photo: Laurent Liotardo
Francesca Velicu is a ballerina, first artist, at the English National Ballet, and at only 23 her name is known and applauded on the European dance stage.
She was born in Bucharest, where she had her first contact with ballet. But her talent crossed the boundaries of the country as a teen, when she was noticed by the Russian masters of the Bolshoi Ballet Academy.
Meeting the Danish choreographer and ballet dancer Johan Kobborg, those days artistic director of the National Opera in Bucharest, would change her career. The removal of Kobborg and of Alina Cojocaru from the Bucharest Opera in 2016, after a shameful scandal for Romania, was also the moment that Francesca decided to leave the country.
Only 2 years later, Francesca Velicu would receive the prestigious Oliver Award in London, for extraordinary performance in dance, the equivalent of the BAFTA awards in cinematography. The trophy was handed to her by the most important ballet dancer in the world, Sergei Polunin.
The ballerina is in her third lockdown in London currently and is longing for her shows. We spoke to her about ballet, painting, Romania, sacrifices and the people that influenced her path so far.
Francesca, tell us, for starters, how did your passion for ballet start?
I have tried a lot of things growing up: piano, ballet, painting, tennis, swimming and others. I liked ballet the most and I pursued it.
I studied ballet at a children’s school in Bucharest and then I moved to The “Floria Capsali” Choreography High School.
Do you have memories of your first ballet classes, as a child?
Yes and I didn’t like it very much.
“I remember not being very flexible and the teacher pushing me into different positions. I even stopped for a while, but then I gave it another try and made it to the stage. Then I liked it.”Francesca Velicu, ballerina at the English National Ballet
How did you get to the Bolshoi Academy?
The Bolshoi Academy in Moscow does a summer intensive in New York, each year. That’s where I was, at a summer course and following that, they sent me an invitation to study at Moscow.
How long were you in Moscow and how was the experience there?
I was in Moscow for 2 years. It all seemed like a big change back then, it was a much bigger city than Bucharest, I didn’t know the language, I didn’t know anything. I was 14 or 15 and after just a week I went there.
How was life in Moscow, what were you doing?
I did only ballet. It is well known that the Russians have a great respect for culture, especially for ballet, and thus all the girls are very passionate about it, they respect ballet a lot.
My dorm room was on the school premises, I was there all the time.
Why did you return to Romania?
I had to come and take all my exams. And if I was in Romania I thought I’d go to the Opera to dance and that’s how I got into Bucharest’s National Opera, where I remained for a year.
How was your experience with Johan Kobborg and Alina Cojocaru?
It was an incredible experience, one of the best years of my career. Johan launched me in in Bucharest, until then I hadn’t danced with the company in an important role, that’s where my first main parts were.
Did you decide to leave when they left, after that scandal in 2016?
Yes, as soon as I found out that Johan was leaving I thought that it is time that I tried dancing outside the country, which is something I wanted anyway, dancing abroad.
So I auditioned for the English National Ballet and I got in.
At the Oliver Awards you thanked them firstly. How did they help you reach that point?
Johan was the first director of a ballet company that I was in and he meant a lot to me because he had faith in me and made me trust myself. He gave me the chance to dace parts, me being very young, I was only 16.
A lot of small girls wish to become ballerinas. What do you think it takes to become a ballerina?
Firstly, it’s about talent, but talent alone will get you nowhere. It takes a lot of work and faith in yourself. It’s very important to keep your strength and faith, regardless of the obstacles that appear.
How did the London story start and how did it evolve?
It was a beautiful experience because since I arrived here, I’ve done a lot of contemporary dance. In international companies they do a lot of contemporary dance, they don’t just do classical ballet. The world has evolved, the audience already knows all of the classical shows, it’s natural to try new things.
Of course, back home, in Romania, they don’t really do any contemporary dance, especially at the Opera. So it was something new for me.
And I was surprised because I didn’t think I’d do this well, given that i hadn’t done it in Romania. But the Oliver Award was for contemporary dancing. I had only gotten here, it was my second year, it was a very unexpected award, I had never thought about it.
Us, the dancers, we don’t think about awards so much because there aren’t so many awards for dancing. We think about the parts, dancing on the great stages, but not awards.
Now I’m a first artist, but it’s not the equivalent of a first-soloist in Romania. In Romania there are the ballet corps, the soloist and the first-soloist. In the UK there are about 6 titles to the first-soloist, I’m only half way there.
During this time in the UK, have you ever felt regarded differently, coming from Romania?
No, never and I wouldn’t let that happen.
“I prefer speaking through dance and letting people judge what I do, not the country I come from.”
When was the last time you went home?
About a year. Well, this year has been a special one. I think it’s the longest that I’ve been away. Usually, I come home twice a year, summers and winters, but this year has been an exception.
Has your family come to see you dance in London?
Yes, all the time. Especially my mother, when she finds cheaper plane tickets.
Other than ballet, what does your life look like? What else do you enjoy?
Normally, I would visit museums, galleries, I enjoy any form of art and I try to see as much as possible. And when I have a little time off, I try to get as much sleep as possible (laughs).
Regarding the sacrifices you’ve made for ballet, I would assume that you’re often asked how you managed. For example, How do you resist the urge to eat something you enjoy?
I am pretty fortunate because I’ve never had a diet issue and I have a petite body. It’s hart to hold back in Romania from sarmale or other foods, but in general I also like eating heathy. I get some cravings sometimes, it’s fair to say.
For example, do you ever eat burger and fries?
Of course! (laughs)
I know that you also like painting. Why are you attracted to it?
Yes, it’s my no. 1 hobby. It relaxes me and it’s the only thing that helps me disconnect from anything. I don’t know how and why, but when I paint, I forget about absolutely anything. I especially paint when something upsets me or I’m in a bad mood.
It’s funny when my mother texts me “You’re painting again? What’s wrong?”
And when you’re dancing how do you feel?
I fell every possible way. Dancing to me has become something normal, especially now, when we’re only studying, making routine exercises.
Ant for the shows, I do what I do. I love doing shows, being on stage, and it’s really hard right now because it’s not happening.
To that, how has 2020 been for you, as an artist in London? You’re in your third lockdown.
I have to admit, I don’t really like it, but it is what it is, we have to accept it and be optimistic.
How long has it been since you’ve had a show with an audience?
It’s been a year. The last one was a gala in Romania.
What do you miss the most in Romania?
I miss a lot of things. The food, first of all (laughs). My grandmother’s cooking or other foods. I miss my family, my dog, my friends.
What do you think your big career break was? The moment that changed your course?
Johan was. It’s because of him that I ended up dancing this way, like I said, he gave me a lot of confidence. Until then, I had never thought that I could have made it this far.
How do you see now, 5 years later, what has happened to Johan Kobborg in Romania?
“They refused to accept a change, that was a mistake. It’s about open-mindedness. I think that’s an old issue in our country.”
Do you see yourself ever returning to live in Romania?
For the moment, no. But I won’t say never. Either way, I don’t want to stay in one place, I want to explore as much as possible.
What advice would you have for younger girls wanting to become ballerinas. Or for the parents pushing them to do that?
For the girls – be positive that this is what they want to do, keep at it, work hard and be confident. But I do not agree with the idea of parents pushing their children to do something. I think that can only work for a while, then, when the child grows up, he realizes what he really wants.
In my case it was perfect, my parents and I wanted the same thing.
How do you see yourself in 10 years?
I don’t know, my goal is to reach the highest peaks, at the rank of first-soloist. And I have a lot of ballets that I want to dance. That’s where I’m going.