In three years, Francesca Hayward rose from the Royal Ballet’s first artist to principal in 2016. Last year she reached a new audience in the critically mauled Cats movie. She tells Neil Norman about the importance of chemistry, why she doesn’t read reviews and her “last big classical challenge”, playing Odette/Odile in Swan Lake
It has been quite a year for Francesca Hayward. The principal dancer at the Royal Ballet – who is known as Frankie to her friends and colleagues – has danced almost every major role. Now she is taking on her “last big classical challenge” as Odette/Odile in Swan Lake, in which she makes her debut later this month.
In February, she won best female dancer at the Critics’ Circle National Dance Awards and, at the end of 2019, made her debut in a blockbuster Hollywood movie. But it has not all been plain sailing – that debut movie was Cats, Tom Hooper’s screen version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, which was savaged by the critics.
When we meet in a small room, in the depths of Covent Garden’s Royal Opera House, she remains unruffled by the experience. Back ‘home’ she is bright and vivid, happy to rejoin her Royal Ballet family but in no way dismissive of her experiences in Hollywood.
Hayward’s ascent to starring in Swan Lake has been rapid, from the Royal Ballet school, through the ranks of the corps de ballet to her position as one of the company’s most exciting principal dancers. “The last couple of seasons have been quite hard to juggle,” she says. “And this is my debut as Odette. It’s the last big classical challenge.”
This is my debut as Odette – it’s the last big classical challenge
One of the rarely publicised problems that classical principals face is repetition. Once they have reached the top of their game they are required to dance the same roles over and over again – how many Giselles, Odettes, Auroras, Coppélias or Claras can a dancer actually dance?
“I had that very thought the other day,” says Hayward, “looking at Marianela [Núñez] and wondering how she approaches them over and over again. I’m still young, so I’ve only done them once or twice. Manon is the only one I have done three times. And it pushes me to think more outside the box.”
Lesley Collier, Hayward’s coach for the role of Juliet and a former Royal Ballet star, has said that Hayward’s grasp of reality marks her out. “She’s very intelligent, a deep thinker about things. That’s part of what makes her special. She’s one of those dancers who have technique and musicality and real understanding. And you get very few of them coming along in one lifetime.”
The first striking thing about Hayward is her extraordinary self-sufficiency. It would take a lot, one senses, to faze or unbalance her. She claims never to read her reviews as they might be a distraction. How does she resist the temptation?
“I will tell you a secret,” she says, conspiratorially. “I don’t read reviews but my Granny told me that the critics had a go at me over my first Juliet. They wrote that I was too ‘knowing’ as Juliet, more Manon than Juliet. So I rethought it. Maybe I was a bit too clever, so I changed it and made her more innocent. It worked.” Critics can have their uses, after all.
Hayward was born in Nairobi in 1992 to an English father and a Kenyan mother. She came to Britain aged two and was brought up by her paternal grandparents, John and Diana, in Sussex. Among their babysitting solutions was to sit the young Hayward in front of a VHS video of The Nutcracker. According to Hayward, “that was it”.
She started ballet lessons once a week and won a place at the Royal Ballet School at the age of 11. As a young girl at White Lodge, the junior school that houses Royal Ballet’s younger students, Hayward was wholly focused on ballet and music, achieving Grade 7 in the violin. She continued on to the senior school, winning young dancer of the year on her third attempt in 2010 with a Sugar Plum Fairy solo.
In 2011, halfway through her final year, she was accepted into the company, although she never officially graduated owing to an injury. “I got a certificate of attendance,” she says with mock hauteur.
What was your first non-theatre job?
I was a waitress at a local pub. I was really bad with money and it taught me the value of it as I was on minimum wage.
What was your first professional theatre job?
I was one of the townspeople in Romeo and Juliet. And also in the front line of the corps de ballet in Cinderella.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
I learned after a while that you are the only one who can take care of yourself. It’s not always the best thing to try and please everyone else.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Just look calm. Don’t look nervous. It was the best bit of advice I was given when I auditioned for Symphony in C.
If you hadn’t been a dancer, what would you have been?
Realistically, I would have been a musician – the violin or the cello. I’m rubbish at maths but I would like to have been a pilot. Or a fashion designer.
Following various dance-on roles in the corps de ballet, she landed the role of Clara in the 2012 production of The Nutcracker. Two years later, she took on the weighty role of Manon. Her star has continued to rise ever since. First artist in 2013, soloist in 2014, first soloist in 2015 and principal in 2016.
She is often paired with fellow principal Alexander Campbell on stage. What makes their partnership so special? “I have great trust in Alex and he is very supportive. You can’t really put your finger on what it is. I find that true personality comes out on stage.”
Hayward appears equally at home in contemporary ballet as she is in classical. She is particularly excited by resident choreographer Wayne McGregor, whose works continue to test the physical limits of dancers at the Royal Ballet and beyond.
“One of my favourite contemporary ballets is Wayne’s Infra. I love being in the studio with Wayne. I feel lucky that the company has a special relationship with him and his work. He created Sally from Mrs Dalloway in Woolf Works for me.”
The latter production is the masterpiece that covered everyone involved in glory and brought Alessandra Ferri out of retirement to dance the role of Virginia Woolf. “And can you imagine?” says Hayward, her large brown eyes widening in pleasurable recollection. “I get to kiss her as well.”
While the Royal Ballet made it clear before the interview that asking about the current scandal surrounding one of its resident choreographers – in which Hayward is in no way involved – is off limits, she is ready and willing to talk about everything else, including Cats.
Hayward took six months off from her day job to appear in the movie. The extravagant exposure of being in Hollywood is light years away from the hermetically sealed, rarefied world of ballet. How long did it take her to adjust to the merciless scrutiny of the movie business?
“I definitely took it in my stride,” she says. “This is my job and I was granted the opportunity to step away for a while and put on another hat. I had media training so I was more prepared but it’s weird that people want to know what you think. I haven’t had any trolling but journalists are not kind – I had a small taste of that.”
I had media training for Cats so I was more prepared but it’s weird that people want to know what you think
As for the torrential criticism the film incurred, she remains sanguine. “My first thought was that it was strange. People were cats. Many of the film critics hadn’t seen the musical. It never upset me. We all share a sense of humour about it. The dancers and performers all share a WhatsApp group with the funniest comments.”
The company she kept was pretty impressive. Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Jennifer Hudson, Taylor Swift and Idris Elba. She has confessed to being slightly nervous about working with them, but the reverse might also have been true given her status as a Royal Ballet principal.
“I felt a lot of respect from them but I didn’t get to dance on set for a long time. When I finally did get to dance they said: ‘Oh, that’s what Frankie does.’”
She gained at least one fan from the movie. Dench came to see her in Romeo and Juliet, sitting in the wings of Covent Garden. Other than that, her life has returned to ‘normal’.
“I come in here and I am just another person who is part of the team. I might have a few more fans at the stage door who want me to sign their Cats photos but that’s it. No one recognises me in the street.”
I cannot avoid an issue that dogged her when Cats came out. The accusation that, as Victoria the white cat, she was ‘whitewashed’ for the role. “I was a cat,” she says without hesitation. “That was the bottom line for me. If someone had asked me to play a white human I would have refused. It is better that we are having these conversations about diversity but, no, I had no issue with it.”
Her challenging brown eyes burrow into mine. “I like the colour of my fur,” she says.
Born: 1992, Nairobi, Kenya
Training: Le Serve School of Ballet and Theatre Dance, Worthing; Royal Ballet School
• The Nutcracker, Royal Ballet (2012)
• Manon, Royal Ballet (2014)
• Romeo and Juliet, Royal Ballet (2015)
• Woolf Works, Royal Ballet (2015)
• Rhapsody, Royal Ballet (2016)
• Giselle, Royal Ballet (2018)
• Lynn Seymour award for expressive dance (2009)
• Young British dancer of the year (2010)
• Critics’ Circle National Dance award for best emerging artist (2014)
• CC NDA Grishko award for best female dancer (2016)
• CC NDA award for best female dancer (2019)
Swan Lake opens at London’s Royal Opera House tonight and runs until May 16. Details: roh.org.uk