I have a love-hate relationship with Swan Lake. On the one hand, I recognize the power of Tchaikovsky’s score, the poignancy of the storyline and the timelessness of Lev Ivanov’s 'white swan' lakeside choreography. On the other hand, its ubiquity means I’ve probably sat through more middling performances of Swan Lake than any other ballet.

American Ballet Theatre in Act 2 of Swan Lake
© Rosalie O'Connor

And American Ballet Theatre’s production of Swan Lake is a shallow, unlikable production. The Act 4 lakeside scene with its beautiful choreography for the swans has been slashed to bits, the 'purple' Rothbart in the ballroom scene is ridiculous camp and the sets and costumes now seem faded and careworn. The swamp curtain is particularly egregious. It now looks like nothing but ugly green tatters. There is little impetus to change the production because performances sell out no matter who is dancing.

Yet it can be all elevated (as any Swan Lake can, really) by truly special performers. Last night, Skylar Brandt and Herman Cornejo gave such a performance. Skylar Brandt (Odette/Odile) does not look like a typical Swan Queen. She is short, for one. Her sweet, doll-like face doesn’t have the high cheekbones and majestic, remote look often associated with the role.

Skylar Brandt as Odette in Act 2 of Swan Lake
© Rosalie O'Connor

But she’s magnificent. Brandt uses what she does have, to maximum advantage. Her pliant back, her soft, airy jump, her long neck and rippling arms, her beautifully articulated feet, all made her lovely to watch in the lakeside act. Brandt undergoes extensive coaching of every role with former ABT principal Irina Dvorovenko, and it shows. Her hands, neck, shoulders and back all seem to work as one, in a way rarely present with this generation of ABT ballerinas. With Odile, Brandt channels the other side of her skillset as a dancer. She is (despite her delicate, wispy appearance) a formidable technician. Her Odile tempted Siegfried with showy tricks: a long-held balance in attitude, the infamous 32 fouettés with multiples thrown in.

Skylar Brandt as Odette and Herman Cornejo as Prince Siegfried in Act 2 of Swan Lake
© Rosalie O'Connor

All of this would be for naught if Brandt did not have a soul. But she does. Her Odette is vulnerable, poetic, full of love. Her supple torso seems to melt into Siegfried’s arms in the White Swan pas de deux. Herman Cornejo (Siegfried) was his usual self, which was to say marvelous. Sensitive, charismatic, still able to project a youthful romanticism despite how many years he’s been onstage. At this point, a role like Siegfried which is strong on partnering fits Cornejo better than the more virtuoso parts. Brandt and Cornejo were simply exquisite together.

Andrii Ishchuk as Rothbart in Act 3 of Swan Lake
© Rosalie O'Connor

The supporting cast was middling. Andrii Ishchuk did not justify the inclusion of 'purple' Rothbart the way Marcelo Gomes or David Hallberg used to. In the first act pas de trois, Erica Lall in the 'jumping' girl solo was a delight, but Anabel Katsnelson was tentative in the 'turning' girl solo and Tyler Maloney (Benno) had sloppy landings. I did enjoy the Neapolitan dance with Carlos Gonzalez and Melvin Lawovi.

ABT is in transition. Longtime Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie is gone and Susan Jaffe is now in charge. Hopefully a new production of Swan Lake is on the menu, because dancers like Skylar Brandt and Herman Cornejo deserve one.