I can’t be the only person at the ballet fascinated by the thought of what’s happening behind the curtain moments before it goes up, can I?
Certainly there are dancers behind testing the stage, keeping their bodies warm or going through some funny pre-show ritual, no? In this case, the lucky prima dancing the title role in Giselle must still be working meticulously on the finer details of her performance.
“I’m generally always running late somehow,” English ballerina Francesca Hayward admits, “I’m still usually rushing to be ready by the beginners call.”
Dancers the world over have pre-performance rituals and superstitions that they believe make their performance successful, but for this Royal Ballet Principal, the opposite is true.
“I’ve tried hard not to have too many rituals or superstitions in case I rely on them too much. I have to be adaptable to change and try to rely only on myself. I just try to have a schedule planned – a time to do my hair and make up, to eat, warm up….”
At 25 years’ old, Hayward is the company’s youngest principal, but this hasn’t stopped her from marking herself as one of their most vivid interpreters. She has proved her versatility from Frederick Ashton’s fast footwork to Wayne McGregor’s otherworldly positions.
She has even been compared to one of ballet’s biggest names – Margot Fonteyn.
Giselle gives Hayward another chance to prove her technical capabilities. In Act I she is a peasant girl in the real world – the dancing is heavy with pirouettes and arabesques – but in the following act she is a ghost of the girl she once was – her movements turn into jumps.
“Keeping an ethereal quality when most of the steps take a huge amount of precision and effort is definitely the hardest part,” she confesses. “I’m sure ghosts don’t wobble or look tired!”
While it has its technical challenges, at its core, Giselle is a ballet about love and forgiveness, and it takes a convincing ballerina to tell Giselle’s story clearly.
For Hayward, a ballerina whose débuts are highly-anticipated, finding the right ways to portray a character hold just as much importance as the dancing itself.
“Giselle is a very young peasant girl who hasn’t experienced much life or excitement until now but I think she is also a girl full of pure love and literally wears her heart on her sleeve,” Hayward says, giving insight into her thought-process. “I feel like she can sense her mother’s words coming true, but is so full of joy, love and life that she can’t stop herself from letting all those things take hold of her.”
When these things do take hold and the devastating reality that her beloved Albrecht is in fact betrothed to another, Giselle goes mad.
Giselle’s Mad Scene is famous the world over and ballerina’s spend months finding ways to perfect it – sometimes picking up and piecing together bits that they liked for other Giselles.
“I think it’s a role which every ballerina can have their own take on, especially Act I where you can play more with Giselle’s personality and human qualities,” Hayward says, “I’ve tried to delve more into her backstory and all that’s happened to her before that eventful day so that I can be more spontaneous in the moment and channel what I think she would be feeling and thinking.”
After Giselle’s descent into madness, she returns in the second act as a Wili – a vengeful, wronged spirit who, under the command of their Queen Myrtha, seeks to dance to death any man who enters their forest.
“When she becomes a Wili she has almost come to a state of acceptance and cannot find it within herself to channel the hate and anger that the other Wilis she has joined so easily can,” Hayward says.
“Albrecht and Giselle’s first meeting in Act 2 is one of the most beautiful for me as I think you can feel all the unsaid words from both of them. The utmost heartfelt apology for what he has done from Albrecht and Giselle acknowledging the pain that they can no longer be together in any other way but this but that she forgives him despite this because of the love they feel for each other.”
Her partner, Alexander Campbell here makes his début as well. He replaces an injured Marcelino Sambé. Together Hayward and Sambé see my heart a popsicle left outside on a hot summer’s day – needless to say this change of cast broke my heart.
Hayward and Campbell perform once for the public tonight, 9 February. For tickets please visit the website of the Royal Opera House.
(Unless stated, all photos by Helen Maybanks by kind permission of the Royal Opera House)