indebted to my family for believing and trusting in me as I continue
not only dancing but tackling everything in life that comes my way. I feel particularly lucky to have met my teachers Irina Dvorovenko and Maxim Beloserkovsky, both ex-Principals with ABT. We have built the most special kind of relationship in the last several years and I place great trust in them. Irina and Max are two of the most skilled instructors with whom I have ever had the pleasure of working, not to mention the fact that they were among my idols growing up. I would not be in the position I am today without them. I call them my ballet mom and dad because they are so much more than just my coaches.

Also, I have the good fortune to work in an environment that fosters the cultivation of close friendships. Rather than an atmosphere that breeds antagonism and animosity, the dynamic at ABT is akin to a tightly knit family. This makes it a pleasure to go to work everyday. I am always able to go to my colleagues for help, be it with clarification of steps and musicality or extra corrections and tips.

Lastly, I must say that the energy from a supportive audience can lift me up and carry me through an entire three or four act ballet. I don’t take this for granted. The lovely and thoughtful feedback I receive from fans near and far has the power to motivate, push and inspire me to be better everyday. Instagram friends and ballet goers do more for me than they even realize.


What inspires you?

Storytelling is inspiring. There is nothing quite as exhilarating as going onstage as a different character or creature and telling a compelling story. This experience provides an escape from the regularity of everyday life. It is often transcendental for artist and audience alike. This aspect of ballet is the primary reason I was inspired to pursue it full time. When I attended the ballet as a child, I saw onstage what I was already doing in the privacy of my own home…playing dress up and using my imagination to create stories. I thought to myself that if I could do that as an adult on a larger scale with full production value and gorgeous music, it would be the best career in the world. And that it is.


What has been the hardest part of your journey which has aligned as well with your biggest lesson?

Being my own self-advocate. Speaking up for myself has always felt tricky. To start, ballet culture has historically been one of obedience, diligence and even silence. It is ingrained in dancers to follow orders quite rigidly, to do what we are told without
hesitation. Not using our voices inside of the studio can subconsciously influence our behavior outside of the studio. But additionally, the humility that comes with the territory has made it particularly hard to acknowledge and fight for my own self
worth. In turn, I have been reluctant to advocate for myself, especially when I feel gratitude for being able to do what I love, a rarity that I appreciate every day. But after many years, I realized that one does not preclude the other and that even when I put in hard work, am a team player and perform consistently, it isn’t always enough. In a large pool of gifted dancers, I found that I had to be a bit of a squeaky wheel in order to be heard. I still struggle with this today since it really isn’t in my nature to push and make demands.

However, politics and personal preferences exist in every workplace, so if I do not advocate for myself, who will? Though I am encouraged and supported by those around me, I realize that there are times when effective change can only be made
by using my own voice. I’m still trying to navigate how to stay true to my collaborative and non-confrontational nature while at the same time advocating for myself when necessary…it’s a work in progress.


How many hours a day do you rehearse your craft?

It depends, but during ABT’s busiest seasons, I can be dancing from ten o’clock in the morning (when our warm- up class begins) until eleven o’clock at night (when the curtain of a performance comes down) with just a few short breaks throughout my day. My schedule keeps me on my toes. For example, a one hour rehearsal of Swan Lake could be followed by a thirty minute rehearsal of Don Quixote which might then be followed by a full cast call for a new creation, and so on. Unlike a Broadway show, which remains the same for the duration of its run, ABT presents several different
productions a year with those productions changing from season to season. The schedule is very intense, but it also keeps life interesting.


Tell us about what’s coming up next in your world currently? Any shows, projects…

I will continue to perform year round, both with American Ballet Theatre and also internationally on a personal invitation basis. I really adore traveling the world. It gives me a chance to connect with fans and audience members who are unable to attend my New York performances and to work with other superb dancers outside of those at ABT. Shows aside, I have been collaborating with my sister Taylor on a different projects. She is a photographer and I have been one of her subjects ever since she picked up a camera. We have been releasing her work of me through different mediums which has been both fun and rewarding. I am also getting more involved in the Forbes community. As one of this year’s 30 under 30 list for Arts and Style, I’ve participated in events and opportunities that Forbes organizes and presents. I look forward to sharing my experiences with and learning from others who have also been recognized in this space.


Where would you like to see yourself and your career in 5 years? 10 years?

Upon being promoted to Principal Dancer, I immediately felt the weight of responsibility to uphold the level of excellence displayed by those legendary artists who came before me. So, I work relentlessly to refine my technique and artistry in order to
fill their shoes. In addition to exploring the nuances of those ballets which I have already performed, in five years I hope to have made many more debuts in iconic ballets. I would also like to work with the leading contemporary and modern
choreographers of our time. In ten years, I hope that I will have continued to be of service to the next generation of dancers. I began teaching over the pandemic and really enjoyed the feeling of being able to make a meaningful impact. I am enthusiastic
about sharing with other dancers what my teachers have shared with me, in everything from technique to artistry to knowing how to carry oneself and make intelligent business decisions. Additionally, it would be very interesting to branch out into other
areas of the arts and the world of business. We are already seeing dance more and more in the mainstream media, and I would love to be a figure in that arena as well.

Especially in the United States, the arts in general do not have the visibility or appreciation that I believe it could have, compared to sports for example. People might gain a greater appreciation and respect for ballet if they understood how
immensely difficult it is to perform. Ironically, it is the job of the ballet dancer to mask the extreme and impossible physicality of precise movement behind effortless grace and artistry. I feel that were the public to be more exposed to and educated about
ballet, it would hold it in higher esteem and with greater interest.


What does #BeGOSSY represent to you?

To me, #BeGOSSY represents the accountability I have to myself. In the past, although my hard work and ability were appreciated, I nevertheless found myself in a perpetual cycle of being taken for granted. Ultimately, I recognized that I alone was responsible for addressing issues and making any changes I felt were necessary. So, it is essential for me to learn how to stick up for myself in a manner that feels genuine and reflects the morals and values which were ingrained in me. This means that I won’t speak up by kicking and screaming but rather through cool, calm and objective reasoning. And if at that point I do not feel that the answers I have been given in response to my self-advocacy are fair, it is then my choice to do something about it. I know that the more collected and thoughtful I am, the more power I harness. Even in the ballet world where women are so often placed on pedestals, self-advocacy is challenging. Yet the more I learn and the farther my journey takes me, the more
empowered I feel.



Photographer: Joseph Jagos
Joseph Jagos @Mr_Kiwis
Approved Credits:
PHOTOGRAPHER: Joseph Jagos @mr_kiwis
STYLIST: Heidi Lee @heidi_337
MAKEUP: Allie Smith @alliesmithmakeup
HAIR: Denae Marshall @luvcustomhairdesigns

Details of the cover photo:
Heidi Lee Checkered Sun Hat
B+W Palazzo Pantsuit, Stylist’s own
Black Sarah Nail Gloves by Majestyblack


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