To his fellow pupils at the Royal Ballet School the Ukrainian dancer Sergei Polunin was “a legend”—“insane!”, and this winter, after only a year and a half in the company, he enters the annals of ballet history by tackling two full-length classics at the age of 19.

Sergei Polunin- ballet dancerRaised in Kherson, the only child of a builder and an adoring stage mother, Polunin trained as a gymnast before studying dance at the vocational academy in Kiev. “My father went to Portugal to earn money to support me, and my grandmother went to Greece to help.” A career in London was his mother’s idea, and leaving her in Kiev, where she began work as a costume-maker, Polunin won a Rudolf Nureyev Foundation scholarship to the Royal Ballet School in 2002. His technical ability was so advanced that he leapfrogged two years, but he soon picked up enough English to fit in. “I wasn’t homesick at all—I liked being in a group.” After winning every prestigious dance award, including the Prix de Lausanne, he joined the corps of the Royal Ballet at 17, dancing soloist roles in his first season. His gangly teenage physique had honed itself almost overnight into the classical perfection of a danseur noble.

Polunin’s two major debuts (The Prince in “The Nutcracker”, and Solor in “La Bayadère”), will present the kind of challenge undreamt of by someone of his age. “I felt he had a maturity that inclined me to expose him to more,” says the director of the Royal Ballet, Monica Mason. “Sergei’s always been ahead of his time. He’s a theatre animal with an extraordinary natural sense of belonging on the stage—an awareness of atmosphere and the ability to create that atmosphere and hold it. He’s an artist; a young artist.” ~ JULIE KAVANAGH

Polunin in "The Nutcracker" from December 21st, "La Bayadère" from January 28th.