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Back on stage

Posted on November 25, 2020

Francesca Hayward in Swan Lake l2020 ROH. Photograph by Helen Maybanks 2
Editor Jonathan Gray asked Francesca Hayward, a principal with The Royal Ballet, how she prepared to get back on stage in front of a live audience following lockdown

When was your last performance before lockdown?
It was Dances at a Gathering on February 25 – the title of the ballet is so ironic!

Was lockdown longer than you anticipated? How did it make you feel? Do you want to share any fears you may have had about your profession?
When lockdown started I did think it would only last a few weeks, a couple of months at most, but every day it became more apparent things would stay like they were for a long time and the two essentials of our job – being physically close to one another and having a large group of people allowed into one space to watch us – would be last on the list of things that could happen again. I was disappointed to miss my [debut in] Swan Lake, but felt a sense of acceptance knowing that missing out on it was because of a reason much bigger than myself. We were all in this together and my disappointment didn’t come close to what so many people around the world were feeling, losing jobs or loved ones.

Doing class at home [on Zoom] was full of frustrations. Working from home is a concept that was thought impossible for dancers until we were forced to. The truth is it’s impossible to keep yourself in the kind of physical peak we maintain during the season without the conditions we need to train in class and rehearse our repertoire. I don’t think any amount of work in the gym, Pilates or running in the park can replace what your mind and muscles achieve from a full day of ballet in the studio and on stage. I accepted that early on and didn’t try to push myself every day. I gave myself a full break for a few weeks during the summer and when we got the green light to head back to the ROH I started to push myself slowly. I was grateful to have my boyfriend and lockdown partner Cesar Corrales go through this with me.

I also feel enormously fortunate this has happened at this point in my career, when I have already established myself but that I also have the mental and physical capability to push myself to start back again. I can’t imagine how frustrating this has been for students who are waiting to start their professional careers, or for dancers on the cusp of crucial roles or deciding moments in theirs. Also, for dancers at the end of their careers who have worked so hard to keep their bodies and minds healthy and now have to find extra motivation and a profound personal determination to work without having a particular goal in sight. It’s been sad seeing dancers around the world retire without having a last show on stage, or an opportunity for other dancers to show their respect and mark their achievements. I always think the retirement of a dancer is almost like a religious event, where other dancers, knowing the hard work that has gone into their career, feel the need to show their respect.

Did you pursue any other activities whilst in lockdown? Did you embark on any new projects?
I finally had time to organise my clothes and all the cupboards in my flat! I don’t like cooking, so I didn’t bake or work my way through a recipe book. I embraced having days in my pyjamas and watched films and read books that have been on my list for a long time. As dancers I think we are programmed to feel guilty for not “working hard” or doing enough, but this time to focus on being real people doing normal things was handed to us and without having to feel “guilty” about it!

What kind of preparations did The Royal Ballet make in order to get you back into work and performing again?
There has been immense thought and organisation put into getting us back into the building safely. I always take class with the same group of dancers, and our classes our carefully timed so we are not all in the building at the same time. We wear masks throughout class, we clean our space at the barre before and after, we are tested twice a week, and who we dance with is carefully chosen so that we stay in our “dance bubbles”.

Can you describe how it felt to be able to go back into the studio?
I felt very emotional hearing a piano again. I nearly had tears in my eyes during the pliés of our first class back. For me the hardest part of ballet class on Zoom was not having live music. It also makes a huge difference to train with other people. It creates a different kind of headspace and is much more motivating. 

1 – 2: Francesca Hayward as Juliet with Cesar Corrales as Romeo in Romeo and Juliet. 3: Hayward in Swan Lake. Photographs by Helen Maybanks, courtesy of the Royal Opera House.

How hard was it to get back into shape before the performance?
I was fearful of getting injured if I pushed myself in class too quickly. It took me a few weeks to feel strong enough to do a full class again. I wanted to be back on stage without holding back, so it took some patience to judge the pace I needed to reach full performance level. My stamina has really dropped, and it’s hard to improve it or maintain it without regular performances.

The only way to describe how I felt “coming back” is that it was similar to returning from injury, but without the same level of fear. I had doubts in my head about “Will I get back to where I was?” and had to accept I could not suddenly be on the same technical level as I was before – my legs would not be as high or my jump as powerful. Persevering and seeing small improvements, day by day, has meant these doubts slipped away. I hope I can actually be physically stronger and technically better than I was before, now that I have more time and energy to focus on myself in class because we have fewer rehearsals and performances.

Were you nervous or worried before the performance took place?
I found it harder to prepare for a performance that was only filmed without an audience. I became very aware it was only being recorded and that it would be there for me, and others, to see and judge after it has taken place. It’s difficult to clear those thoughts from your mind and keep the same intentions for a normal performance. When we have a live audience I can focus on the feeling, character or illusion I want to create, and that takes away from thinking about those scary technical aspects I worry about being captured forever on camera.

What did it feel like to finally be back on stage, dancing before a live audience?
It felt fantastic! To feel the space and hear the orchestra is incredible. There is an atmosphere you can’t replace when you have a live audience in the theatre. You can feel them there, sense their mood, judge their reaction; we spark off each other. It made the months of uncertainty and frustration worth it. 

Standing in the wings with nervous anticipation felt quite alien. I don’t usually get nervous, but now we are not performing as often – and it’s been so long since we were in the “swing of things” – I think that’s to be expected. Before the pandemic we were so lucky to be on stage so often; performing to 2,000 people or more became second nature. I’m learning how to feel more relaxed on stage. 

When it becomes a more momentous occasion you put more pressure on yourself to excel, and that’s not the best approach. On the upside, every performance feels even more special and I think it’s great we’re reaching more people than ever by streaming the shows to the world. To have people deprived of live performance watching from Italy and Mexico, and telling us how much it has lifted their spirits, is very rewarding.

What do you think you have learned most from this experience? Has it changed how you think about your career?
It’s given me a chance to take a huge step back from my life and see it with new eyes. To see what I enjoy most and what I gain from being a dancer, what I don’t like about it and what I can do to improve or change those things. I feel like, at 28 years of age and ten years after leaving school and becoming a professional, I’m almost going into a second chapter of my career. It’s made me even more determined to make the most of every day working with the inspiring people around me, soaking up every second of this special environment and never taking my time on stage for granted.

What happens next?
Ballet is a very traditional art form and is generally cautious about change, but I think the pandemic has pushed us forward in terms of how to reach our audience. Events of the last few months have also forced us to ask bigger questions and made us aware of ways we can be more inclusive and make people feel more a part of it. We have to use what we have learned to build on from here so that ballet stays relevant for the younger generation. We must actively show that ballet and art are valuable to people’s lives and keep pushing for it to be better represented and respected in the mainstream. The silver lining to all this is that our eyes have been opened. As we pick up the pieces again, we see the need to put them back differently.

Francesca Hayward’s answers form part of “Ready to deliver”, a longer article published in the December 2020 issue of Dancing Times, which also includes replies from The Royal Ballet’s William Bracewell and Ashley Dean, Northern Ballet’s Gavin McCaig and Javier Torres, and choreographer Kenneth Tindall. Click here to obtain a copy.

Main photograph: Francesca Hayward in Swan Lake. Photographs by Helen Maybanks, courtesy of the Royal Opera House.


Jonathan Gray is editor of Dancing Times. He studied at The Royal Ballet School, Leicester Polytechnic, and Wimbledon School of Art where he graduated with a BA Hons in Theatre Design. For 16 years he was a member of the curatorial department of the Theatre Museum, London, assisting on a number of dance-related exhibitions, and helping with the recreation of original designs for a number of The Royal Ballet’s productions including Danses concertantes, Daphnis and Chloë, and The Sleeping Beauty. He has also contributed to the Financial Times, written programme articles for The Royal Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet, and is co-author of the book Unleashing Britain: Theatre gets real 1955-64, published in 2005.

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