How to describe that ineffable aura that has nothing to do with a dancer's technique? I saw it in Alina Cojocaru when she made her debut in "Symphonic Variations" in 2000, standing serenely still and exuding a warmth that was almost beatific. And I saw it in Francesca Hayward when she was only a child. From the age of 11, she was a Royal Ballet junior associate at White Lodge, and any glimpse of Frankie in class or a student performance would confirm her singular talent. By 18, she had joined the company, and even while skittering about the stage in a crowd scene, she seemed lit from within—a firefly among moths. Ballet bloggers started noticing her in the autumn of 2012; she then made her debut as a delightful Clara in "The Nutcracker" last December, and in June she gave an extraordinary performance of Stephanie in "Mayerling", her trust and vulnerability during a terrifyingly violent duet with Edward Watson almost too wrenching to watch. In February, partnered by James Hay, Hayward dances the ballerina role for the first time in Frederick Ashton's "Rhapsody".
Born in Kenya in 1992, she remembers almost nothing about her African origins. From the age of two, she was brought up by her paternal grandparents at their home in Sussex. "They'd forgotten what to do with a small child," she says, "so they played me a video of 'The Nutcracker'. That was it." From dancing round the house with a broom or chair as her partner, she went to a local ballet school before becoming a junior associate. To the director Kevin O'Hare, she is "a true Royal Ballet product", with the lyrical upper body and liquid phrasing of steps that denote the English classical style. "It felt right that she should have one of Ashton's biggest roles."
Ashton's "Rhapsody", named after Rachmaninov's "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini", was made as a showpiece for Baryshnikov, whose bravura tricks were the dance equivalent of the devil's fiddler's feats. Lesley Collier, who created the ballerina role, will be giving Hayward weeks of intensive private coaching until she's able to combine fast, intricate footwork and stamina-sapping steps with the appearance of voluptuous ease. "Frankie has a lovely natural dance quality," Collier says, "but she's still very inexperienced. She has to study, study, study...And then we can set her free." ~ Julie Kavanagh
The Nutcracker Royal Opera House, London, Dec 12th, 7.30pm
Rhapsody (with The Art of Fugue and Gloria) Royal Opera House, London, Feb 7th-15th