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Twelve months later, the subject of such anxiety and all those global headlines is sitting on the floor of a studio at the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Moscow Music Theatre, smiling a sweet, boyish smile. It's the Orthodox Christmas, and outside snow is falling softly on to deserted streets.

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You can quickly list the male dancers who found the kind of fame that allows them to be identified by a single name: Nijinsky and Nureyev. Without warning, Sergei Polunin walked out of the Royal Ballet company and into the glare of a worldwide spotlight. The brouhaha occasioned by his shocking departure from the company that had nurtured him was intense.

But in January 2012 a new name and a new face suddenly emerged from the rarefied world of ballet and jumped on to the front pages.

Dance critics feared that an outstanding talent was about to be lost amid dark tales of late nights, missed classes, drugs, the tattoos with which Polunin had increasingly covered his body, and deep disillusion with the discipline of ballet itself.

People who had never even heard of Polunin were obscurely full of regret that they might never see someone who had blazed briefly across British stages and was now apparently walking away from his own brilliance at dance.

'It will be one for me to tell my grandkids,' he says.

Yet, as if to prove the new levels of responsibility he is assuming, Polunin has come straight from the airport to rehearse Swan Lake with the ballerina Erica Mikirticheva.

With a performance in two days' time, their concentration is intense as they work on the three great pas de deux around which this famous ballet is built.

They don't yet dance with all their energy but walk thoughtfully through the steps.

It is like seeing a great painting with some of the lines rubbed out – a finished masterwork changed back into a sketch. Unbelievable.' The director of the Royal Ballet, Kevin O'Hare, agrees.

But even in this half-drawn form, you can see why ballet lovers fell into mourning when Polunin announced he was leaving the Royal and might give up dance altogether. 'He is one of those dancers that you look at and think, where does that come from?

Stamped into each lineament of his body is a rare natural ability honed to sophisticated shape. It's a wonderful gift.' British audiences will be able to see Polunin again when he returns to the Royal Opera House this month to perform Marguerite and Armand with Tamara Rojo.

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  1. Twelve months later, the subject of such anxiety and all those global headlines is sitting on the floor of a studio at the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Moscow Music Theatre, smiling a sweet, boyish smile. It's the Orthodox Christmas, and outside snow is falling softly on to deserted streets.

  2. Since Polunin's sudden departure from London his life has undergone massive change.

  3. 'Before, I had never paid a bill, I didn't know how that worked,' he says.

  4. 'Now I have to think for myself.' He has just returned to Moscow from a 24-hour dash to Los Angeles, where he was photographed by the filmmaker Gus Van Sant.

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