Exit stage left: Royal Ballet in shock after losing leading man Sergei Polunin

Poached by rival company or just fed up? His departure is a mystery

The Royal Ballet's biggest star, a 21-year old part-owner of a tattoo parlour who loves gangster movies, has left the industry in shock by walking away from Covent Garden. Not even his mother knows what he will do next.

Described by one critic as "better than Baryshnikov," Sergei Polunin was the great hope of British ballet and at 19 was the youngest ever dancer to make the rank of principal at the Royal Ballet.

Rumours swept the industry yesterday over whether he had been tempted by a lucrative offer from a rival company – with the American Ballet Theatre and Mikhailovsky Ballet in St Petersburg among the names speculated – or even whether he was to hang up his pumps for good.

Polunin, who has several tattoos including tiger claw marks on his torso, part owns The London Tattoo Company, based in North London. He was said to have spent time there yesterday, while later he was in rehearsals for a show he had agreed to do in Sadler's Wells.

Polunin, now 21, dropped the bombshell on Tuesday. During rehearsals for The Dream, in which he was to play the lead role of Oberon, he approached director Dame Monica Mason and told her he would no longer be dancing for the company.

Dame Monica, who is in her final season as director, said it had "obviously come as a huge shock" – especially just over a week before the first performance. She added: "Sergei is a wonderful dancer and I have enjoyed watching him tremendously, both on stage and in the studio."

One ballet insider said: "This is really unexpected and it is really quite shocking, he was ballet's boy wonder and a remarkable dancer." They added: "In career terms, it doesn't sound like a brilliant decision. He was given a lot of backing by the Royal Ballet and he was their biggest star."

It is believed that Polunin had become frustrated that his performances at the Royal Ballet meant he could not accept guest invitations with the American Ballet Theatre and in Russia, but there was no clue as to what triggered his departure.

His mother said he had called her to tell her the news on Tuesday night, but "did not tell me the reason for it or what he is going to do next. He just said he was leaving." She told the London Evening Standard: "I know Sergei is a talented young man, he must know what he is doing. Believe me, he will never be lost in this world. If he made up his mind to do this, he must have thought it over very deeply indeed."

Emilia Spitz, of the BalletBag blog, said: "He is very young still. It probably is difficult to handle all that pressure. He has talked of not being quite ready for some of the responsibility... This could be part of the 'Money Ballet' trend where companies are offering advantageous contracts to star dancers."

The Ukrainian dancer grew up in poverty in Kherson, close to the Black Sea, with no electricity or hot water after 6pm. He trained in the gymnastic school there, harbouring dreams of winning an Olympic gold medal.

Forced to quit after contracting pneumonia, which put him in hospital for six weeks, he later said he was unable to shake off the illness until he saw "this guy who heals with his hands".

His family moved to Kiev to join the State Ballet School when his mother thought he had the chance of a better life with a career in dancing. He was accepted into the Royal Ballet School in 2003 at the age of 13, and four years later was named Young British Dancer of the Year.

Polunin said he unwinds by playing the video games Call of Duty or FIFA on his PlayStation against the co-owner of his tattoo parlour. He has also said he is inspired by Al Pacino movies and Russell Crowe's character in Gladiator.

The Royal Ballet was still coming to terms with the news yesterday, although a spokesman insisted it was "business as usual" and that there were other principals ready to assume Polunin's role. In private, senior members were bemoaning the loss of an exceptional talent.

Steven McRae, who beat Polunin to the award for best male dancer at the National Dance Awards this week, is expected to take on all the lead duties.Polunin will no longer play the male lead in Romeo & Juliet or the Jack of Hearts in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland for the Royal Ballet.

The dancer will appear in Men in Motion at Sadler's Wells, overseen by Ivan Putrov, who quit the Royal Ballet in 2010. The source said: "Putrov's departure was also rather abrupt but there had been rumblings about it. In Polunin's case there was nothing."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone