Roaring Back: Francesca Hayward on returning to the stage, leading by example and making magic

The Editors
·10-min read
Photo credit: Photographed by Jesse Jenkins
Photo credit: Photographed by Jesse Jenkins

Francesca Hayward arrives right on time, for which I am grateful as the heavens have opened and a sudden spring shower is descending. "I don’t know how this has happened. It’s a miracle," she says, laughing, offering to hold my enormous umbrella. "I’m perpetually 10 minutes late. On performance nights, before Covid, you would usually hear me rushing around and screeching in my dressing-room trying to get ready. There’s just never enough time to do everything."

We have met, at Hayward’s suggestion, a mere jeté away from the Royal Opera House, where the 28-year-old principal dancer, known to her friends as Frankie, has just been allowed to return for daily training sessions. "It’s great to be back," she says, settling into her oversize Totême jumper and pulling the collar of her Acne coat up against the chilly air. Hayward is petite – just five foot one – and ethereally beautiful, elegant in her favourite "off-duty uniform" of top-to-toe black, with chunky Bottega Veneta boots. "Maybe it’s because I spend all day in a tutu, but I never wear pink, unless it’s for work or a photo-shoot. I don’t want to look 'cute', which is hard when you’re small. You’d be surprised how many times I get trodden on walking down the street" she says.

Photo credit: Photographed by Jesse Jenkins
Photo credit: Photographed by Jesse Jenkins

Hayward smiles as she recounts how she and her boyfriend of just over a year, the Cuban-Canadian soloist Cesar Corrales, moved in together during the nation’s first lockdown and navigated the impracticalities of being two athletes trying to workout in a tiny flat. "We did all of our ballet classes on Zoom and we had to push the sofa out of the way every time we wanted to practise. Cesar would be holding on to the sofa and I’d be up at the kitchen counter, trying not to accidentally kick him."

Salvation came in the form of a disused yoga studio that had recently opened beneath the couple’s home in Soho. "I sent the owners a message saying, 'Please help, we’re two desperate dancers in the flat upstairs, can we use your space?' Luckily, they agreed." Now that the Royal Opera House is set to open its doors again to the public, having just announced its first full season in 18 months, the pair are understandably keen to get back to work. "We’ve missed the electric atmosphere of a live performance," she says. "I’ve also missed being able to tell the story of a character, because that’s what I love doing. When I’m dancing, and I have the music and the costumes, that’s when I feel the most free. Something takes over and I just disappear into the moment. The longer you are off stage, the more you start to think, 'Am I actually any good? Am I ever going to get that back?'"

Photo credit: Photographed by Jesse Jenkins
Photo credit: Photographed by Jesse Jenkins

It’s interesting to hear this from a woman at the top of her game. Born in Nairobi to an English father and a Kenyan mother, Hayward moved to the UK to live with her paternal grandparents in West Sussex as a toddler and began dancing at the age of three. Indeed, her earliest memory is of joining a group of little girls skipping in ballet class ("I was so happy") and she says she "devoured" Margot Fonteyn documentaries and every version of The Nutcracker she could find until she joined the Royal Ballet School, White Lodge, at the age of 11 in 2003. Being the first ballerina in her family (her grandfather is a retired pharmacist and her grandmother worked as a nurse) did little to hinder her progress. "It actually helped because I never felt any pressure from them to succeed. They took everything in their stride and just went for it, through every audition, to see how things turned out. I think that’s the way my whole career has progressed," she says. Her ascent has been rapid. Hayward’s exceptional talent secured her a full-time contract with the Royal Ballet before she had even graduated and, while still a relatively junior dancer, she was fast-tracked into increasingly demanding solo roles, such as Manon – usually reserved for more experienced ballerinas due to its extreme physical and emotional demands. She was promoted to principal in 2016 and since then has portrayed the classic leads in everything from The Sleeping Beauty and Romeo and Juliet (romantically, she met and fell in love with Corrales during a 2019 production, when he was cast as Romeo) to Mayerling and Giselle. "The extraordinary thing about Frankie is that she does everything with her whole heart," says Kevin O’Hare, the director of the Royal Ballet. "She’s incredibly powerful, even if she’s standing still, and she’s got a real theatricality about her that just draws people in."

Photo credit: Photographed by Jesse Jenkins
Photo credit: Photographed by Jesse Jenkins

Her star quality has also led Hollywood to come calling. Hayward auditioned for, and won, the lead role of Victoria the White Cat in the 2019 film adaptation of Cats, and appears alongside stalwarts such as Judi Dench, Jennifer Hudson, Ian McKellen and Idris Elba. She claims her training as a dancer gave her the stamina to endure the six months of filming required and helped with her nerves when she sang a solo, 'Beautiful Ghosts', written for her by Taylor Swift and Andrew Lloyd Webber, in front of the cast. "I knew I could sing in tune, as I’d been in the church choir when I was little, but it was still terrifying, even with all the lessons in preparation. I had to sing live to Jennifer Hudson, right after she had just delivered 'Memory'. Can you imagine?" she says, chuckling. "The first time I actually heard the song, Taylor gave me a private performance. I think my British sarcasm must have kicked in because she asked me if it was all right and I just went, 'Yeah, it’ll do'."

The film received a critical drubbing, but Hayward remains fairly sanguine. "I’m not sure what people were expecting. It’s a musical about singing cats. I tried not to take it personally," she says with a shrug. "I got a lot of supportive messages afterwards, and hopefully it brought some more international attention to the Royal Ballet." The cast have remained in touch – Judi Dench has been to see her perform in Romeo and Juliet ("She looked very emotional and gave me a little teddy afterwards, which I still have"). Would she like to do more acting in the future? "Perhaps. Never say never," she says.

The world of fashion, too, has embraced Hayward since her cinematic debut. "She’s so talented," says Simone Rocha, who cast her as part of the campaign for her recent sell-out H&M collaboration. "We met only last year when I asked her to be a part of my spring/summer 2021 presentation, but she brought such poise and creativity to the project."

"Costumes and make-up help me embody a character onstage but finding the right outfit can totally transform my own mood and outlook," observes Hayward, who describes herself as an avid shopper and a "huge fan" of the feminine designs of Rocha, Maria Grazia Chiuri, Molly Goddard and Miuccia Prada, whose clothes, she says, make women "feel amazing". She is thrilled at the prospect of wearing their dresses for her Bazaar photo-shoot, due to take place the weekend after we speak. "I usually FaceTime my family, including all my aunts and uncles, every Saturday, so hopefully I’ll be able to show them what I’m doing."

Photo credit: Photographed by Jesse Jenkins
Photo credit: Photographed by Jesse Jenkins

In the Royal Ballet’s forthcoming season, Hayward will reprise her much-anticipated role as Odette in Swan Lake, with Corrales as her Prince Siegfried, though she admits that she doesn’t mind the delay caused by the pandemic. "In a way, I’m almost relieved. Now, I’m like a revved engine, raring to go", she says. She will also play Tita, the lead character in a
new full-length ballet by Christopher Wheeldon, Like Water for Chocolate, based on the magical-realist novel by Laura Esquivel. It’s a sensual tale about passion and rebellion that
sounds, I suggest to Hayward, like the perfect project after months devoted to rigorous hand washing and social-distancing. She nods. "I like roles I can really put my mind to. You’ve got to channel some part of yourself to bring the character to life, like their joy or their sorrow."

The role of Tita’s mother will be portrayed by Hayward’s friend and fellow principal dancer, Lauren Cuthbertson, who is returning to the stage from taking maternity leave with her first child, Peggy. "She’s said I can come and hang out in the garden if I need to research how my character holds her baby niece," says Hayward with a smile. Motherhood, however, still feels a little way off. "It’s definitely a big consideration for a dancer, as it requires a lot of time out. I have a huge amount of admiration for the women who do have babies and still come back for class and are so focused. I haven’t got plans yet, either way," she says.

Though the lack of diversity in ballet is one of the most-discussed issues in her industry, Hayward stresses that she hasn’t personally experienced any racism in her professional career. She has, however, spoken out against the insidious prejudice she has previously encountered outside of the workplace ("I’m asked all the time, 'Where are you from?' I say, 'London' and they say, 'No, where are you really from?' These things hit deep") and she is keen to use her profile to help raise awareness that dance should be an option open to all. So, does she feel a responsibility to other young dancers of colour? "I don’t think of myself as a role model," she says. "I have a set of principles that my grandparents taught me, and I would certainly call out any prejudice if I ever saw it, as would all my colleagues. What I’ve realised is that it’s about representation. I’d like to bring ballet to cultures that wouldn’t think to take their children to a ballet class. When I receive letters from children, or from their parents, saying that I have inspired them, then I feel enormously grateful for that."

Photo credit: Photographed by Jesse Jenkins
Photo credit: Photographed by Jesse Jenkins

As for future plans, Hayward would love to direct her own ballet company, or pursue a career in fashion. "I can see myself doing something visual and creative, and it would be wonderful to develop a new set of skills. But nowadays, thankfully, ballerinas are able to retire much later. I’m not going to limit myself to another five or 10 years... I don’t want to retire with any regrets and not having given ballet my all."

Having chatted for several hours and with the cold starting to defeat us, we begin our stroll back towards the Opera House, where Hayward is returning before heading home for an evening of "Netflix and Deliveroo" with Corrales. Before we part, I ask her if she feels nervous about stepping back into the spotlight. "I always worry before a show. But I’ve learnt to push those nerves aside once I’m on stage," she replies. "The mark of a great dancer is being skilled enough to make what you’re doing look effortless. You have to sweep the audience away with you, so that they no longer care if fairies are real or not. They are just held there in the moment with you. You create a kind of magic together." I, for one, look forward to being under Hayward’s spell for as long as possible.

Francesca Hayward stars in the June issue of Harper's Bazaar, available on newsstands from 5 May.

Photo credit: Photographed by Jesse Jenkins and styled by Cathy Kasterine
Photo credit: Photographed by Jesse Jenkins and styled by Cathy Kasterine


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