There are some portrayals where it’s a dancer’s first stab at a role, and by the evening’s end, it’s become a classic interpretation. That happened last night with Skylar Brandt’s Giselle for American Ballet Theatre. It’s only her third performance of role, and her New York debut. It was, however, so polished, so well-danced, so heart-rending, that she immediately jumped to my personal short-list of great Giselles.

Skylar Brandt (Giselle)
© Joåo Menegussi

Brandt is blessed with large eyes, a sweet face and a petite build. She looks like a Giselle. Beneath the delicate appearance, there is a strong technician, and Brandt sailed through the technical challenges of the role. In the Act 1 variation, her hops across the stage were so effortless they looked like she was floating. She can be devilishly fast (her turns in attitude when she first appears as a Wili in Act 2), or almost sculpturally still (her developpés were silky smooth, with no gear-shifting). She is equally at home in petit allegro (her entrechats were quick and well-articulated) and more lyrical dancing.

All this technique would have been for naught without a strong interpretation. Brandt made Giselle someone lovable and real. There are Giselles who suggest a ferocious passion in Act 1. Brandt was more reserved and, you could say, ladylike. In the Mad Scene, she held her head and rocked back and forth. She did not run around the stage in a frenzy – she touched the heart by staying still. In Act 2, she made a believable transformation into a Wili, so light and buoyant – really an ethereal spirit. She used her long arms to great effect – when she flew, her arms also flew. There wasn’t a false note all night.

As the feckless cad Albrecht, veteran dancer Herman Cornejo focused less on his solos and more on partnering Brandt. His partnering was beautiful – the lifts looked effortless, the body lines between Cornejo and Brandt matched perfectly. There were signs of deterioration in Cornejo’s pure technique – his diagonal of brisés were shorter and less crisp than they would have been a few years ago, the jumps effortful. Cornejo also has lost some flexibility – his arabesque is stiff. Father Time is undefeated. But Cornejo still has much to offer with his artistry. His Albrecht was playful and charming in Act 1. Not arrogant and aloof, the way, say, David Hallberg would have been. Cornejo looked genuinely crushed when Giselle expired. In Act 2 Cornejo was believably grief-stricken. He and Brandt have strong stage chemistry.

Herman Cornejo (Albrecht) and Skylar Brandt (Giselle)
© Joåo Menegussi

Corps member Stephanie Petersen made a debut as Myrtha. She has the Myrtha look – the strong jaw, the imposing physique. At first, her dancing was nervous and stiff, but she grew in confidence as the night went on. Her final circle of sauts de basques was impressive. She’s not yet a great Myrtha but this was a promising debut. Andrii Ishchuk was an excellent Hilarion – he was raw and angry, his anger at Albrecht palpable in every second he was onstage.

The only slight weak link of the performance was the peasant pas de deux. Betsy McBride and Jose Sebastian made no major errors, but also did not highlight the choreography. Sebastian’s jumps looked labored and his landings were sloppy, while McBride was overly brittle. As a result, the pas de deux seemed like filler, but the ABT corps looked good after the long lay-off.

At the end of the night the ovations for Brandt and Cornejo were thunderous. This was the sort of performance where you felt honored just to witness such a beautiful performance.