Francesca Hayward photographed by Nathan Sayers for Pointe.

Francesca Hayward: The Royal Ballet's Next Crown Jewel

This is Pointe's February/March 2016 Cover Story. You can subscribe to the magazine here, or click here to purchase this issue.

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 in Frederick Ashton's "Rhapsody." Photo by Jonah Persson, Courtesy ROH.


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."


Hayward with Thomas Whitehead and Alexander Campbell in "Manon." Photo by Jonah Persson, Courtesy ROH.


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 as Clara and Alexander Campbell as The Nephew in "The Nutcracker." Photo by Tristram Kenton, Courtesy ROH.


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."

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From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

Lydia Abarca Mitchell, Arthur Mitchell's First Ballerina, Builds On Her Mentor's Legacy in Atlanta

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.


For more than 25 years, coaching at Ballethnic has been a lifeline back to Abarca Mitchell's days with DTH. She had a stellar career, both with the company and beyond, but left the stage at age 30 after an injury sustained performing in Dancin' on Broadway. Her husband's job transferred them to Atlanta, where she transitioned to a full-time job as a medical transcriptionist while raising a family. Now retired from her second career, Abarca Mitchell continues to forward Arthur Mitchell's legacy, not only through coaching but also by building community among DTH alumni and writing her memoirs—a fairy-tale story of a child who came from the Harlem public-housing projects and became a trailblazing Black ballerina.

Abarca Mitchell grew up during the 1950s and '60s, the oldest of seven in a tight-knit family. She always danced, taking cues from Hollywood figures until a fourth-grade teacher saw her talent and encouraged her to seek formal training. The family couldn't afford ballet lessons, but Abarca Mitchell earned a scholarship to attend The Juilliard School's Saturday youth program, and later the Harkness Ballet's professional training program. But for all of those ballet classes, Abarca Mitchell never had the opportunity to see or perform in a ballet production. She didn't understand the purpose behind ballet's tedious class exercises.

When the fast-growing Harkness Ballet moved its scholarship students to the June Taylor Studio on Broadway, Abarca Mitchell remembers hearing live drumming, clapping and laughter coming from the studio across the hall. It was a jazz class taught by Jaime Rogers, who'd played Loco in the West Side Story movie. Abarca Mitchell started sneaking into Rogers' classes.

When Harkness informed her that her scholarship was exclusively for ballet, Abarca Mitchell left the program. She saw no future for herself in the white-dominated ballet world, and focused on academics during her last two years of high school.

At 17, Abarca Mitchell met Arthur Mitchell. He had made history as the first Black principal dancer with New York City Ballet, which he had joined in 1955, and had just begun to shape what would become Dance Theatre of Harlem when he hired Abarca Mitchell in 1968. Within a month, she was back on pointe. Within two months, she was performing in Arthur Mitchell's Tones. "I didn't even know what ballet was until I was onstage," Abarca Mitchell says. "All of a sudden, it was my heart and soul."

Arthur Mitchell made sure his dancers saw NYCB perform, and subsequently brought Balanchine's Agon, Concerto Barocco and other NYCB works into the DTH repertoire. "Physically and emotionally, I felt the connection of jazz in Balanchine's choreography," Abarca Mitchell says. "His neoclassical style was just funky to me. I could totally relate."

For the first time, Abarca Mitchell danced with people who looked like her and shared the same aspirations, she says, with a leader who "saw us through his eyes of love and achievement."

In Abarca Mitchell's 30s, after a performing career that took her from DTH to the film version of The Wiz to Bob Fosse's Dancin' and beyond, her husband's job took their family to Atlanta. She soon connected with Gilreath and Waverly Lucas. The couple, also DTH alumni, were influenced by Arthur Mitchell's model when they founded Ballethnic, seeking to create access for dancers of all backgrounds to develop as classical dancers and perform a repertoire that represents the company's culturally diverse home city. Over time, Abarca Mitchell became a trusted advisor.

Abarca Mitchell goes in at least twice a year to coach Ballethnic's productions—such as Urban Nutcracker, set in Atlanta's historically Black Sweet Auburn neighborhood, and The Leopard Tale, which features the company's signature blend of classical pointe work with polyrhythmic dance forms of the African diaspora. These final rehearsals give Abarca Mitchell a way to fast-track the transfer of her mentor's values.

Two dancers in blue and black practice clothes and face masks, the woman in pointe shoes, pose together in a first arabesque tendu. Abarca Mitchell steps out of a mirrored pose as she adjusts the fingertips of the male dancer.

Lydia Abarca Mitchell works with Ballethnic's Calvin Gentry and Karla Tyson.

Courtesy Ballethnic Dance Company

She recalls that Arthur Mitchell taught his dancers to present themselves at their finest—to enter a room with their heads held high and shoulders back—and to dress, speak and walk with dignity and self-respect. He reminded them that they were pioneers and ambassadors for Blacks in ballet. As the company gained international stature—Abarca Mitchell was the first Black female ballerina to appear on the cover of Dance Magazine, in 1975—he insisted the dancers remain humble and in service to the greater mission. But he was also a taskmaster. "No nonsense, no excuses," Abarca Mitchell says. "There was no slack. If he was rehearsing something that you're not in, you'd better be on the side learning it."

"He didn't throw compliments around at all. You had to really kill yourself to get a smile from him." After a run-through, she says, "you didn't want to be singled out."

Abarca Mitchell takes a slightly different approach, though she doesn't compromise on the values her mentor instilled. When coaching large casts of all ages and different levels for Ballethnic, she has found ways to inspire people without tearing them down. She calls it a "tough love" approach.

"I've got to make them want to do it. I don't want to beat them into doing it," Abarca Mitchell says. "I tell them, 'You're here because you want to be, and because you auditioned and were accepted. Now, show me why I should keep you here.'"

"I tell them, 'I'm here to make sure you'll look good—you know: 'That looks fake. Let's make it look real. Think about what you're doing, so that it's not just a gesture.'"

Arthur Mitchell instilled this level of emotional honesty in his dancers, and it was key to the company's quick success. "We were bringing a thought forward," says Abarca Mitchell. "We were bringing a feeling forward, so that the audience could connect with us."

In addition to her position as rehearsal director for Ballethnic, Abarca Mitchell is today part of 152nd Street Black Ballet Legacy, a group of DTH alumni who seek to give voice to people responsible for the company's success in its early years. "It's incredible," she says, "how many people took something from DTH and applied it to their lives."

As Ballethnic prepares to co-host the International Association of Blacks in Dance Conference and Festival in January 2022, Abarca Mitchell hopes to help strengthen the network of dance companies associated with Ballethnic, such as Memphis' Collage Dance Collective. "The dream is for all of us to collaborate with each other," she says, "so that it becomes more normal to see a Black ballerina, so it's not just a token appearance."

Today's young dancers face different challenges from what Abarca Mitchell faced. She finds that they're more easily distracted, and sometimes act entitled, because they don't know or appreciate how hard earlier Black ballerinas like herself worked to clear a path for them. But what she's passing on will benefit them, whether they choose to pursue dance careers or become doctors, lawyers, professors or something else entirely. "The principles are the same," she says. "Work for what you want, and you will achieve it."

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