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."

Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, seated next to a picture of his missing wife Amy, played by Rosamund Pike

film
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

booksReview: Lena Dunham, Not That Kind of Girl
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
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.

    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments