As you might imagine, one of the most difficult aspects of our job as Pointe editors is choosing just one image to grace the cover of each issue. We have the privilege of shooting such amazing dancers that it can feel like an impossible task to find the right image. Please enjoy a selection of some of our favorite outtakes from our six 2016 cover shoots, featuring fabulous ballerinas (and one danseur!) from around the world.
All photos by Nathan Sayers for Pointe magazine.
February/March 2016's cover was the phenomenal Francesca Hayward, then a Royal Ballet soloist. She's since been promoted to principal dancer. Hayward at once displays the charm and delicacy of a quintessential English dancer, while maintaining the power necessary for a 21st century ballerina.
April/May 2016 featured the marvelous Mayara Pineiro. After taking a leap of faith and defecting from her home country of Cuba, Pineiro has skyrocketed through the ranks at Pennsylvania Ballet. She was a soloist when we wrote about her, and she was promoted to principal dancer this year. The self-assurance required to make such a life-altering decision comes through in her rock-solid dancing.
June/July 2016 celebrated American Ballet Theatre soloist Cassandra Trenary. About to tackle the role of a lifetime—Princess Aurora in Alexei Ratmansky's reconstruction of The Sleeping Beauty—Trenary didn't seem fazed. She's frank, with girl-next-door vibes, but that only enhances the classical clarity of her lines and her commanding presence.
August/September 2016 was like a final blast of summer. Hannah O'Neill, the pristine Paris Opéra Ballet premiére, lit up our cover—which featured an unusual yellow background. It was the perfect color to complement O'Neill's golden glow and easy elegance.
October/November saw the dashing Derek Dunn on our cover, shortly before he jumped from demi-soloist to soloist. He also jumped at our shoot: One perfect grand pas de chat and brisé after another. Usually, it takes many (many) attempts to get a good jump shot, but Dunn delivered his signature pristine lines for every image.
December/January featured the stunning Stella Abrera. Ballet fans have long considered Abrera a principal dancer and now that she has the official title, she's never looked better. It was our honor to put such a paragon of grace and determination on the cover of our biggest issue of the year.
Last September, as one of The Royal Ballet’s coaches walked her through the potion scene from Romeo and Juliet, Francesca Hayward wasted no time marking the steps. Instead of lingering on individual poses, she was instantly focused on the web of emotions behind the choreography. Sitting on Juliet’s bed, she seemed to contemplate the events that had just unfolded as Prokofiev’s music swelled up, projecting despite her tiny stature; after pretending to drink the poison, she reached for her neck, her eyes filled with fear and disgust.
When The Royal Ballet first soloist made her debut in Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s iconic ballet the next month, British critic Luke Jennings tweeted: “Francesca Hayward dances Juliet and British ballet is remade.” At 23, the Kenya-born dancer is the leading light of a rising UK-trained generation nurtured by director Kevin O’Hare. She is also a rare mixed-race ballerina on the path to stardom, but neither she nor UK audiences have paid that fact much heed. Instead, Hayward has become known for embodying quintessential Royal Ballet qualities: fleet-footed articulation, sparkling musicality and strikingly natural acting.
Born near Nairobi to a Kenyan mother and British father, Hayward left Africa when she was 2. She was raised by her paternal grandparents in Sussex, not far from London. When they bought her ballet videos, she was instantly hooked; she vividly recalls mimicking Alessandra Ferri’s own potion scene as Juliet in her living room. “I was fallen on the floor and doing all the dramatic bits. My grandpa looked into the living room and thought I was really ill.”
Hayward went through The Royal Ballet School’s entire curriculum, starting at age 10. The transition between White Lodge, the boarding school for younger students, and the Upper School, where many international students join, proved a challenge: “Suddenly there were all these girls who had flat turned-out feet before we’d even warmed up. The first year was like military boot camp for ballet.” Katya Zvelebilova, a Czech instructor with Russian influence, shaped her technique there, teaching her how to compose with her 5' 2" frame. “I had to learn how to dance big without being brash. She taught me how to lengthen and lift my legs without using sheer quad strength.”
And her sangfroid under pressure made an impression early on. As an Upper School student, she was thrown onstage to cover for dancers in The Royal Ballet’s productions, and performed so well that midway through her final school year, after injuries in the company, she was offered an immediate full-time contract. “I never graduated!” she says. “The next morning, I was in company class. Nobody there knew for a while that I’d joined.”
A year after she was hired, in 2012, Kevin O’Hare took over as artistic director, and Hayward was one of the first dancers he pushed. “Her ease of technique is so beautiful to watch, you don’t actually realize she’s dancing,” he says. In early 2014, O’Hare tested her determination in a short but fiendishly difficult work by Sir Frederick Ashton, Rhapsody, which Hayward calls “the hardest 20 minutes of my life. At the end I was so tired that I started to see stars.”
Still, she was such a natural in this typically British ballet that bigger roles came soon afterwards. Six months later, she was cast in MacMillan’s Manon, usually reserved for experienced ballerinas, with Edward Watson as her partner. “I could never have done that ballet without Ed,” she says. “He commits to every single rehearsal, does everything full-out straightaway, even the bedroom kiss. It helped me not be shy.”
In Manon, Hayward’s instinctive acting gifts came to the fore. “She digests things almost instantly, and she has a special awareness of how to be onstage. She presents almost a finished result, which is very unusual,” says her coach, Lesley Collier.
“I imagine myself as the character, and I can always tell when I’m not quite there yet,” Hayward explains. “It’s like painting something: You have to layer it up, to build it. If it doesn’t feel natural to me, there’s nothing worse.”
After Manon, Hayward had a breakthrough season, dancing Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and creating roles for Hofesh Shechter and Wayne McGregor. In Shechter’s modern Untouchable, she had to learn to internalize movement rather than project it, and stood out as a tiny yet fierce part of the group, her hair in dreadlocks. McGregor also choreographed a prominent role for her in Woolf Works, as Sally, a key character from the novel Mrs. Dalloway. “Wayne wants more from you all the time,” she says. “He always drives you, even when you’re exhausted.” Sharing the stage with Ferri, the lead and her childhood idol, was a bonus.
Hayward was promoted to first soloist last summer, and is on the fast track to join Watson and Lauren Cuthbertson, the only British principals at The Royal Ballet. Along with Yasmine Naghdi, Matthew Ball or Claire Calvert, she is changing the perception that British-trained dancers are too shy to compete with the international stars who flock to The Royal Ballet. “English dancers are seen as not as sure of themselves, but Francesca is part of a group who know they can do it,” says O’Hare. Collier concurs: “She immerses herself in a story line, which is how I was brought up, and she has her feet on the ground.”
The young ballerina is also one of the very few dancers equally at home in the work of Ashton and MacMillan, The Royal Ballet’s founding choreographers. “My heart belongs to both,” she says. “It is very sacred work. With Ashton, when you master all the details, the feeling is incredible.” She defines the British style as “pure and elegant, with lots of bending,” Ashton’s catchphrase for the upper-body pliancy that foreign-trained dancers often find a struggle.
Hayward, who goes by “Frankie” with friends, recently traded life in central London for a house and a garden in the suburbs with her partner: “You get to a point where you realize you need to separate your work and your home life.” In her free time, aside from visiting her grandparents, she admits to a soft spot for history and the British Museum’s mummies.
And while she is reaching milestones as a biracial ballerina in the UK, Hayward’s experience has been a far cry from Misty Copeland’s in the US. “It’s only when people ask me what it’s like to be a mixed-race dancer that I realize that I am. I’ve never been made to feel different, or like I shouldn’t be doing it.” She hopes to meet Copeland and has taken part in The Royal Ballet’s outreach programs, but for now, she is more focused on her dancing than on making history: “I still can’t believe Kevin has taken all the chances he has on me. I’m proud to be the first to achieve a few things—but I am more proud that I am doing it.”
Laura Cappelle is a dance writer based in France.
A rehearsal for Balanchine’s “Diamonds” is getting underway in St. Petersburg, and Kristina Shapran is smiling and teasing her partner, Xander Parish, as she adjusts a belt to protect her sore back. As soon as the pianist plays the first notes of Tchaikovsky’s score, however, the Mariinsky Ballet first soloist transforms. Suddenly, she seems to be stepping onstage, her classically beautiful face projecting as if to the back of an auditorium; with luminous simplicity, she embodies the elusive Russian soul, that spiritual quality that the St. Petersburg ballet tradition values so highly.
Surprisingly, Shapran’s road to the Mariinsky was a difficult one, from St. Petersburg to Moscow and back, with much self-doubt along the way. Her delicate, singing lines are a pure product of her Vaganova training, but instead of entering the Mariinsky straight after graduation, she opted to join smaller Russian companies—first the Stanislavsky Ballet, then the Mikhailovsky Ballet. There, she struggled with loneliness and technical frailty, and it seemed like she might not deliver on her early promise.
In 2014, however, Shapran finally found her way to the Mariinsky, and she has been making up for lost time. At 24, she is on the express track to stardom under acting director Yuri Fateyev, who is nurturing her unique gifts. Rather than a powerhouse technician, Shapran is that rare creature in the fairly stereotyped Russian ballet world: a true dance actress. In her debut as Juliet last July, she moved as if free from any constraints, letting natural reactions take their course and infusing the steps with expressive life.
Raised in St. Petersburg, Shapran danced everywhere as a child, to the point that a friend mentioned the Vaganova Ballet Academy to her. Her mother, an accountant, and father, a geologist, took her to the Mariinsky for performances, and Shapran vividly remembers her shock when she discovered La Bayadère. “When I saw Nikiya’s scene with the snake, I was paralyzed. I couldn’t even speak during the intermission. I just knew that someday I would be playing that role.”
That determination served Shapran well when she entered the very competitive Vaganova Ballet Academy at age 9. “My childhood was over then,” she says seriously. “It was a completely different level of emotions, very hard work.” The 90-minute commute from her home involved taking the bus, the metro and walking to the Academy on her own. In class, with her naturally arched feet, Shapran had to work especially hard to gain stability.
By her graduation in 2011, she was considered one of two wildly talented students in her age group who were likely to take the Mariinsky by storm. The other was Olga Smirnova; the two shared the role of Nikiya in La Bayadère’s Shades scene at their graduation performance.
In a shocking move, however, both shunned contracts at the Mariinsky. Like Smirnova, who joined the Bolshoi, Shapran was offered soloist positions by all the top Russian companies, Mariinsky included. She also opted for Moscow, but joined the Stanislavsky Ballet, directed by Igor Zelensky. “I believed in Zelensky, as a person, as a professional, and I wanted to work with him,” she says, adding after a pause: “The Mariinsky was the absolute best to me, but I was also afraid. I thought I wasn’t ready or worthy of it yet, that I would get worse.”
While the Stanislavsky offered Shapran the chance to dance principal roles immediately, including Giselle, Nikiya and Roland Petit’s Coppélia with Sergei Polunin, the transition was far from easy. She looks back on her three years there as her “school of life,” she says. “When I was younger, I was always protected—by my mother, my teachers. In Moscow, I realized I was really alone.”
Challenges included adjusting to the more extroverted Moscow style and learning to work with a hands-on coach, who liked to oversee not just rehearsals but also her charge’s life outside the theater. “Sometimes it’s better if an artist can breathe,” Shapran says. After three seasons, she couldn’t shake the feeling that it was neither the right city nor the right company for her.
When her former Vaganova director and teacher, Altynai Asylmuratova, took up a coaching position at St. Petersburg’s Mikhailovsky Ballet, Shapran saw an opportunity and joined her there as a principal in January 2014. The arrangement lasted less than six months, however. “There were intrigues that made the atmosphere uncomfortable, so we both decided to leave,” Shapran explains.
The young ballerina got in touch with Fateyev, whom she had refused three years earlier. “I didn’t feel angry about it anymore,” Fateyev says. “I think she was too young at the time.” He hadn’t seen her dance since, yet he welcomed her as a first soloist. “You don’t lose talent. Even at school, I knew she would be an artist—she was so charismatic, so individual.”
Her return to the Mariinsky fold in the summer of 2014 was an unexpected twist: The company’s attractiveness had been on the wane, and Smirnova and Shapran’s departures were considered proof of that. With her lyrical sensibility, however, Shapran proved a natural fit there. She hit the ground running, performing Apollo on tour in London within weeks of joining. Last season, her first with the Mariinsky, she accrued over a dozen principal roles, from Giselle to Angelin Preljocaj’s Le Parc.
Above all, Shapran relishes the Mariinsky’s intense schedule—the company often works seven days a week, with no cap on rehearsal hours. “At the Stanislavsky, after a performance, there could be a two-week break. It’s the worst thing for a dancer. Here, I rehearse every day; I’m completely overloaded with work.” Fateyev and Shapran’s coach, Elvira Tarasova, have provided guidance and challenged her to gain strength. “She feels the music, the steps, the character, but she needed to be helped technically, so I made very ambitious plans for her,” Fateyev says. This season, she’s scheduled to make her debut in the ultimate Mariinsky role, Odette/Odile; in December, she will guest with the Paris Opéra Ballet in La Bayadère.
And Shapran now feels deserving of calling the Mariinsky her home. “We were raised with such deep respect for this stage that I was in awe of it,” she says. “Now I feel more mature. It’s like a puzzle that has come together.” Exploring the Russian company’s large repertoire will take time, but she also hopes to work again with Jirí Kylián, whose Petite Mort she danced in Moscow, as well as with young, up-and-coming choreographers.
Shapran lives close to the Mariinsky, and says she has few hobbies: “I have a very narrow focus at the moment. Every role is like a baby, and ballet is my life, my boyfriend, my husband.” Her only indulgence is regular theater outings with her sister. Unsurprisingly, Shapran also dreamed of becoming an actress as a child, and a couple of offers to star in movies have already landed at her door. For now, however, she is finally ready to tackle the role of leading lady on the ballet stage.
Laura Cappelle is a dance writer based in France.