“I’ve always known it’s what I wanted to do. Everything else, school and academics, felt like a bit of a chore,” Francesca Hayward, principal dancer at the Royal Ballet, tells What We Seee. “Ballet I just used to do all the time. You couldn’t stop me.” Was there a single moment when she knew? “I used to play the violin as well. And when you’re 11 — as a dancer, you really need to decide at 11 — I had to commit to training every day. And I just hated playing the violin,” she laughs. 

And since then, her career has gone from strength to strength. If there’s never been any question about what she wanted to do, there’s certainly never been any question of her talent. Hayward trained at The Royal Ballet School before graduating into the Company during the 2010/11 Season. From there, she was promoted to First Artist in 2013, Soloist in 2014, First Soloist in 2015, and Principal in 2016 — all by the age of 24.

They’ve Already Sussed You Out

Francesca Hawyward

Alexander Campbell as Albrecht and Francesca Hayward as Giselle. © ROH, 2018. By Helen Maybanks

And becoming one of the leading faces of the Royal Ballet at 24 isn’t easy. The transition from the corps de ballet to principal means taking a much more forward-facing role, a new challenge when you’ve been focused on dance for your entire adult life.  “Definitely the first few interviews I did it was quite scary,” she explains. “I learned very quickly about some journalists — they’ve already sussed you out they think as a person, the interview is very much leading you to say what they want me to. And it’s scary not knowing, because anything can be taken out of context. It’s a little bit sad because I have to be a little more guarded.” When you remember that Hayward is only 26, that she started doing interviews while still in her early 20s, it’s easy to see why she would become guarded, but luckily she’s been able to let her personality shine through over time. “I’ve gotten used to it, so I worry less.”

“I remember when I was asked to do my first interview and it was so surprising that people wanted to have your opinion,” she pauses for a second and sounds contemplative. “More people want to talk to me now. It’s really odd, most people are only interested in what you have to say when you reach a certain rank — but there are a lot of interesting people in the corps de ballet. A lot of people who know just as much about dance, about the company — or who even know more. It’s a shame that some people only care about you once you’re a principal.”

And her enthusiasm for her co-workers and fellow dancers shows through — in part because that’s exactly where she started. It’s given her a passion for the work and dedication of the dancers — and a sense that she’s frustrated that they’re not always given the attention they deserve. “I’m so grateful I started in the corps de ballet, I know how it important it is,” Hayward explains. “Now that I’m doing the principal roles I have such a respect for everyone around me, they pull together — and they’re actually my friends — rooting for me. And I try to do everything I can to make it work for them.”

Spontaneous And Fresh

Francesca Hayward

The Dreamers Ever Leave You. © ROH, 2017. By Alice Pennefather.

Her days, of course, focus on dancing — but she thrives in the unpredictability of her schedule. “Every day is really different, it’s really different for most of the dancers in the company, actually, which is fun. I think a lot of the dancers are in the same position in that it’s kind of hard not ever knowing what you’re doing this time next week. I know when I have a performance, definitely — but rehearsals are a bit more tricky.” Does she mind? “I think if I did have a set schedule I’d find it quite monotonous.”

She is currently preparing for Manon, where she plays the title role, finding the balance between spontaneity and preparedness. “The Royal Ballet does more productions than other companies, so there’s less time to rehearse each one, though there’s a more intense build up and peak closer to the show,” she explains. But she finds the shorter rehearsal period is actually helpful for performances. “It feels a lot more interesting when you get to the actual performance — Often I find I’ll be on stage and it all comes together suddenly. It makes it feel spontaneous and really fresh. It’s a hard balance between being prepared enough and over-prepared.” And, despite the rave reviews that she’s been receiving for years, she still remains grounded. It’s clear that she still feels like there’s room to improve. “I’m only now starting to find the balance,” she says.

Friend And Role Model

Francesca Hayward

The Nutcracker. Francesca Hayward as The Sugar Plum Fairy. ROH, 2016. By Helen Maybanks

Although she has her roots in the corps, there’s a big difference in her schedule now. While dancers in the corps are working hard virtually around the clock, being a principal means a different sort of schedule. “As a principal, your season is so varied — you can have very quiet spots. I’ve even had really quiet weeks — and you get whole shows off.”

And while you might imagine a ballet star spends all of her free time doing something ethereal or refined, the way Hayward spends her time off is actually a startling reminder that she is, in some ways, your typical 20-something. “I’ve been getting in touch with friends around the world, trying to be a better friend generally, and learning not to feel guilty about when I can’t be around. I get the boring stuff done  — I go to the dentist and take care of all those things I don’t normally have time to. And I get to go to the pub with friends or family.” She laughs again. And although she definitely gets a dose of culture, visiting art galleries and going to the theater, sometimes she just wants to switch off. “The cinema is perfect because I can sit there and not use my brain — some days I just want to eat and sleep, but then I live in London and I don’t want to miss out.”

It becomes clear that when she’s not dancing there are two Francesca Haywards — the one who wants to hang out with her friends and relax, and the one who is a face of the Royal Ballet and an inspiration to dancers around the world.  “Young dancers write to me, they’re usually at these crucial parts of their journey to become a professional. They are moments that I really remember well, when you don’t know what the next step is or if you should take it, and they’re just looking for the honest truth.” It’s surreal, because not long ago Hayward was one of those young girls worrying about the next steps in her career, but she’s doing her best to take on the position as a mentor. “I try to give advice where I can.”

Though she remains down to earth and unassuming, she’s adjusting to her new life as a role model and ballet icon. So what’s next? “There’s definitely exciting stuff coming up — projects that I’m looking forward to,” Hayward says. “But I have to keep some things secret.”

To get a peek behind the scenes and see what Hayward is working on, you can follow her on Instagram or check the Royal Opera House website.