Francesca Hayward: ‘Art Is Medicine For Your Soul’

The Royal Ballet principal dancer talks about the year that changed everything, and the power of creativity for our mental health.

Francesca Hayward wearing Dior

by Rosamund Dean |

Some buildings are meant to be full of people. Without the bustle and anticipation of an audience, London’s Royal Opera House feels eerily silent. On a rainy Wednesday, after a temperature check and a hand sanitise, I walk through deserted corridors to an empty meeting room. It’s all feeling a bit bleak – until a beaming Francesca Hayward bounds in, a ray of sunshine in black sweatpants and zip-up top, fresh from rehearsal and buzzing with delight about being on our cover. ‘Grazia is genuinely the highlight of my fortnight,’ she grins, taking a socially-distanced seat at the other end of the table.

On stage, Francesca is poised and ethereal and, in Dior for our cover shoot, she is exceptionally beautiful. But off-duty she’s refreshingly goofy. When I ask what she has on her feet, she laughs, ‘These?’, plonking a foot on the table to show me her booties, which look like sleeping bags. ‘All dancers wear these because it’s important to keep our toes warm. They’re like little feet duvets.’ Perfect for a winter of pandemic-mandated outdoor socialising? ‘Yes! These are from a ballet shop, but North Face do them for regular people,’ she says, helpfully.

It’s not a conversation the 28-year-old principal dancer for The Royal Ballet expected to be having this year. In March, she was set to make her debut in Swan Lake. ‘It’s one of the hardest, most demanding roles for a ballerina. It’s the role in the film Black Swan,’ she says, before hastily adding, ‘which is not accurate, by the way. I was not mad like Natalie Portman – I was being very rational about the whole thing. But just to give you some idea of what I was preparing to do. I was really pushing myself and feeling very focused.’

Then lockdown happened and Francesca (Frankie to her friends) found herself sitting on her sofa on what would have been opening night. Luckily, she had company, in the handsome shape of Cesar Corrales, the Cuban-Canadian first soloist with whom she spent lockdown after they fell in love while starring in the Royal Ballet’s Romeo And Juliet last year. It’s quite comical to think of two such immaculate physical specimens attempting to do their pliés in a one-bedroom flat. ‘We had to fold up the sofa and still didn’t have enough space,’ she laughs. ‘I was holding on to the kitchen counter and we were kicking each other. It was quite frustrating.’ Until they had the genius idea of asking to use the (obviously deserted) yoga studio downstairs. They installed a barre and were able to get back to a bit of training, but there was certainly an element of enjoying the enforced downtime.

‘Dancers are programmed to work so hard,’ she says. ‘We never get the opportunity to be normal people without guilt. I embraced it and had a couple of days in my pyjamas. I got a new shape to my body for a while, too. Dancers are not obsessed with their diet in the way everyone thinks they are, but obviously the amount of work we do keeps us in the shape that we need to be. I have wondered what I would look like if I stopped doing ballet and I got an idea of that!’

Francesca Hayward Grazia cover
©Alex Bramall

Obviously, lockdown wasn’t all pyjama parties with Cesar. Like most of us, Frankie found it difficult being apart from older relatives – in her case, the grandparents who raised her since she moved to the UK from Kenya when she was two. ‘I feel lucky that my family have been healthy, but it was so hard not to hug them,’ she says. ‘When we were allowed to, I was going to sit in their garden in south London. But I brought my own tea and didn’t use their bathroom. We’re not even that much of a huggy family, but I desperately wanted to reach out.’

Last month, Frankie and Cesar performed in front of an audience for the first time in seven months, as part of The Royal Ballet: Back On Stage. And although it was difficult not having her grandparents there – ‘they come to every single one of my performances, so it doesn’t feel quite right without them’ – she loved that the socially distanced audience was made up of NHS nurses, healthcare workers and Royal Ballet students. The show was (and still is) available to stream online, which is one way in which cultural organisations are adapting to keep afloat. But there is nothing quite like watching something with an audience and feeling the emotion in the room.

‘Creativity is so important for people’s mental health,’ she nods. ‘Yes, we’re not saving lives here, but what I can do is have a nurse sit there for an hour and be transported – have her mind be completely taken off everything. Isn’t that special? Isn’t that needed? Art is medicine for your soul. We need to stand up and say the arts are important and should be valued.’

In the last few weeks, the industry has certainly been feeling undervalued. The sudden lack of a paying audience meant a crippling financial hit, and insult was added to injury last month when a (widely mocked) Government ad from last year resurfaced, appearing to suggest that ballerina ‘Fatima’ – and by extension people in the arts in general – should retrain.

‘I absolutely know this is what I was meant to do. And having that sense of belonging has always helped me know that, when I’m working hard and pushing myself, it’s worth it,’ she says, before adding, with meaning, ‘So, yeah, I will not be retraining.’

Frankie embodies the classic ballet mix of weightless grace and formidable strength: her warmth and humour might lead some to underestimate her passion for justice. She tells me how many of her freelance friends are struggling and that, on Instagram, she’s seeing a lot of hurt. ‘Everyone who works in the theatre has invested their whole life in it,’ she says. ‘We don’t fall into this career on a whim. This is people’s blood, sweat and tears, literally. I feel very passionate about it because we don’t do this for the money. We do this to create something and tell stories and help other people connect with that in a meaningful way.’

'It felt like everyone posted their black square and then you could be ticked off as “not racist”. That didn’t feel very meaningful to me.'

Of course, the pandemic has not been the only seismic event this year. The brutal killing of George Floyd and subsequent resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement has been a watershed moment globally. ‘I found it really hard to process. First, to actually see what happened, it’s so inhumane.’ She pauses, then continues. ‘It was a shock to everyone, and it made me realise so many things about myself. Obviously, I’ve encountered microaggressions my whole life, but I’ve never dwelled on them. Having this time to speak about it with other mixed-race and Black people made me see that it affected me more than I realised. It feels good that we’re talking about it. The topic of race is something that puts everyone on edge and people are scared of saying the wrong thing. Even I feel a little afraid when I speak out on social media. It’s something I never wanted to do before, I wanted to keep it separate from my professional life, but now it feels important. Not saying anything feels like the wrong choice for me now.’

She handled it beautifully, posting Sara Shakeel’s artwork of George Floyd and, later, Chris Ofili’s 1998 portrait of Doreen Lawrence, the message of which was clear: this is not just an American problem. Although social media is an invaluable tool to share the BLM message, she admits, ‘I didn’t enjoy the pressure to do it “right”. It felt like everyone posted their black square and then you could be ticked off as “not racist”, so that didn’t feel very meaningful to me. I was struggling to find the right words, but not saying anything felt much worse.’

So this has been the year that she has found her voice and, she tells me, she hopes the conversation stays open. ‘I see people being torn down on social media for saying the wrong thing, or saying it in the wrong way,’ she says, ‘and that’s something we need to be aware of, that we’re being kind and constructive in helping other people talk about it. Otherwise we’re going to go back to not talking about it again. We’ve come this far, and we just need to be careful about how we go forward.’

She hopes the world will emerge from 2020 with a more thoughtful, considerate attitude, having had this time to work out what’s important. ‘We’ve all taken a step back from our life as it was and re-evaluated everything, and that’s a powerful thing to do.’

Francesca Hayward Grazia magazine
Francesca Hayward wearing Dior ©Alex Bramall

In terms of her own future, she’d like to do more acting, having starred in last year’s Cats movie (it may have been critically panned, but few found fault with her performance). ‘I didn’t know what to expect with Cats, because I’d never been in a film before,’ she says cautiously. ‘I thought, I’m just going to give the audition my all and, if I don’t get the part, I’ll be proud of myself for being brave enough to go into that room and sing in front of strangers. Little did I know I’d end up singing in front of Taylor Swift and Jennifer Hudson! Then dancing with Idris Elba and acting with Judi Dench. It was almost so surreal that it helped me, because I just got on with it, without thinking about it too much. I missed live performance while I was filming. But, during lockdown, I watched so many films it made me feel like I want to do some more acting.’ Any particular role? ‘I’d like to play a human,’ she smiles.

Meanwhile, Frankie will be back on the Royal Opera House stage in the run-up to Christmas in The Nutcracker, albeit in front of an audience of 950, rather than the usual 2,000 (restrictions allowing). And she’s feeling optimistic about the future. ‘Think of what amazing things people have been brewing up in lockdown, and the ways that we have found to reach new audiences,’ she says. ‘I think we’ll see a whole new era of art and creativity. The arts is such an adaptable industry, and we’re all so desperate to get back to doing what we do. We’ll find a way to get there.’

The Royal Ballet will perform ‘The Nutcracker’ from 5 December to 3 January. Francesca Hayward stars in ‘The Nutcracker’ global cinema relay on 10 December; roh.org.uk

READ MORE: Francesca Hayward Talks Finding Her Red Carpet Confidence

READ MORE: Maria Grazia Chiuri On The Role Of Fashion In Times Of Crisis

READ MORE: Taking Up Ballet As An Adult Is The Best Thing I've Ever Done

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