Sergei Polunin, who shocked the dance world when he quit the Royal Ballet last year, has pulled out of a new show leaving some of those involved fearing for his welfare.
The 23-year-old failed to turn up for rehearsals of Midnight Express yesterday, according to the production’s director, despite being due to take the stage at the London Coliseum in the lead role next week.
Yet, sources close to the production said that Polunin had left the production over “artistic differences” and had not mysteriously vanished without trace.
The Peter Schaufuss Ballet moved swiftly to announce that Polunin would not be dancing “due to unforeseen circumstances”.
The 20-year-old understudy Johan Christensen will take his place. Wayne Eagling, former head of the English National Ballet who starts rehearsals tomorrow, will still dance the role of the father, he said.
Peter Schaufuss, the director and choreographer of the ballet which is adapted from the book by Billy Hayes, said: “I’m just devastated and I’m concerned about his welfare.”
The acclaimed dancer failed to show up on Wednesday, and the company spent all day trying, without success, to track him down.
Schaufuss continued: “I had no reason to think anything was wrong because rehearsals were going very well and Sergei was perfect for the role. In rehearsals he had been fulfilling that in every way I’d hoped for.”
The last time Schaufuss saw Polunin was Tuesday evening. “We were talking and he said he wanted to dance and he would come to rehearsals at 1pm the following day. Since then we haven’t had any response from him. He didn’t show up.”
Igor Zelensky, Polunin’s mentor and artistic director of the Stanislavsky Ballet, was due to dance in Midnight Express too, but returned to Russia on Wednesday night.
Yet one source close to the dancers said it was a “joint decision” between the Eastern European dancers, adding “it is purely artistic differences” rather than a meltdown.
The dancer had joined rehearsals on Monday 25 March, and “he had really begun to make the role his own,” Schaufuss said, adding he was due to meet the book’s author Hayes yesterday.
Graham Watts, chairman of the Critics’ Circle Dance Section, said: “It might be a very considered judgement. Polunin has changed a great deal and become a mature young man and an exceptionally charismatic dancer.
“He performed in Moscow a week ago to rave reviews. He is at the top of his art, the problems he had are all gone and were, I believe, rooted in his relationship with The Royal Ballet. I’d be amazed if he just stormed off without reason.”
The director first met Polunin in November. While he did not know him well, since rehearsals, he said: “I felt he had matured a lot. He looked fresh. When he arrived here he looked a lot more confident.”
Polunin, who is from Kherson in the Ukraine, moved to the UK in 2003 at the age of 13 to join the Royal Ballet School.
He enjoyed an astonishing rise, winning the Young British Dancer of the Year four years later, and became the youngest male dancer to be made principal at the age of 19.
Polunin was always a bit different from the other dancers, with a love of body art and would watch films like The Godfather and Goodfellas before going on stage at Covent Garden.
Yet it all came crashing down when he quit the Royal Ballet days before he was due to take the lead in The Dream last year. Dame Monica Mason, then director of the company called it a “huge shock”.
He took refuge in the subsequent days in a north London tattoo parlour he still co-owns. Rumours began to circulate about his lifestyle.
In interviews after his departure from Covent Garden, he talked about struggling with the pressure of being a dancer, as well as being bored to tears by rehearsals, and how he wanted to give up dancing by the age of 26.
He travelled between companies before being based at the Stanislavsky Ballet since July. He subsequently became a huge star in Russia after winning a Strictly Come Dancing-style television show based on ballet dancing.
Watts said: “He wanted to do different things and earn more money. Dancing round the world meant he could command greater fees. Doing thing like Midnight Express was a part of that.”