Where were you when you heard that Sergei Polunin had left the Royal Ballet? I was just about to take my seat at a studio performance at Covent Garden where London’s balletomanes were huddled miserably in the aisles, open-mouthed with dismay at the news. His colleagues were equally nonplussed – “he was fine yesterday”, said one. Reports of a ballet world “in shock” might sound like overkill – nobody died, for heaven’s sake – but the sudden loss of this extraordinary young star was proving hard to bear and almost impossible to fathom. Why on earth was he leaving? Where would he go? And (the show must go on, after all) who could they possibly cast in his place? Polunin’s unprecedentedly abrupt departure was front-page news, but the 22-year-old star has long been food for headlines. His teenage debut as the snorting, tiger-slaying hero in the 1877 melodrama La Bayadère prompted comparisons with the young Rudolf Nureyev and, for once, the hype was justified: the same supercharged classicism; the same haughty sensuality; the same instinctive mastery of stagecraft. Polunin’s silky technique, drill-bit pirouettes and cat-like jump were a credit to his schooling, but his most exceptional qualities were not learnt in the studio. Even at 19, he knew how to infuse every step with motive force and give a gesture dramatic weight. Ballet’s princes spend a surprising amount of time standing about shooting their cuffs and generally looking spare but Polunin has only to tilt his chin or wave an imperious hand to take total command of the stage. Nobody taught him how to do that (if they knew the formula, they’d bottle it). Young Royal Ballet soloists often bemoan the years wasted while they blush unseen in the chorus but Sergei Polunin’s prodigious talent meant he was fast-tracked through the ranks. At only 19, he became Covent Garden’s youngest-ever male principal dancer and began systematically working his way through the great roles of the repertoire – to universally ecstatic reviews.