Ivan Putrov : Those cheekbones! That smoulder! The spring in his jump!

Ivan Putrov is not only the Royal Ballet's youngest star, says Claire Wrathall. He's a pin-up boy and artist's muse to boot
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A man moves very slowly through the air ­ turning gradually through 360 degrees as though flying through some viscous gas or swimming underwater. Beneath him a string quartet plays in the plush gilt and crimson of the Royal Opera House's crush bar.

If this seems an unlikely promo for Covent Garden, you'd be right, for this is art: a nine-minute film by Sam Taylor-Wood called Strings. The airborne dancer, however, is Ivan Putrov, the Royal Ballet's youngest principal and likely to be familiar to Londoners as the company's poster boy, whose stripped-to-the-waist image adorned the walls of the Tube earlier this year.

For quite apart from his formidable technique, the precision of his steps, the preternatural spring in his jump, his épaulement, his cheekbones, his smoulder, he is, as the Royal Ballet's director Monica Mason, has put it, "very handsome. He has a fine line and beautiful elevation. He's a very elegant, intelligent dancer."

The son of two dancers in the National Ballet of Ukraine, Putrov began his training at 10. "I was born into a ballet family so for me it was normal: if a kid grows up in the countryside, he thinks everyone's a farmer. For me, I thought everyone worked in ballet," he shrugs, adding that he's also interested in sport. "It was not until later that I realised it was what I wanted to do."

Having won the prestigious Prix de Lausanne and a scholarship to the Royal Ballet School in 1996, he came to London as a 16-year-old. "I didn't speak English; I didn't know the culture. At first I was quite willing to go back to Kiev," he says. But he stayed the course. And despite an offer from the Ukrainian ballet that would surely have led to faster promotion and bigger roles, opted for a place in the corps of the Royal Ballet when he graduated, "because of its repertoire and its name and the people I would get to work with. And also because of London as a city. Everybody wants to come here."

During his three years as an "artist", the company's lowliest rank, he was given the occasional lead (Basilio in Don Quixote, Albrecht in Giselle, the Nutcracker prince), the odd dazzling bravura cameo (the Bronze Idol in Bayadère, Bluebird in Sleeping Beauty), sufficient to establish a vocal fan base. And last year, leap-frogging the three intermediate divisions, he became a principal.

This season he has been given a raft of highly contrasting roles, ranging from the exacting 19th-century classicism of Petipa's Bayadère, to the high speeds and sensual distortions of Wayne McGregor's new, still-unnamed work, in which he is one of the five dancers on whom it's being made.

He is equally enthused by both projects. "Of course Solor in Bayadère is a role I've really wanted to do ­ one of the things that completes, like, the Grand Slam of ballet roles," he says. "Apart from just being demanding ­ and some of the technical stuff is really challenging ­ you have to make it interesting dramatically. But I like the acting. Some people say classical ballets are boring, but it's up to you to make them interesting, to breathe new life into them. That's how ballet survives."

By contrast the McGregor has a score by the British electronic sound artist Robin Rimbaud, aka Scanner, and promises, says the choreographer, "a tension between what I make and what the dancers do with it. I don't want it to be easy. I want to do something that pushes them". And again Putrov is "really enjoying" the challenge.

After those come two Balanchine ballets, a choreographer to whom Putrov "feels really close because he is from the east, from Georgia, and my origins are in the east as well. I find the visions in his ballets fascinating," he says, getting up to demonstrate the troika imagery Balanchine uses in Apollo, even though we are sitting in a cramped office backstage at the Opera House early one morning, and he hasn't yet changed for that day's class.

His Slavonic roots bind him to Fokine too, whose Spectre de la Rose he's scheduled to dance next year, and to Nijinsky, who created the role. "He was born in Kiev too. It is a great city, as great as London, and the weather is better, of course. So many great people have come from there, like Stravinsky and [the Ballet Russes dancer and choreographer] Serge Lifar. And [ex-Mariinsky, now Bolshoi ballerina] Svetlana Zakharova trained there, and [Royal Ballet favourite] Alina Cojocaru, even though she comes from Romania."

"On my way here," he says suddenly, warming to the subject of dancers whose performances "give him gooseskin" and people he reveres, "I met my dresser, Oliver Greatorex. I must tell you about him because dressers too are very important in my profession. They basically help, not just with costumes but with everything. He will cheer me up, or he will keep out of the way. He is very deserving," he adds. Does he need cheering up? "Sometimes," he says. "I'm only human."

Putrov still guests in Kiev and tries to go back at least once a year to see his parents, who are still connected with the ballet, his mother a teacher "and my dad is now the leading dance photographer in Ukraine." Which leads us back to Sam Taylor-Wood, whom Putrov met when she came to the Opera House to take photographs and with whom he has since collaborated on two projects. "Maybe once a year you can expect to bump into somebody who's interested in making art that is really trying to say something," he says. "She is incredible, so interesting. And it was a fantastic experience working with her, to use my body for something that wasn't classical."

Before Strings, he took part in a performance piece she created for a party given by the Pet Shop Boys ("The friends she has are quite incredible," he says.) "Ivan was all in leather, and Sam undressed him to the soundtrack of Donna Summer's 'Love to Love You Baby'," recalls one guest. "Erm, it was rather sensational."

A world away from the Royal Ballet at least. For dance, he admits, can seem quite an insular world: "But it's up to you to make your small world big."

Ivan Putrov dances in 'La Bayadère' (Weds), 'The Four Temperaments' (Sat and 18 Nov) and Wayne McGregor's new work on 3, 9, 11 and 12 December: all at the Royal Opera House, London WC2 (020 7304 4000)