Francesa Hayward on Cats, Ozark and Taylor Swift

Words by
Charlotte McManus

25th May 2022

The exceptional ballet star opens up on her remarkable rise to fame.

Francesca Hayward Dance

At the close of September 2014, on the Covent Garden stage, something extraordinary happened. A promising but little-known 22-year-old Royal Ballet dancer called Francesca Hayward made her debut as Manon, the irresistible, feckless courtesan at the heart of Kenneth MacMillan’s 1974 ballet of the same name.

At the time, having joined the company as recently as the 2010-11 season, she was a mere soloist (a middle-ranking position). Yet she faced the daunting prospect of being held up for comparison with several famore established, experienced and celebrated colleagues who were performing the same role that season. 

In the event, however, thanks to an eye-widening fusion of perfect classical technique, lighter-than air musicality and character-driven artistry — capped off, almost unfairly, with the facial beauty of a Hollywood A-lister — it was Hayward’s Manon that stood out. Put simply, a star had been born. She was promoted to principal just two years later and has since gone from strength to strength, so much so that with every new role she takes on, she cements her status as the finest female ballet dancer of her generation — and already, at 29, one of the all-time greats. (She was also, in 2018, swept off to Hollywood to star in the film of Cats, more of which later.)

ballet dancer

Take October 2021, when the Royal Ballet launched its first full season since the March 2020 lockdown left Britain’s theatres dark. The company did so with a run of another MacMillan masterpiece, 1965’s Romeo and Juliet. Wisely, almost inevitably, it was Hayward who was cast as the first-night Juliet. Her performance that evening was a full-blooded, heart-breaking marvel, as indeed was the entire evening. But what, I wonder, was it like to be dancing a weighty story-ballet again after such a threadbare year and a half? Were she and her colleagues aware of just how thrillingly everything seemed to be “clicking” on stage?

Her reply is as modest as it is surprising. “Doing Romeo and Juliet then,” she confesses, “felt a bit strange.” In part, she explains, that was because she was also swamped with rehearsals for The Dante Project, the new work by Royal Ballet resident choreographer Wayne McGregor. “But,” she adds, “to be completely honest, for once our whole company hadn’t even had a run-through together. So, I think maybe the electricity you picked up on was that I was just so happy to be doing it with the group of people I was doing it with.”

 It must be said that Hayward’s rep extends way beyond MacMillan. She has repeatedly proved luminous, too, in the big 19thcentury roles (Swanilda in Coppélia, Princesses Aurora and Florine in The Sleeping Beauty, Clara and the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker), and also in the works of 21st-century choreographers such as McGregor and Christopher Wheeldon. It is in the Royal Ballet’s mid to late 20th-century repertory, though, that she has always shone particularly brightly. Not just in the searing tragedies of MacMillan (1929-1992), but also in the work of the company’s masterly founding choreographer, Frederick Ashton (1904- 1988). 

Happily for Covent Garden audiences, this season sees Hayward return to a role in which she has previously dazzled: the female lead in Ashton’s exhilarating abstract showpiece from 1980, Rhapsody. How, I wonder, would Hayward describe both this work — which is set to Rachmaninov’s lustrous “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” — and its creator to someone unfamiliar with both? “With Instagram,” she says. “There’s such a surge in watching people do incredibly athletic things, doing things holding on to the barre that are super-flexible, superhuman. But that doesn’t mean you can dance,” she adds. “Rhapsody is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.” 


rehearsal ballet

A tiny but lyrically proportioned 5ft 2in, Hayward has an exceptional, God-given talent and physique for ballet, and yet her ability to master the technical and physical rigours of Ashton has (as with all dancers) been hard-won. Born in 1992 in Nairobi to an English father and Kenyan mother, and raised by her paternal grandparents in Worthing, West Sussex, she discovered the art form when she was just two years old. The experience was via a video of the great Lesley Collier dancing in the Royal Ballet’s Nutcracker (the same dancer, incidentally, who is now coaching her in Rhapsody). Thereafter, she says, “my poor grandfather was sent out to various video shops around Sussex, and would be thrilled if he just found anything that I hadn’t seen before.” Ballet lessons as a child led to a place at the Royal Ballet Lower and then Upper School, after which she graduated straight into the company. 

Her routine is demanding: five or six days a week (depending on the performance schedule), there’s morning class from 10.30-11.45, with a mere 15-minute break before anything up to six hours of rehearsals (punctuated only by lunch), and then the possibility of a three-hour show in the evening. Small wonder, then, that she likes to take her foot off the pedal when she can. “Obviously,” she says, “when I come home from work, I like to switch off from ballet.” 

She’s told me before that she’s a fan of the TV thriller Ozark, the tune-recognition app Shazam, and another app, Blinkist. (“What it does is it reads all those humongous educational books for people like me who haven’t got time to read them.”) When I ask her how she stayed fit through the big 2020 lockdown, she admits: “Well, at the beginning, I was still a dedicated dancer and I tried to do ballet class in the living room and tune into the company Zoom ballet classes — and then it was just too much. “I mean,” she continues, referring to the London flat she now shares with her boyfriend and fellow Royal Ballet star Cesar Corrales, “I have a wonky floor, so I didn’t want to come back sort of lopsided. Obviously, that’s more damaging than not doing anything at all — and it just got too hard. With ballet, you have to give it everything or nothing — just being somewhere in the middle and not being my best was just really deflating. So I honestly just accepted that I was going to be a normal person for a while, and I was really happy.” But she must, I suggest, have taken a lot of “regular” exercise, to have emerged from the period of borderline incarceration in such fantastic shape? “No,” she insists, “I didn’t! I hate exercise, unless it’s ballet. I never go to the gym, I hate walking a long way, I hate running.” She laughs. “Ballet’s the only exercise I enjoy.”


cats movie

She found herself stepping some way outside her previous comfort zone in 2018, when, having caught the eye of Hollywood, she was cast in the plum role of Victoria in Cats, director Tom Hooper’s adaptation of the 1981 Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. At the time, social media got its knickers in a ridiculous twist over the fact that the mixed-race Hayward had been cast to play a white cat. (As she told me at the time: “I always knew that I was auditioning for the white cat. It’s as simple as: I was auditioning for a cat. No way would I audition for a human who had to be white skinned.”) Hopes were high for the project, and who knew, might a career in Hollywood be beckoning? 

However, it was not to be. Through no fault of Hayward’s, the film was a now infamous critical and box office bomb. Still, I can’t help wondering: does she nevertheless relish the memories of making it? “Yes,” she says, without hesitation. “I have no regrets. I can’t imagine my life now without having met the people that I met making that film. Actually, I met some of the cast a few weeks ago, and we went for dinner. The film was really hard work, it was really testing at times, long hours on set together, and so we all have this kind of amazing bond that you can’t shake. Can you believe,” she says, as if she genuinely still can’t quite believe it, “that I could email Judi Dench if I wanted to?” “I bumped into Judi by accident on holiday,” she adds, “and I had this surreal moment where I could go over and talk to her like a friend. And so many of the others, too — just ‘pinch me’ kind of stuff. It’s crazy.” She gives one of many endearingly big, unguarded laughs. “Even when I think back, I just can’t believe some of the experiences, that they’re really real, like hanging out with Taylor Swift — she made me a song, ‘Beautiful Ghosts’, and she sang it to me.” 

You can’t help suspecting that Hayward’s legions of ballet-fancying fans were secretly, guiltily relieved that Cats tanked, thereby — for the moment, at least — presumably reducing the likelihood of Hollywood claiming her. That said, if the call were to come again, would she give the movies another go? “I’d love to do another film,” she says. “Definitely. You know, I don’t think films generally need to take up so many months as Cats did. I think what’s wonderful is to be somewhere like the Royal Ballet, where they’re so happy for us to go and explore other adventures for a bit. So, yes. I don’t think it would take me away from ballet for too long if I did, and I’d really love the experience. But I’m definitely not going to cut my career short for films. “No,” she concludes. “I know that ballet is a short career, and I want to know that when I retire I gave it everything. So, yeah, I’m not going away.” 

The Royal Ballet performs Rhapsody along with Scènes de ballet and A Month in the Country in a Frederick Ashton triple bill from 23 April to 2 May. Royal Opera House, London WC2E 9DD; 020 7304 4000;