(Photo by Nathan Sayers for Pointe)

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."

(Photo by Nathan Sayers)

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.

(Photo by Nathan Sayers)

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.

Career
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I want to be a professional dancer, but my parents won't listen. They either don't think I can do it (contrary to what my teachers have said) or they won't let me take the necessary steps to become a professional. Please help. —Audrey

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Rigorous program, check. Well-rounded technical training, check. Purposeful liberal arts curriculum, check. Study your craft abroad, check! If you are looking for all the above, the Joan Phelps Palladino School of Dance at Dean College truly has it all.

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Videos

They say that pigeons mate for life—perhaps that's why these birds naturally symbolize the young lovers in Sir Frederick Ashton's The Two Pigeons. In these two clips from a 1987 performance in Pisa, Alessandra Ferri and Robert LaFosse—then stars with American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet, respectively—dance a rapturous pas de deux at the end of Act II. With tiny pricks of her feet and bird-like flaps of her elbows in Part 1, Ferri marks her anguish, thinking she's been abandoned for another woman. Later, both she and LaFosse grow more and more entangled as they reconcile, Ferri dancing with the passionate abandon she's famous for. I love how in Part 2 (0:20), they can't seem to get enough of each other as their necks arch and intertwine. At the end of the ballet, two pigeons fly in to perch symbolically on the chair—er, there's supposed to be two. It looks like one missed its cue at this performance! No matter—Ferri and LaFosse's dancing make it clear that these young lovers are meant to be together for life. Happy #TBT!

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Summer Study Advice
The author at 13, rehearsing at her home studio, Ballet Arts Theater, in Endicott, NY. Courtesy McGuire.

This story originally appeared in the December 2010/January 2011 issue of Pointe.

As a young student at a small ballet school in upstate New York, I was obsessed with getting into the School of American Ballet. From the age of 10, I entered class each day with the ultimate goal of studying at SAB dangling before me like a carrot on a stick. Every effort I made, every extra class I took was for the sole purpose of getting into what I thought was the only ballet school that really mattered.

I auditioned for SAB's summer program for the first time when I was 12. In the weeks that followed, I became a vulture hovering over my family's mail, squawking at my mother if the day's letters were not presented for my inspection when I walked through the door. The day the letter finally arrived, it was thin and limp. I cried for a week as I dealt with the crushing feeling of rejection for one of the first times in my life.

My mind filled with questions and self-doubt. What was wrong with me? Why wasn't I good enough? I figured I must be too fat, too slow, my feet too flat. I had worked so hard. I had wished on every fallen eyelash and dead dandelion in pursuit of my single goal, just to have a three-paragraph form letter conclude that I was a failure. For a while, I let myself wallow in the comfort of my resentment, content to believe that success should have come easily, and that to fall was the same as to fail.

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Pointe Stars
Photo by Theo Kossenas, Courtesy The Washington Ballet

You made a deal with your mom to take ballet classes in exchange for a ride to tryouts for the football team. How did that work?
I thought that I would take ballet for a couple months, become a master and then leave that alone and concentrate on football. Ballet had other ideas, which perplexed me, and ultimately, I think, made me fall in love with it.

How is The Washington Ballet evolving under Julie Kent's leadership?
It's still early, but I think that the company is growing stronger classically. And we have Julie, Victor Barbee, Xiomara Reyes and Rinat Imaev—a great team of people who are giving their input and expertise, which is quite helpful.

Mack in 'Swan Lake.' Photo by Theo Kossenas

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Summer Study Advice
Summer intensive students at the School of American Ballet. Photo by Rosalie O'Conner, Courtesy SAB.

As a young student, Shea McAdoo's classes at the Master Ballet Academy in Scottsdale, Arizona, were “strict, straightforward, very classical and purely Vaganova." She appreciated the Russian rigor and precision, but when she was accepted to the School of American Ballet's summer course at 13, she leapt at the chance to learn something new. The vastly different emphasis on Balanchine technique at SAB was illuminating: “It changed my whole way of thinking about musicality and accents. I'd never known there were so many ways to do a tendu! And the épaulement—I loved how they talked about light hitting your face, tilting your chin to show off your diamond earring."

McAdoo's experience was transformative, even when she returned home. “Of course, I lowered my arms back down in second and didn't cross my wrists," she says, “but there were stylistic choices I brought back with me." Today, as an apprentice with Oregon Ballet Theatre rehearsing Balanchine's Serenade, she credits her ease with the ballet's fluid port de bras to her summer at SAB.

Learning about ballet's various styles and techniques is an important part of a dancer's development. With summer intensive auditions approaching, it's a perfect time to consider broadening your training. While it can be initially confusing, immersing yourself in a style outside your comfort zone can be eye-opening and influential for your future training and career. And the benefits of diversifying your training can last beyond a single summer.


Shea McAdoo in OBT's production of "Paquita." Photo by James McGrew.

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