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Philip Hensher: Sergei Polunin and a lesson for Labour

Institutions need stars, and stars don't necessarily like institutions

I wouldn't be surprised if Monica Mason, the director of the Royal Ballet, were feeling pretty furious the last couple of days. Her young star, Sergei Polunin, walked away from the company two days ago without a word. There had been no particular sign, apparently, that he was unhappy or thinking of leaving; there were no negotiations that had broken down.

It doesn't appear as if he gave the company anything to negotiate over.

He has just gone; whether to another company for more money, whether just to do something else with his life, or whether he just wants a sit down with his bunions, nobody knows.

Bewilderment seems to be the mood, but fury is bound to follow – plenty of employees of the company would have indirectly benefited from Polunin's rising fame. For the moment, Polunin's following was confined to those who are interested in ballet. He is still very young, and has only been dancing a very few seasons. Word, however, had begun to spread.

In all these conventionally confined worlds, there is a moment where fame spreads outside the charmed circle of the usual audience, and large numbers of the general public start to think that they must find out what all the fuss is about.

It happened with Moira Shearer, Fonteyn, Nureyev, Darcey Bussell, Carlos Acosta; it looked set to happen all over again with Polunin. For a theatrical company, a performer like this is an authentically gold-egg-laying goose, and their loss at a whim is a serious blow.

It is an unfair truth about human nature that we are only properly interested in single, maverick figures. We understand about crowds; we train ourselves to value statistical and cumulative events. But all that can gain the interest of most of us is the exceptional individual. I think only once in history was a British decoration granted to a people, when the King gave the island of Malta the George Cross during the war. For the rest of it, we celebrate individual achievement, and understand the world through people who may be very unlike the rest of humanity.

When political change occurs, is there any way to understand it other than through the lone human? The horror of the napalm attacks during the Vietnam War comes down to Phan Thi Kim Phuc, the girl fleeing her village with her clothes destroyed and her skin dripping off her. The protests in Tahrir Square, and the subsequent brutality of the suppression, will come down in the end to the poor woman who was thrown to the ground, her veil and robe torn off her so that she lay between the feet of thugs in her underwear. We don't even need a name, just a sense of the individual: the man who stood before the tanks in Tiananmen Square in 1989 in silent and peaceful opposition has never been identified. But that is when we started to understand what Chinese democracy might mean.

Institutions, movements, communal excellence rest on the individual. Only the most refined admirer of the ballet ever bought a ticket to admire the corps; no one ever went to see a King Lear because they heard that the spear-carriers were astonishingly good. And, despite everything, possibly no one ever cast a vote solely because they believed that investment in the public infrastructure was currently inadequate, that public expenditure ought not to rise above 40 per cent of GDP, that immigration policy ought to be overhauled. People may tell you that they do; but the message gets across, and succeeds, with a maverick and unique star to convey it – a Thatcher, a Blair, a Wilson, even.

Without that, a political message is left with the support of the season-ticket holders, who go to everything, and the hard-core obsessives who can tell you all about the position of the feet in the third row of the corps de ballet, so to speak. This may be the problem for the Labour Party at the moment: they have not yet found the maverick star that they can make their peace with, and have settled for someone who, clearly, all his life has had to raise his voice to get a hearing in company.

Institutions need stars, and stars don't necessarily like institutions. A great Archbishop of Canterbury was once found in bed chanting, "I hate the Church of England, I hate the Church of England". Blair, clearly, didn't like parliament one bit, and the Labour Party not much more; when Thatcher resigned, Raphael Samuel wrote an essay pointing out that all her thinking – provincial, non-conformist, anti-aristocratic – hardly sat at all within the Conservative traditions. Our understanding is lured by what Browning called "the dangerous edge of things – the honest thief, the tender murderer, the superstitious atheist".

Large public institutions can only be kept going by the presence of the brilliant and perhaps unpredictable. We understand large movements and historic moments principally through the sight of an individual at the centre. But institutions don't consist of singly charismatic individuals; historic change happens to all of us. It is up to institutions to make peace with its mavericks, to make a space for the individual; it is sometimes up to the individual to make sense of the institution.

Sometimes that means not walking out, as Mr Polunin may in time discover.