Skylar Brandt and Julian Mackay dance Flames of Paris. Vladim Shults, Courtesy Russia-K.

ABT Soloist Skylar Brandt’s Whirlwind Experience on Russia’s Best-Loved Ballet Television Show

When American Ballet Theatre soloist Skylar Brandt's phone lit up with a message from Julian MacKay last summer, she never could have imagined the journey it would set her on. Brandt barely knew the Mikhailovsky Ballet first soloist—they'd met briefly in St. Petersburg a few months earlier—but he wrote that he had a project he thought she'd be perfect for. Brandt was flattered, but assumed she'd be unavailable. She'd just come off an eight-week season with ABT and was in Los Angeles finishing up a tour. But MacKay was insistent. The next morning, Brandt was brushing her teeth when his sister, Maria Sascha Khan, called. "She explained that Julian was in Paris rehearsing for a Russian TV show called 'Big Ballet' and his partner had gotten injured. She asked if I could come to Paris immediately, as the show started filming in Moscow in one week."


First broadcast in 2012, "Big Ballet" is a reality show airing on Russia-K, one of the country's two state-run channels, that follows couples from Russian companies through multiple stages of competition. As ballet is beloved in Russia, the show is wildly popular. "It's their version of 'So You Think You Can Dance,' but it's much bigger," says Brandt. And unlike most American reality shows, it doesn't dwell on interpersonal drama, but stays focused on the art. Khan explained that the show would make Brandt a celebrity in Russia—and then asked that she make her decision in one hour.

Vladim Shults, Courtesy Russia-K

Brandt and MacKay reflect on the judges' comments after dancing Giselle.

It wouldn't be easy. Brandt would have to perform pas de deux from Giselle, Marguerite and Armand and Flames of Paris as well as Sébastien Bertaud's Renaissance and Kirill Radev's At the Sunset. Of the five, she only knew one. All she had with her in L.A. was a small suitcase carrying three leotards and two pairs of pointe shoes. Though she would be entering the show as a noncompeting partner, she would still be dancing on television for millions of people with only a handful of days to prepare. She was torn. But then Brandt remembered that when applying for a Russian visa last spring, she had requested a three-year reentry visa on a whim. "I knew very few details, but it sounded like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," she says. "I realized it was meant to be."

Two days later, after a 12-hour flight spent studying videos of the works, Brandt landed in Paris. She headed straight into a five-hour rehearsal with MacKay. "I couldn't think about how jet-lagged I was," she says. She felt prepared for the challenge by her years with ABT. "I'm used to being thrown into things. I was only given four days' notice for my first full-length ballet with the company," she says. After three days in Paris, the pair flew to Moscow.

Filming took place at Mosfilm, the city's largest movie studio, on a set complete with a stage, jurors' panel and seating for an audience. "It was just unbelievably hard work," says Brandt. "We rehearsed each of the pieces two or three hours a day." Though MacKay had a coach with him, Brandt often felt that she was on her own. The language barrier also proved challenging, since the entire show was in Russian. "I tried to pick things up visually," she says. MacKay, who is bilingual, helped her get by. Finally, after two weeks of filming, she was done.


Brandt feels transformed by her whirlwind experience. "As ballet dancers we're always handling things under pressure, but this was on a whole new scale," she says. "I'm excited to continue to take on new challenges and just say yes." While the rest of the competitors experienced the show's impact firsthand, because Brandt lives in the U.S., she feels like it has taken place in a vacuum. She watched the show, which aired through December, online. "I think it'll be cool if I go back to Russia someday," she says. "I wonder if there'll be any inkling of recognition."

Latest Posts


James Barkley, Courtesy Dance for Change

Take Class From Celebrated Black Dancers and Raise Money for the NAACP Through Dance for Change

Since the nationwide fight against racial inequality took center stage in May, organizations across the dance world have been looking for meaningful ways to show their support, rather than fall back on empty social media signifiers. July 10-11, Diamante Ballet Dancewear is taking action with Dance for Change, a two-day event dedicated to fundraising for the NAACP, and amplifying the voices of Black professional dancers.

Organized by Diamante Ballet Dancewear's founder, Nashville Ballet 2 dancer Isichel Perez, and Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre teacher Elise Gillum, Dance for Change makes it easy to participate. Dancers need only to make a donation to the NAACP (in any amount) and email proof to diamante.ballet@gmail.com to be given online access to a full schedule of Zoom master classes taught by Black pros artists. Teachers include Ballet Memphis' George Sanders, Boston Ballet's Daniel Durrett, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Corey Bourbonniere, and more. "It's important that we amplify BIPOC voices during this time, and it's also important that we're conscious of where we're putting our dollars," says Bourbonniere. "Diamante is doing both with Dance for Change, and I'm honored to be in this talented group of melanated dancers."

Keep reading SHOW LESS

Houston Ballet's "Dancing With Myself" Captures How We All Feel Right Now

What are dancers to do when they're still stuck at home in isolation? After all, there's only so much time you can spend taking barre, tackling your reading list (or Netflix queue) or ticking items off your to-do list. Even wistfully looking out the window has lost its appeal after a few months.

That's when you need a dance party—even it's for a party of one.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
Getty Images

"Our Studio Is Failing Its Students of Color": One Dancer's Experience of Racism and Microaggressions

I recently spent a Saturday night with my husband and my 17-year-old dancing daughter, who sobbed at the foot of our bed. My daughter revealed her experiences with implicit bias and overt racism in school, and especially in the dance studio.

For six years, she has danced at a classical ballet school tied to the city's ballet company. The previous six years were spent at a mid-sized recreational/competition studio. I want to recount a few examples of the racism that my daughter shared that night.

Keep reading SHOW LESS

Editors' Picks