Ukrainian dancer Sergei Polunin dances in the Royal Ballet production of Sleeping Beauty by Tchaikovsky in 2011 at the Royal Opera House, London.

Ukrainian dancer Sergei Polunin dances in the Royal Ballet production of Sleeping Beauty by Tchaikovsky in 2011 at the Royal Opera House, London. Photo: AP

On the afternoon of January 24, 2012, Sergei Polunin walked out of rehearsals with the Royal Ballet in London and informed its then outgoing director, Monica Mason, that he would not be coming back. It seemed like a slap in the face. Born in Kherson, a poor ship-building port in southern Ukraine, Polunin had been all but brought up by the Royal, attending the Royal Ballet school from the age of 13. When the dancer was 19, recognising a talent that drew comparisons with Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Barishnikov, Mason had made Polunin the Royal's youngest ever principal.

The ballet world was shocked and mystified by Polunin's departure, but a few weeks later the dancer revealed that he had found rehearsing ''very boring'' and that he wanted to give up ballet by the age of 26 (he's now 22) because the physical effects were so gruelling. He also hankered for time to explore his real passion - tattoos. He has 11 tattoos, including ''tiger scratches'' on his torso, and a stake in a tattoo parlour in north London.

Polunin had also joked on Twitter about using heroin, and in September told Intelligent Life magazine: ''Lots of times I performed on coke.''

Sergei Polunin.

Sergei Polunin. Photo: Getty Images

Having seemed bent on self-destruction, as 2012 draws to a close, Polunin is living in Moscow and still dancing, largely thanks to his mentor, Igor Zelensky, artistic director of the Stanislavsky Theatre and also an ex-pupil of Nureyev and former principal of the Kirov Ballet.

After Polunin had returned to the London stage in March to perform at Sadler's Wells, he visited Kherson for the first time in a decade to see his family. Afterwards he travelled to St Petersburg, where Zelensky, a hero to the dancer when he was growing up, phoned him up and ''took me under his arm''.

In July, Polunin made his Russian debut in Coppelia at the Stanislavsky Ballet, which he describes as the highlight of his year.

''What's great about the Stanislavsky is that I have Zelensky, the director, on top of me and that's the only person who I'm dealing with, so that's a lot of freedom I have as an artist,'' Polunin says from Moscow. ''Zelensky helps me - he's interested in making you create your name, to make you a star.''

Coppelia was a sell-out success and a hit with critics. After that, Polunin starred in a three-month ballet competition on Russian TV, featuring six couples from companies including the Mariinsky and the Bolshoi. ''I was the winner of that and it gave me big publicity. Now I'm in OK! magazine, Vogue …''

Polunin will return to London in April to dance with Zelensky in Midnight Express, a ballet based on the memoir of a drug smuggler who escaped from a Turkish jail, made into a famously lurid film by Oliver Stone.

Directed and choreographed by Peter Schaufuss, the ballet has already prompted some salacious speculation about prison sex scenes, but Polunin says that it is too early to talk about the specifics.

''I think it will be violent,'' he says. ''I know there's going to be blood and screaming and real dancing, but I'm not sure exactly what it's going to be.'' There is also a documentary about Polunin in the works, made by a team including Gabrielle Tana, producer of Ralph Fiennes's version of Coriolanus, Julie Kavanagh, who wrote the Intelligent Life profile and who has known Polunin since he was a boy, and her husband, Ross MacGibbon, head of dance at the BBC.

''People were asking me to do acting, but me and Igor convinced them to make a documentary about me and my dancing,'' Polunin says.

''They are going to Siberia in January to film me there and in Moscow, and there will be a lot of filming in London because I'm doing 16 shows there between January and the summer. They're going to film my mum coming [to London]. They want to take it big - they want to show it in cinemas.''

Polunin will also return to the Royal Ballet in March to dance with Tamara Rojo in Marguerite and Armand. ''I'm on good terms with Kevin O'Hare,'' Polunin says of the Royal's new director.

''He helped me a lot before. I don't know what to expect from the people there - it's going to be strange, but I'm looking forward to it and it's always a pleasure to dance with Tamara.'' Polunin has also been embraced by the fashion and art worlds. He has starred in Opening Night, a short promotional film made in New York for Dior Homme by the photographer Bruce Weber, and in January will travel to Los Angeles to be photographed by the director Gus van Sant.

Working in fashion, Polunin says, is ''something different. Bruce is very special - he puts you into these weird situations and he kind of opens your emotions up.''

Despite all this, the dancer admits that he sometimes misses London. ''For nine years I lived there and it's a bit lonely in Moscow, but when you have a lot of work, you keep yourself busy and you don't really concentrate on anything else, which helps,'' he says. ''In the beginning it was hard but now I have a lot of interesting stuff [to do] - life is good.''

Polunin does not regret leaving the Royal, saying that the work he has done since has been ''careerwise, a big step up for me''. He no longer says that he wants to retire at 26. ''If I wake up and I don't want to do [ballet] I won't, but things change every day - new information, new stuff coming up.''

It sounds as though Polunin has matured. So, did he get any more tattoos? ''I didn't, but where I live, there is a tattoo place there.'' He chuckles. ''For the moment it's over but if tomorrow I decide, I'll do it.''

The Guardian