The Sergei Storm at the Royal Ballet

Ten choreographers showcased their works in progress last evening at the Royal Opera House but one man who wasn’t there upstaged them all.

Sergei Polunin’s shock resignation that afternoon was the big subject of the night. Why, what, where?

No one had the answer to why the young star of the Royal Ballet had suddenly quit, telling the Royal Ballet’s artistic director, Monica Mason, that he didn’t want to dance there any more.

Among the more peculiar aspects of the story was the emphasis in the media of Polunin’s newish love of tattooing, (he is co-owner of the London Tattoo Company in north London).

The most popular theories about why he quit is that Polunin is, as one observer believed, planning a move “into a sea of black ink”, that is following in the footsteps of the Bolshoi Ballet’s young stars Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev, who recently “defected” to the Mikhailovsky Ballet in St Petersburg, or moving to New York to join American Ballet Theatre.

Polunin’s departure has triggered a Sergei storm on Twitter and stories are emerging of his private life in London.

Today, The Evening Standard reported that his Twitter feeds gave “a glimpse of a life contrasting with the rigours of training. Polunin speaks of beer and champagne, the tattoo parlour he owns and his new ‘sick tattoos’. He parties at the Ivy Club and envies rain drops which ‘live fast, die young’”.

Polunin is only 21 and joined the Royal Ballet School’s lower school, White Lodge, aged 13. He spoke little English. At the age of 19 he was promoted to the rank of principal.

His extraordinary talent is evident, but how has his meteor-like rise affected his emotional stability?

On Wednesday evening the Royal Opera House chief executive Lord Hall said of Polunin, that “thinking about his life – the pressures on him are enormous” and that the Royal Ballet should support him.

That’s a more generous response than those of some in the London dance community who seem to be angry and dismissive of Polunin. How dare he do such a thing as walk away from the Royal Ballet?

But why not? The only real issue is that it’s very inconsiderate to quit suddenly while still mid-contract, and therefore seriously disrupt casting plans and disappoint audiences who had bought tickets for his shows.

As always in the ballet world, the crisis of one dancer leads to luck for another. Once again, the Australian, Steven McRae, will be the winner. He is likely to take many of Polunin’s roles in the remainder of the current season.

In the cartoonish world so harshly depicted in Black Swan, he becomes the ‘good’ boy and Polunin the ‘bad’ boy, but the truth is never as black and white as a movie or indeed the plot of the good/bad characters in Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty.

But back to the Draft Works program at the Royal Opera House, introduced on the night by the resident choreographer, Wayne McGregor.

Standouts were performances from Yuhui Choe in Robert Binet’s At the River Styx, Lauren Cuthbertson and Bennett Gartside in Ludovic Ondiviela’s Feathers in Your Head, and Declan Whitaker’s solo, Overtone.

The choreographic highlights for me were Thomas Whitehead’s exhilarating i lean & bob, Valentino Zucchetti’s promising Balanchinesque Brandenburg Divertissement and Tamara Rojo’s Into the Woods in which a young woman, danced by corps de ballet member, Camille Bracher, attempts to escape from her partner (Jose Martin). But who is the captured and who is the one who captures?

There are Pina Bausch moments in this brief pas de deux, but also, I think, an indication of Rojo’s intelligence as a choreographer of the future.

Meanwhile Rojo has described Polunin to The Guardian as “an exceptional artist and I don’t believe they come along that often – every three generations, maybe. I really hope that whatever it is that he has to go through he does, and that he can come back to dance because he will be a terrible loss”.

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Sergei Polunin, photo © Jason Bell/ROH