Synonymous with discipline and dedication, being a professional dancer is anything but easy. Yet those at the top of their game make it look exactly that. One such person is the Royal Ballet’s principal ballerina, Francesca Hayward. We sat down with her to discuss coping with pressure, being a better friend and why she needs to consider a plan B.
It’s a Wednesday afternoon in April and Francesca Hayward – or ‘Frankie’ to her friends – is sat opposite me in one of the Royal Opera House’s cavernous rehearsal studios, having just appeared in a shoot for Finery. Tiny – even for a ballerina – she is sporting a black hoodie, black trainers and black jogging bottoms, an outfit which is a world away from the sparkly costumes audiences will be more accustomed to seeing her in. ‘Everyone knows I wear black pretty much all the time!’ Considering she’s been dancing for over 21 years (she’s 24) and has to spend the majority of her days – and evenings – in uncomfortable ballet shoes, it’s no wonder that comfort is key for her.
Like many other dancers, ballet has been Francesca’s key focus since she was a young child. She began dancing around her grandparents’ living room in Sussex at the age of three; imitating industry greats such as Lesley Collier (who, in a wonderful twist of fate, is now her coach). Despite this dedication, it took a while for Francesca to realise that her passion could actually be a career. ‘I don’t think I was aware that you could be a professional dancer. I was just watching all the ballet videos that my grandparents used to find and I was just completely absorbed in copying them and being all these characters.’ Studying at the Royal Ballet School from the age of 11 helped to change this.
Since then it’s been a stratospheric rise for Francesca. After graduating, she joined The Royal Ballet during the 2010/2011 season and was quickly promoted to First Artist in 2013. This was followed by Soloist in 2014, First Soloist in 2015 and finally Principal in 2016. ‘I was quite taken aback [on being made Principal] because my director left it right until the very end, so I didn’t think it was going to happen.’ But it did, and last September saw her dance her first role – La Fille Mal Gardeé – as a Principal.
Performing at the highest level comes with a unique set of challenges. ‘I think there’s definitely an unsaid pressure,’ Francesca muses. ‘I basically feel that I have to be at the top of my game, all the time. There’s no excuse, ever. Not that there ever was but now it’s official!’ She deals with this by listening to the advice of her grandparents. ‘What my family have always helped me with is that if you’ve tried your best then you can’t walk away with any regrets.’ There is also one surprising benefit however: she has more free time. ‘I’m a better friend now because I actually have the time to get in touch with them more.’ This is because, as a Principal, she no longer dances in the corps de ballet (the group of dancers who are often in the background of scenes), meaning she is in only in a select amount of productions.
That is not to say that Principals get an easier ride than their colleagues. ‘We actually worked out that each person in the company can rehearse up to six different ballets in one day and then perform another one in the evening,’ Francesca explains. ‘Some days I can be all kinds of things. Walk in one studio and I’ve got to be a fairy and walk in the next and I’ve got to be a prostitute, walk in the next and I’ve got to be a princess! It’s a mental job!’
One other unexpected result of becoming a Principal is the amount of fan mail she receives. ‘I really love the fact that so many little girls have sent me letters and told me that I’m a big inspiration to them.’ The most memorable one was from a child who had just learned to write. ‘She wrote ‘Sugar Plum Fairy’ and the ‘g’ was all the wrong way round, it was really cute!
While it may sound like Francesca has already achieved a huge amount, she still has a lot left on her to-do list. ‘I’ve still got a lot of roles I’d really like to perform. I feel like I don’t want to retire until I’ve been able to do all of them.’ These include Odette and Odile from Swan Lake, Giselle and also some more contemporary work. But is there anything else she’s set her sights on? ‘I think another big life goal is to buy somewhere in London!’ she laughs. As well as thinking about property, she is also practical about life after the stage. ‘I have to think about the future because ballet’s really unpredictable. Touch wood I won’t but I could get a horrible injury tomorrow and not be able to dance again, so I have to be sensible and think ‘what if?’’ While she’s not sure exactly what that will be yet, she seems pretty sure it won’t be coaching. ‘I don’t think I’ve got the patience to be a teacher!’
Photography by Alina Negoita
For more information visit Royal Opera House