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Francesca Hayward on her journey from a recital at Worthing Pavilion to the Royal Ballet

PUBLISHED: 10:39 30 May 2017 | UPDATED: 10:39 30 May 2017

Francesca Hayward as Manon (Photo by Alice Pennefather)

Francesca Hayward as Manon (Photo by Alice Pennefather)

2014 ROH. Photographed by Alice Pennefather

Goring girl Francesca Hayward, 24, had her first role in a ballet school recital at Worthing Pavilion Theatre. Now she is principal dancer with the Royal Ballet. It has been an intense journey, as Nione Meakin finds out.

Francesca Hayward was practically born dancing. Even at three years old she recalls copying the steps from a video of The Nutcracker in the flat where she lived with her grandparents, John and Diana, in Aldsworth Parade, Goring. Her grandfather ran the chemists below and it wasn’t long before the young Francesca had tiptoed downstairs to dance in the shop too. Little did his amused customers know that the little girl pirouetting around the counter would grow up to become one of the Royal Ballet’s brightest new stars.

Now 24, Francesca – known to her friends as Frankie – has come a long way since she made her stage debut in a ballet school recital at Worthing Pavilion Theatre. Since joining the Royal Ballet Company in 2011 she has been cast in heavyweight roles from Juliet to Manon and has progressed rapidly from first artist to first soloist to principal dancer. The awards too have stacked up; after a series of major prizes while training, in February she took Best Female Dancer at the National Dance Awards – just two years after picking up the Emerging Artist Award. The excitement around her is palpable. “Is this Britain’s next great ballerina?” asked a recent profile in The Guardian.

But she knows better than to let herself get caught up in the hype. Standing in the wings as she prepares to perform roles made famous by ballet greats including Sylvie Guillem, she has found it is best not to overthink things.

“It’s easy to succumb to self-doubt,” she says, “especially when you’re about to go on stage, and the solution is to stop thinking about anything at all because then your body takes over. You might think you don’t know what you’re doing but your body does. It’s what it is trained to do.” Some 15 years of intensive schooling have also taught her the importance of pacing herself. “You want to give every step 100 per cent but you quickly learn that if you do that you might not make it all the way through. It doesn’t mean not trying your hardest; it’s about making sure you have something left for the end.”

Born in Nairobi to a Kenyan mother and British father, Francesca came to live with her grandparents in Sussex at the age of two. Her early fascination with ballet was a relief to them, she says. “I think they were pleased that there was something that entertained me all day. I would literally just dance, eat a bit, dance then go to bed.” At three years old she enrolled at Valerie Le Serve’s School of Ballet and Theatre Dance in Worthing. “I owe Miss Valerie a lot. She taught me everything I needed to know but most importantly, she never took the joy out of dancing. So many girls are excited to start ballet classes and then find it’s a bit strict and scary but Miss Valerie’s classes weren’t like that at all.” Her former teacher remains supportive, she says, and proudly pins up Francesca’s many press cuttings at the entrance of the school.

After attending Our Lady of Sion, where she was presciently cast as a star in the school nativity, the 11-year-old Francesca won one of only a handful of places at White Lodge, the Royal Ballet’s Richmond Park lower school. “It seemed a magical place to me. It felt like there was history in the walls.” Her years there were a steep learning curve. “My family had always encouraged me to learn more about fine art, theatre and music but we really didn’t know much about ballet. So my grandparents and I took it one step a time, learning together as we went along. When I arrived at White Lodge I didn’t even know how to do my hair in a proper bun.” The days were long and Francesca was forced to grow up very quickly. “I don’t think people would believe how much dancing you can pack into one day. It’s much harder than most people realise. You just can’t afford to fall behind. It was upper school when it really hit me. I’d come home on the Tube and if there were no seats I’d just sit on the floor because I literally couldn’t stand any longer.”

Before she was 18, she had been offered a contract with the Royal Ballet Company. Touchingly, her first major role was Clara in The Nutcracker – the ballet she first fell in love with as a toddler. Two months later Francesca was cast in the notoriously challenging ballerina role in Frederick Ashton’s Rhapsody. In 2014, when she was just 22, she stepped up to something even more daunting – Manon, a part widely considered to be the ballet world’s Hamlet. It’s a role that has been played by most of the great ballerinas and she says she had to “go outside and take some deep breaths” when she found she had been cast. “I still can’t believe I did it,” she says. “It’s such a big role and everyone has a particular ballerina they already think did it best. When I was in rehearsals, everyone would say, ‘Oh, Sylvie [Guillem] did it like this.’ ‘Sylvie did it like that.’ It was really hard not to copy what had gone before but to try to find a way of making it my own. For me that means going back to the character and thinking about all the details that make that woman different from say, Giselle. I don’t ever want to look like me, doing different things. I want to be that person.” Clearly she managed it. “Hayward has the ability to step onto a stage and completely inhabit the world she has entered,” raved The Telegraph’s Sarah Crompton.

The following year she played the female lead in Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet at the Royal Opera House. It was another emotional moment, Francesca says. She was four years old when her grandmother took her to see Swan Lake in the famous Covent Garden theatre and now she was about to dance on the same stage. “A few seconds before I went on I was nearly crying in the wings. I thought, stop! You have to save this for the end!” It’s that access to her emotions that is at the heart of what she does. While ballet is about control and precision, it is also about feeling. “I think dancers can get really caught up in being technically perfect but it’s mainly only other dancers who know if someone is technically brilliant. The majority of people who come to watch the ballet don’t want to see you wobbling around but they’re not going to know if someone’s arabesque is better than someone else’s. They have come to be told a story and I see it as our job to completely convince them of that story, to help them get lost in that world.”

When the Royal Ballet announces the casting for its summer season shortly, Francesca will no doubt be back in the spotlight again, telling stories with those famously fast feet and lithe arms. She is ready for the challenge. “There are so many roles I’d still love to do. But I’d also like to come back to those I’ve played and see what I can bring to them a second time. A ballerina’s career doesn’t last forever and I want to dance as much as I’m able and retire with no regrets.”

Read more about the Royal Ballet’s coming shows at www.roh.org.uk

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