LONDON (Reuters) - As a young aspiring ballerina, Francesca Hayward would repeatedly practice making an entrance as Romeo's Juliet, pretending her living room was a live auditorium.
Years later, the 23-year old has danced onto the stage at London's Royal Opera House, winning rave reviews of her performance in the ballet adaptation of William Shakespeare's tragic love tale "Romeo and Juliet".
Raised by her grandparents in Sussex, Hayward began dancing at three after watching a video of "The Nutcracker".
She joined The Royal Ballet School at 11, winning several accolades and, after graduating into the company five years ago, has quickly worked her way up to first soloist, taking principle roles including the lead in "Manon" and the coveted Juliet.
"When I found out that I was going be Juliet, it felt much more real than Manon, because Manon is one of those ballets that you probably do after Juliet, so that never really sunk in to be honest," Hayward said in an interview.
"But knowing that I was going to be Juliet ... I just felt so excited and I couldn't believe that it really was going to be me doing it."
The Royal Opera House opened its current season with "Romeo and Juliet" 50 years after choreographer Kenneth MacMillan created his version of the story for the Royal Bal, set to Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev's score.
Following in the footsteps of renowned ballerinas such as Lynn Seymour and Alessandra Ferri, Hayward danced as Juliet twice. Ballet critics hailed the performance, with one saying it "embodied all the founding virtues of the Royal Ballet".
"I definitely remember the few seconds right before I make my first entrance, I kind of got quite emotional," Hayward said. "I remembered all the times that I have done that when I was so small in my living room and just to think that it was really happening was quite a big moment."
Hayward appears on stage in "The Nutcracker" next month and in Frederick Ashton's "Rhapsody" in January.
"I've never remembered suddenly realizing this (becoming a ballerina) is what I'm going to do," she said.
"I just started and never stopped."
Reporting By Vera Afdjei; Writing by Marie-Louise Gumuchian; Editing by Tom Heneghan