One of the most exceptional ballet dancers of our time, Francesca Hayward is a Principal at The Royal Ballet, based at The Royal Opera House in London. She fell in love with ballet when she was very young and attended ballet classes before gaining a place at The Royal Ballet School at White Lodge, Richmond at the age of 11. She graduated into The Royal Ballet in 2010 and has worked her way up from the corps de ballet to be one of the company’s leading dancers.
The life of a Principal ballet dancer is one of hard work, drive and determination. It’s also incredibly busy but Francesca took time out of her hectic schedule to talk to us about her life as a dancer and what it was like growing up knowing that all you wanted to do was dance.
[Portrait photo by Andre Uspenski)
What does ballet mean to you? It’s something I’ve never questioned. It’s just something I can’t stop doing and I wouldn’t dream of doing anything else. I’m really lucky that my life has worked out in a way that means I can dance every day.
What is your first memory of dancing? Being in my living room when I was about 2 or 3 years old and watching ballet videos and being completely enthralled by them, especially ‘The Nutcracker’ and ‘Sleeping Beauty’. The music spoke to me and the stories made me want to dance. I never saw it as the dancers just waving their arms around, I somehow understood what they were saying with their bodies.
What did it feel like, going away to school to study dance from the age of 11? It all happened quite quickly, going from having a lovely home life to suddenly realising I would have to live somewhere else if ballet was going to be my life. It wasn’t scary, though – I thought it was very exciting. As an only child I thought it would be like having a sleepover every night.
Did you have any concerns or worries about it? When I first arrived, there were parents dropping off their children, everyone was excited and meeting everyone and making friends, then when our families left it hit us all that this was it. It was weird, but I never felt very homesick because my home was only a couple of hours away and I got to see my family often. I spent a lot of weekends with the girls who lived too far away to go home – they’d either come home with me or I’d choose to stay with them at school. I still have strong relationships with the friends I grew up with at school.
Did you find going through adolescence difficult in such a critical environment? I have always had a very positive and healthy body image and come from a really grounded family who, more than anything, just want me to be healthy. I do remember, though, that around the ages of 14, 15 and 16, I was spending every day looking at myself in the mirror wearing a leotard and tights (which is not flattering for anyone) and examining my body from every angle. At the time it was difficult, but I stuck to my guns and worked really hard and came out of the other side – and I’m so glad I didn’t do anything silly or start thinking unhealthily.
Are injuries common and how do you cope with them? Every dancer is always nursing something on different levels. I’ve coped with something painful throughout my career and training. Sadly, that becomes quite normal. When you’re a ballet student there’s a fear of saying you’re in pain because you may be held back to protect you when really you want to be doing everything. It’s the hardest time to take a step back and look after yourself. I’m much better at doing that now.
Just before I joined the Royal Ballet I hurt my right foot and needed to have surgery if I was to be able to dance properly again. Afterwards, I had to wake all the muscles back up, from my knee to my toes – it took a long time and I still have to look after it every day.
How much time do you spend rehearsing/dancing? Every day starts with a 1 hour, 45 minute ballet class, then rehearsals are from 12 to 6.30pm. We try to have an hour for a lunch break before 3pm. If we have a show in the evening, we finish rehearsals at 5.30pm and we’ll be on stage at 7.30pm in full costumes, hair and make-up so there’s not really time for a break.
Do you ever get nervous before a performance? I do, yes, but I’m learning about that. I almost feel more relaxed when it’s a big performance or a bigger challenge because I feel I’ve got less to lose – sometimes I’m more nervous in smaller roles since I’ve become a Principal because I think people expect higher standards. I’m also less nervous when I’m dancing in a role because I’m dancing as a character rather than dancing as me.
How do you manage to channel the emotion of the dance? I think I can relate to people well and have a lot of sympathy and understanding of what someone is thinking or feeling and how they behave. That helps me on stage – trying to become someone else is one of the most enjoyable parts about a performance for me.
Is there a lot of competition among your peers? It’s not something I generally think about. People presume there is a lot of competition and films like Black Swan don’t do the ballet world any favours. They’re not correct and nothing I’ve ever witnessed is anything like it. School was the hardest, competition-wise, because there are only so many contracts available for the jobs that are worth going through all the years of training for. There is healthy competition in the company but it’s a very supportive atmosphere. I think it helps to have worked my way up through the corps de ballet and been given bigger roles. All my friends are rooting for me and shout encouragement from the wings when I’m dancing a difficult part, which is wonderful.
Do you have time for a life outside dance? It’s a learning curve. Even when I have an evening off I’ll be preparing for the next day, sewing pointe shoes (which can take 2 hours) or answering emails. Finding time to do regular things like laundry and going to the bank can be difficult. On a Sunday, some of my friends will do things like going on a hike but that’s my worst nightmare – staying in bed until midday is what I want to do! It’s important to completely switch off and have time not talking about ballet and to spend time with my family and friends.
Do you have time to wind down and relax after a performance? Sometimes you’re very conscious that you have a hard day the next day and you know you’re not going to feel great, no matter what time you get to bed. After a show, wigs and make up have to come off, I’ll have a shower, then go home and eat something. I do like to spend a bit of time relaxing because I’m still buzzing even though I’m exhausted. Sometimes I get a little memory loss from being so tired straight after a show and parts of the performance will come back to me during the night when I’m trying to sleep.
How does it feel to be in the public eye with lots of attention and a role-model for younger dancers? When I became a soloist I was asked to do interviews – I found it a little strange that people were suddenly interested in what I had to say because I was the same as when I had been in the corps de ballet. And now that I’m a Principal there is even more interest in me. I don’t want people probing into my private life, so I’m cautious about that. I don’t want people disturbing my family. But there are lots of good moments. Sometimes when I come in through the stage door, I’m handed lovely letters from children which is wonderful and I feel privileged to have made an impact on so many people – it makes it all worthwhile.
If you could go back and give your teenage self some advice, what would it be? I think I’m still trying to improve myself but the older you get the more you realise it doesn’t matter and you like all these things about yourself that you once hated. I’d say just try to enjoy being you and accept yourself as you are. And have fun. Life is too short.
Do you think ballet is a good hobby even if you’re not going to make it your career? Definitely. I personally hate any other form of exercise like going to the gym or walking! I always found that a ballet class helped me to forget my troubles when I was young. It’s such a wonderful escape and I always come out of a class feeling uplifted. It’s almost a form of meditation and it’s one of the best ways of toning the body and keeping fit.
Is there any point in taking up ballet in your teens or is it something you need to have been doing from an early age? If someone wants to dance professionally it’s probably too late to take up ballet unless you’ve been born with Nureyev*-like talent. There are stories of people starting ballet late and doing incredibly well, so I would definitely not let that put anyone off. Be realistic about it, though: it is hard work.
[* Rudolf Nureyev was one of the most famous dancers and choreographers ever. Born in 1938 in Russia, he died in 1993 after a long and celebrated career.]
For someone who has no knowledge of ballet, what would you suggest they watch first? ‘The Nutcracker’ is a brilliant one to start with, but if you like the more realistic stories, there’s ‘Mayerling’, Kenneth MacMillan’s dark ballet inspired by true events.
Is there an affordable way for teenagers to go and see live ballet? You can become a ROH Student and access to affordable tickets. If you can be proactive and organised, there are many tickets that are cheaper than going to the cinema. My tip is to go for standing tickets in orchestra stalls where you’ll get an amazing view. You’ll have to stand but you’ll be able to see the whole stage.
Here are a couple of videos of Francesca dancing – in the classic role of The Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker (from the BBC ‘Inside The Nutcracker’ documentary) and in the more contemporary Sink or Swim (which was made in association with the charity Mind). Both are absolutely wonderful.