Born in Kenya and raised in Worthing, West Sussex, prima ballerina Francesca Hayward cemented her future in the industry from the age of three, when she started the practice after being played a video of The Nutcracker.
Throughout her adolescence, she honed her skills by dancing at the Le Serve School of Ballet and Theatre Dance in Worthing before successfully auditioning for White Lodge, a junior section of the Royal Ballet School, before working her way through the school to graduation age. She failed to graduate due to injury but still received a certificate of attendance. But her lack of education credentials didn’t stop her from progressing. Recognising her unique ability, the company welcomed her with open arms, and after appearing in a string of productions, she became a Principal of the Royal Ballet in 2016.
Since then, she has appeared in the 2019 film Cats!, and has successfully broken beyond the boundaries of ballet’s elite inner circle to become a household name.
Ryan Cahill: Hey Francesca. How has your year been? What have you been up to?
Francesca Hayward: So far, much better than 2020 but it’s still up and down and hasn’t felt like a “normal” year in the slightest! I have slowly been getting back on stage with some shows before the summer and then we opened our first full season back this autumn. I’ve been lucky enough to perform Juliet in Romeo and Juliet and recently just finished with The Dante Project (a new ballet by Wayne McGregor). Now, I’m working towards the festive season productions which are Giselle and, of course, The Nutcracker.
RC: The pandemic had a particular impact on the arts, especially in London. How has the world of dance been impacted by that, and has it bounced back quickly?
FH: Well, the world of ballet completely stopped over the pandemic, and we were unable to perform or even train together so “working from home” wasn’t an option for ballet dancers – we tried our best over Zoom and, in our homes, but it was almost impossible. As soon as we were given the green light, we went straight back in the studio and scheduled as many performances as possible!
RC: Do you think that the government / people in positions of power should be doing more to protect and invest in the arts?
FH: Absolutely. I think, during the pandemic, we always felt the arts were last on the list of the industries to be helped and protected. A lot of people in the arts felt we were very much last on the agenda which was ironic because, during the lockdown, film, music, television and arts were a big part of what kept everyone going and provided escapism from the horrors of what was going on internationally.
RC: There’s a common belief that ballerinas are always striving for perfection, but does perfection really exist, in both life and art?
FH: Of course perfection doesn’t exist! I believe you can only strive to be the best person you can be and not compare yourself to anyone else. In my own work, I always try to be better than the day before. There’s a saying in our profession that “you are only as good as your last performance” and I really believe in that which keeps me grounded.
RC: Has that mentality of “reaching perfection” ever been damaging or harmful to your psyche?
FH: Not for me personally – one of the things I like most about myself is that fact I’m pretty level-headed about myself and my work, so I’ve managed to really separate myself from the ballerina. I can equally both correct and congratulate myself on things without either of them influencing my psyche.
RC: Are there any beauty pressures that come with being a prima ballerina? If so, what are they and how do you overcome them?
FH: Over the last few years, it has really changed (for the better!). It used to be long hair in a bun and a very classic beauty. People are now encouraged to be themselves and celebrated for their differences. The ballet world is starting to introduce individualism, and no one is made to conform to the old fashioned: what we think of as “ballet.” It’s now 2021 and the difference is accepted! Although we still can’t be covered in tattoos unless you fancy spending hours in the make-up chair every night…
RC: Tell me about some other highlights and lowlights that come with being a dancer – ideally things that people might not think / know about?
FH: Hmmm lots of things, I don’t think people realise the sheer amount of hard work it takes to perform at a professional level. It’s something you must do every single day – you can’t have a break. It’s very much a lifestyle and there are a lot of “life things” you end up compromising. Also, the obvious things of being incredibly tired and constantly aching!
But why I go through all the above is because you can’t replicate the feeling you get on stage doing what you love and performing to a captivated audience. Don’t get me wrong, that feeling doesn’t happen every single show but when it does, there’s nothing like it.
RC: You’ve appeared in a lot of dance productions, is there one in-particular that you’re drawn to, or one role that you’ve been particularly captivated by?
FH: I like the “story ballets” – and by that, I mean the dramatic ballets with real depth/storytelling where the focus is on the character’s journey – rather than the “tutu ballets” where the most important thing are the steps which have to be absolutely perfect like you’re in an exam! So, I really love the one I’m doing now which is Giselle – it has beautiful music and an amazing story.
RC: Back in 2019, you appeared in Cats! There was a lot of scrutiny around the film. In hindsight, how much did that have an impact on you – and in a positive sense, how have you grown from that experience?
FH: I never took any of the reviews personally! We worked so hard and what I’ve personally taken from it is the most incredible insight into making a film. I got to work with some of the greatest actors and singers in the world – I felt very lucky! I made friendships for life on that film.
RC: Is acting work something that you’re keen to explore more of in the future?
FH: Definitely! Ballet is very much my focus currently, but a career in ballet is naturally shorter than one can have in acting so I want to make the most of my time working at this level.
RC: Beyond ballet, what kind of roles are you interested in exploring?
FH: Maybe just not playing an animal next time…!
RC: Are there any other fields that you’re keen to explore?
FH: Yes, I love fashion. I love to be invited on shoots and work in that kind of way – like today, I jumped at the chance of being photographed by an icon like Rankin. I really like to combine everything I love – fashion, dance and film – that’s what excites me the most!
RC: This is a beauty special. What does beauty mean to you?
FH: Beauty for me is being comfortable in the skin you’re in and being just as comfortable with your inner self.
RC: Finally, what do you have planned for 2022?
FH: Hopefully many more performances at the Royal Ballet, and some travelling and performing in other countries too – I’ve missed that a lot. I have performances booked in both Japan and Australia so I really hope that happens. I also hope some more fashion and film opportunities come my way too… Hint, hint!