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    Francesca Hayward 2019

    Francesca Hayward

    Principal, The Royal Ballet

    Interviewed by David Bain
    Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, August 28 2019

    Noting that Francesca had last spoken to The Ballet Association in 2014 when she was a First Artist, David asked her if she would start where she was now and work backwards!

    Francesca said that she was now back in class and rehearsals, feeling refreshed after a relatively short break. Recently, there has been a ’10-year anniversary’ reunion of students who had been together at White Lodge and at the Royal Ballet Upper School. She thought that about half of the group were still dancing professionally, including the Royal Ballet’s Hannah Grennell, while the others had decided that ballet was not for them and had trained for other careers, including physiotherapy and brain surgery.

    During the Royal Ballet’s official break, Francesca had also been to New York to do some promotional work for Cats

    During the Royal Ballet’s official break, Francesca had also been to New York to do some promotional work for Cats.[There would be more of that activity, in Los Angeles as well, in the period up to the 20th December release.] She had also danced Tarantellain Isaac Hernandez’s DespertaresGala in Guadalajara, Mexico in front of many thousands of people. This was at altitude and she had needed “a lot of puff” to get through her piece.

    The Royal Ballet’s summer tour had ended in Los Angeles, firstly with Mayerling. An earthquake struck as she made her entrance for Stephanie’s main scene, terrifying the audience. There had also been the world premiere of part 1 of Wayne McGregor’s Dante Project,which would be shown in London, with the remaining acts added in summer 2020. The preparations for this had begun at the ROH, with single dancers, couples and groups developing their sections separately with Wayne; but it had all been pulled together while on tour. Francesca loves working with Wayne and this new ballet was especially interesting as he was “using his genius to tell a very difficult story”. The music by Thomas Adès sounded very tuneful to Francesca, possibly because some of it seemed to be a re-arrangement of airs by Liszt. Among other things, the designs by Tacita Dean involved the black leotards worn by Francesca and others being paint sprayed every night “in interesting areas”!

    Japan was one of Francesca’s favourite places to tour, not least because the audiences were “fantastic”. She had travelled out late as she was not involved in Don Quixoteand, in circumstances of great secrecy, had been to a photoshoot for Vogue. So, she did not perform in Tokyo (which had also suffered an earthquake during the RB’s visit) but, rather, in the Galas in Yokohama. She had reprised the pas de deux from Ondinewith Edward Watson which she had initially learnt from scratch for the Fonteyn Celebration.

    She had been featured in Vogue before, when the shoot had taken place in the area behind the Royal Box at the Opera House, but the one for ‘Women for Change’ had been at a neutral location. In response to David using the term ‘important people’, Francesca said that the feature was intended more as a focus on women who had broken barriers. Everyone wanted to talk to her about her race and the colour of her skin and it baffled her as to why. Indeed, the fact that people were still asking felt like a backward step, the more so since she herself had never felt there was a barrier and diversity was not an issue within the Royal Ballet. While she had come to learn that it was important for young people to see her “up there” in order that they could imagine themselves “being up there” too, she looked forward to the moment when questions about people’s background no longer needed to be asked and people of all cultures could feel that dance/ballet was open to them.

    The first Francesca had heard about Cats was when she had a call from her agent about it. Recalling an “iconic moment” concerning a white cat in the original musical, she had thought to herself, “That sounds nice: a couple of days’ filming will be a new and valuable experience”! So, she had approached Kevin O’Hare who, she said, understood completely the need for dancers to have a range of experiences, and he was happy for her to take it one step at a time. Francesca and David concurred that having Royal Ballet dancers appearing in other artistic ventures was a good thing for the Company as well as for individuals.

    The preliminary audition involved singing the words she was given to the music of Memory.The second audition followed much the same format, but the third one was extended from singing to dancing and acting “in front of all the important people”. It was at this point that Francesca realised that the Victoria character was the main one in the film and that, if she was cast, she would need to be away from the Royal Ballet for six months and miss performances that she didn’t want to miss. But such an extraordinary opportunity wasn’t something to turn down, so she decided to go ahead and embarked on the three-month period of rehearsal.

    Once filming began for real in Leavesden (“the largest studios in Europe”), each day would start very early with a Mercedes picking her up from her house [Francesca added that she misses that!].Having her face painted and her hair flattened would take around an hour and then she would do ballet class (sometimes with former Royal Ballet First Soloist Johannes Stepanek). She felt that this was essential if she was to be able to perform at an appropriate level on her return to the Company but revealed that most of the other dancers managed on “just a workout”. There was also something called ‘Cats School’ which provided the opportunity to practise how a cat would move: Francesca had attended this but not all the other cast members elected to do so, even though, in interviews, they tended to claim that they had!

    8.00a.m. was the start of the official 12 hour working day and there was a great deal of hanging around and “spending days on something which ended up taking only 10 seconds”. Having the luxury of so much time to perfect something was “both lovely and frustrating”. Francesca said that ballet could often do with having more time but being in the same place for hours on end was also hard. Where the choreography was concerned, Francesca found that other dancers, who were more accustomed to different styles, had a greater facility for improvisation than she had when the choreographer (Andy Blankenbuehler) had requested that they all show him some moves. Indeed, there were times when that expectation had been almost too much for her.

    Suddenly, she was down to see Kevin at 9.00am on a Saturday morning and “out of the blue”, Kevin was saying he was promoting her

    Turning back to ballet, David asked Francesca about her promotion just over three years ago. She explained that every dancer had an ‘end of season’ chat with the Director, Kevin O’Hare but, that year, her name was not on the list originally. Then, suddenly, she was down to see Kevin at 9.00am on a Saturday morning, just before the Company was due to leave on tour. The discussion went as she had come to expect, with a review of the past year and mention of what was to come, and then, “out of the blue”, Kevin was saying he was promoting her. Francesca wanted to rush and share her “happy moment” with friends but she had been asked to keep the news confidential. However, she and Akane (Takada) sensed that they were both in the same position and it wasn’t long before there was a leak and everyone came over and smothered them with congratulations. Francesca was due to fly off to Japan the next day but she managed to pour herself a celebratory glass of champagne that evening.

    Although she had now had three seasons as a Principal, Francesca still felt that she was ‘new’ and that she needed always to make sure that her mind was in “the right place” so that she was able to “give it her all”. She agreed with David that the fact that Kevin had promoted four dancers to Principal from within the Company represented an important signal. Francesca added that he was “good at seeing potential and nurturing it”.

    After the tour and the summer break, Francesca returned to prepare for her debut as Lise in La Fille mal Gardée.She felt as if she had been dancing that role all her life and watching videos of it. Now, she was being taught by the very person she had been admiring for so long as Lise: Lesley Collier. Francesca said that the choreography is difficult and, in the middle of rehearsals, she had hurt her ankle, casting doubt on whether she would make it onto the stage. However, she did and has “so much love for that role” – firstly, because she was dancing with Marcelino (Sambé), secondly because the one arm lift is so hard that achieving it brought tears to her eyes and, thirdly, because, at the end, she had her real-life friends all around her throwing confetti.

    Having Lesley Collier as her teacher for Lise and, subsequently, as her main teacher is very special for Francesca as Lesley is very positive, just like her original teacher was in Worthing. Francesca also appreciates Lesley’s understanding of how she prefers to rehearse – not necessarily full-out all the time – and to perform spontaneously by going with the orchestra. Lesley’s memory of interpretations going back some 40 years was also invaluable.

    She explained that all Principals seemed to have a close relationship with one particular coach. Some of them would give feedback in the intervals, most, along with the Director, would offer detailed ‘notes’ at the end of the show. Francesca said that she could sometimes see people who had watched from the wings wondering why there were so many corrections but, in her case, “it pushes you up for the next show”. She added that she couldn’t help but smile when performers on, say, the X-Factor cried if they got so much as one criticism.

    Within the Golden Hourhad been Francesca’s first appearance when she returned from Cats. Then came her Juliet to Cesar Corrales’s Romeo. Both of them were “coming back”, in Cesar’s case from injury and that had helped their preparation. Francesca didn’t think that Juliet was as difficult role for the girl as Romeo was for the man but, in Act 3, the character was on stage most of the time and it was therefore important to be totally wrapped up in the story. In order to prepare for this, she felt that she needed to watch the Act 2 fights and the anguish following the deaths from the wings so that she could carry those emotions with her into Juliet’s subsequent scenes.

    Prior to her leave of absence, Francesca had again danced Stephanie in Mayerling,that time with Ryo (Ryoichi Hirano). She had been hoping to have another shot at the role with Ed (Edward Watson) but that was not to be. It was the sort of ballet where all the partners of the leading man, Rudolf, did not get nervous for themselves but all wanted to do well for him.

    Coming up in the 2019/20 season, Francesca had Manon and Sleeping Beauty with Alexander Campbell, she was dancing the first movement of Concertoand she was cast as Odette/Odile in the new Swan Lake opposite Cesar Corrales. As Coppeliahadn’t been in the repertoire for some time, she was watching videos of it to familiarise herself before rehearsals began.

    Responding to David’s question about partners, Francesca said that, when she was cast opposite Edward Watson in Manon,she felt ‘star struck’ and needed to tell herself to ‘get over it’. This year, she had really valued his coaching for Romeo and Juliet.She dances with Alexander Campbell “a lot” and finds it helpful that they hear the music in a similar way and he allows her time. When she had progressed from Clara, where there was not a spare moment to feel nervous, to The Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker,she had appreciated the way he kept her calm. The problem with the latter role was that the Principals had to wait around for nearly the whole ballet and, by the time they come on, the atmosphere and expectations have really built up in such a way as to add to the pressure. Francesca had had a conversation with Kevin about partners. She thought that it was good to be able to build a regular relationship but also stimulating to have a change.

    Francesca relishes the opportunity to be challenged by new choreography, especially enjoying Wayne McGregor because “he works so quickly”

    Francesca relishes the opportunity to be challenged by new choreography, especially enjoying Wayne McGregor because “he works so quickly”. Her first role in one his ballets was as a Little Raven in Raven Girl and she was telling people to look out for her without realising that all of them would be wearing masks. She had also enjoyed making The Windwith Arthur Pita but, for her, being part of Shechter’s Untouchablehad been the most affecting experience. The choreographic process began with a workshop for all Royal Ballet ranks and Shechter then chose his cast in a somewhat similar way to a Derren Brown TV show, “just picking people out of the crowd and working on them”. Then, as rehearsals progressed, Francesca felt as if she “had to unlearn being a ballet dancer”. This was all the more perplexing because she was needing to manage this alongside learning the major role of Alice. But she had been averse to any suggestion that she might drop the Shechter. “That wasn’t going to happen”, she laughed.

    The process of ‘auditioning’ for choreographers varied and many relied on watching the daily class. However, unlike with some companies, in the Company class was something which “dancers do for themselves” rather than seeing it as an opportunity to ‘show off’. Elsewhere, the practice was to make class “more of a performance”, which probably gave visiting choreographers a better idea of what individuals could do.

    But it wasn’t always when a piece was new that there was the opportunity to work with a choreographer. For example, Francesca had taken on the role of Perdita in The Winter’s Taleduring the 2017 Company tour to Australia and had been able to benefit from Christopher Wheeldon being there then.

    In response to questions from the audience, Francesca said that:

    • in the main, dancers are allocated to daily classes, but Principals could choose;
    • she did find the idea of guesting with other companies attractive but it felt wrong to her to pluck a piece from a whole ballet and present only that in a Gala. She would prefer to dance a whole ballet and she also didn’t want to overstretch herself in holiday periods;
    • a special song had been written for her to sing as Victoria in the Catsfilm but she needed to be careful over what she revealed in advance;
    • although she had the leading role in Cats, as she was not a well-known ‘name’ she had had to prove herself all the time, especially as the Director had not been to a ballet. However, once she had danced, the celebrities and the production team seemed to recognise more why she had been cast;
    • when preparing for her role in The Wind,she had watched Natalia Osipova a bit and knew that they gave very different interpretations. However, their dancing varied at each performance just as much because the wind machine was so powerful that it knocked them off balance in their pirouettes;
    • at the photoshoot for Vogue, everyone being featured had a time slot which ensured that they did not meet anyone else who was there to be photographed. One evening, Francesca was in a restaurant and took a phone call from someone who put The Duchess of Sussex on to thank her for her participation. Subsequently, a courier arrived with a book inscribed with another message of thanks;
    • where other ballerinas were concerned, she continued to be moved, and star struck, by the artistry of Alina Cojocaru.

    Francesca ended by saying that she found all her colleagues at The Royal Ballet inspiring and that, having been away for six months, she was now experiencing “a new kind of love”.

    David thought that that was a fitting statement on which to end the evening with thanks to Francesca for coming and good wishes for the future. “Maybe your performance in Catswill reach and motivate young people in the way that you hope”, he added.

    Report written by Linda Gainsbury and edited by Francesca Hayward and David Bain© The Ballet Association 2019