THE OUTNET’S Head of Content, Claudia Mahoney, got to reunite with ballerina and one of the stars of our holiday campaign, Francesca Hayward. In case you missed their live conversation about getting into the festive spirit, what it’s like being a professional dancer and making her film debut in Cats — we made sure to save some of the best bits…
Claudia: Welcome Frankie! Hi. How are you?
Francesca: I’m good and how are you?
Claudia: Thank you so, so much for joining us this evening and, honestly it’s such a treat to see you again. We met probably about two months ago, I think, on set. When you were one of the stars of our holiday campaign and you looked absolutely exquisite in all of the pictures like a real life sugar plum fairy. But, it was a really lovely day wasn’t it?
Francesca: It was gorgeous, gorgeous day and like a taste of Christmas already, so I’m really excited now.
Claudia: I know that you came to the UK when you were 2 years old and you’ve grown up here. But, I wanted to ask you about your paternal grandparents and their importance in your life. Can you tell us a little bit about your relationship with them?
Francesca: Well, they are the most important people in my life, for sure, 100%. They still come to, I mean, they were coming to every single performance that I did in the Royal Opera House, they were the ones that introduced me to ballet. When I was very small, they weren’t really sure what to do with me to keep me occupied. So, just sort of on a whim my grandmother thought I might enjoy a video of The Nutcracker. Literally my earliest memories are seeing fairies on the TV from Sleeping Beauty and seeing Swan Lake in the living room, copying it. And, I know it sounds strange but I really just kind of understood what they were saying. I know they weren’t speaking but all these fairies doing all these gestures and mimes with their hands and their faces.
Claudia: You’re obviously now Principal Ballerina with the Royal Ballet in Covent Garden, and you’re someone who is hugely dedicated to your art and your craft. As a lazy person, trying to wrap my head around the amount of hours and how grueling it must be on your body and your mental state as well over the years. How have you managed to maintain that love amongst the workload?
Francesca: Well, if I’m being completely honest, the thing I love about ballet is being on stage and telling the story. I’ve always had tough times, ups and downs in my career and there’s times I’ve definitely thought, you know, ‘is this… it is really hard, is this worth it?’ And, I’ve always known it is because the last time I was on stage. Just the feeling you get from being there and after the performance, that for me has been the things that I’ve always held onto as this is why I do it and this is why I go through all the hard times.
Claudia: Do you have a favorite part to play that you love to perform?
Francesca: I mean, I’ve always got a special place for The Nutcracker in my heart because obviously, as I said, that’s the ballet that I started with. And, I don’t usually get emotional on stage unless obviously the role requires me to be emotional, but doing Clara for the first time in The Nutcracker and also the Sugar Plum Fairy was moments in my career where I got sort of overwhelmed before thinking, ‘this is really happening.’ All the times I’ve watched other people doing it, and now it’s actually me, stood here. Yeah, that was a moment.
Claudia: I want to ask you as well about acting, you starred in the massive juggernaut that is Cats. What was it like arriving on set, outside of the ballet world that you’ve known and loved for all these years and being there with Dame Judi Dench and these other greats?
Francesca: I mean to start with, pretending to be a cat is already an experience within itself. So, then, add on to that the fact that you’re in rehearsals with Tom Hooper and then Judi Dench and Ian McKellen would just walk in. And all sorts of incredible things, I danced with Idris Elba…
Claudia: I mean, a lot of women would feel pretty jealous right now that you’ve just said that. Is he as gorgeous and charming as we’d all hope?
Francesca: He’s very charming and also he smells very nice!
Claudia: Good fact!
Francesca: I was just in at the deep end, I didn’t have as much time to think about it, I just did it. So, when I was there doing a one-on-one scene with Judi Dench I wasn’t thinking ‘oh my god that’s Judi Dench,’ I was just thinking about ok, well, just thinking about the task at hand, you know?
Claudia: Yeah, and how did you stay focusing with Taylor Swift? Was that a surreal experience as well?
Francesca: And Jennifer Hudson. I mean…
Claudia: I mean, what a voice.
Francesca: Jennifer Hudson sang the lead song Memory, about 14 times that day when we did that scene. And every single time she sang it, the whole cast was crying, proper tears. It was incredible. But yeah, I think with that film, the thing I loved the most was how everyone had such different talents. So, everyone was going to do something in the film that really wasn’t their strength. They had so many other people around them where that was their strength to learn from and lean on and that’s why it was such a great atmosphere.
Claudia: You sort of came to prominence around the time that Meghan Markle guest edited the Forces for Change Vogue cover, and I wanted to ask you about that and how that came about and how it felt to be grouped with those amazing, amazing people?
Francesca: I remember being on the set of Cats one day and it was… I think it was just me, Jennifer Hudson and Judi Dench in that day. Which again, just saying that sentence is hilarious. Normal day at work, you know. I was on an empty, massive street with no one else around and being told on the phone that I’d been chosen to be on the cover of Vogue. It’s oh my goodness, it’s incredible!
Claudia: Did you enjoy the process of being styled and photographed…?
Francesca: Yes! I love, I really love fashion, I really do. It’s always been, I mean, next to ballet, it’s always been my next love. The thing that gives me that kind of thrill and excitement and kind of, yeah, I loved it. Edward Enninful was styling and he put me in this massive big black coat, which is literally my dream, because that’s kind of what I wear, just a little less glamorous version.
Claudia: Do you feel that, when you’re wearing all of those, costumes and tutus and the tight things to show your form when you’re dancing — do you feel that when you’re in your everyday life, you want to go to the opposite end of the spectrum and be in baggy, comfy stuff?
Francesca: Literally all I wear is big, baggy clothes. Black, baggy clothes. I like to just put the jewelry on to be a bit more feminine but I just like to be a bit more sort of… not tomboyish, just you know, I like the big, black chunky boots, I like to wear layers of cozy black things basically!
Claudia: I wanted to ask you as well about the Forces for Change and the message that it was giving everybody and the platform to speak out and have a voice outside of your ballet career. Is that something that you take seriously, having a sort of voice for activism and a force for change?
Francesca: I suppose I didn’t even do an interview for a sort of newspaper or a magazine until I was a soloist. And, first of all, I always found it strange how they always wanted to bring up me being mixed race and it always threw me a bit. Since Forces for Change and all the events that have happened in the last few months, the tragic events, I’ve realized that I didn’t understand how much other people needed to see me here. Now I see the importance behind it and so, I now feel more that if I didn’t stand here and speak about these things I wouldn’t feel right about myself. So, I feel like I’ve really shifted on a lot.
Claudia: What better advocate and passionate representation could they have than in you? I want to know, I know you can’t plan something definitely, but a lot of people have been asking, will you perform over Christmas if you can?
Francesca: Definitely, you know, we are determined to make Christmas shows happen, for sure. So, however we’re going to do that, we will.
Claudia: Well look, we’re so, so grateful to you for giving us your time this evening and you are an absolute inspiration, a complete superstar, we’re so grateful to you for being part of our holiday campaign and we wish you every bit of luck for everything opening up again and the hopeful news about the vaccine and a return to some normality. We hope!
Francesca: I hope so too! It was lovely to speak to you. Thank you!
Moira Rose is my hero.
Sharing her love of ballet
I suppose what’s lovely is that’s what sort of introduced me to ballet, was watching these ballet videos, I hadn’t seen a live show yet. In a kind of way that’s hopefully what we’re doing now, even though we can’t come to the theatre, I hope maybe… If someone who’s maybe never been to The Royal Opera House or seen a ballet has been able to catch one of the live streams, maybe they will come when they can. I love that thought.
Getting to relax
When lockdown happened, we were one week away from the pair of us together doing our debut in Swan Lake. For a ballerina, it’s one of the most iconic roles you can sort of add to your list of roles, and it’s one of the most physically demanding. I think as dancers, we’re always sort of being really hard on ourselves. We’re always thinking ‘oh, I didn’t work hard enough today, I need to work more on this tomorrow.’ There’s kind of always a sense of… not guilt but almost ‘I should be working harder, I should be doing more to be better,’ all the time. And, all that was sort of taken away so we, I could literally sit in my pajamas and I had none of those other feelings. I could just sit there and go ‘yeah, this is what I, this is the only thing I can do.’