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Peter and the wolf cubs

For the Royal Ballet's latest production, the oldest dancer on stage – by several years – is just 20. Rob Sharp reports

Miniature hunters tip-toe across a stage to prod a wolf writhing against a noose. A narrator softly intones a children's story to the familiar pomp-pomp of an age-old tune.

Peter and the Wolf's score may be instantly recognisable, but the setting will not be. This evening sees the Royal Ballet's version of Prokofiev's famous work staged for the first time in 15 years. Its cast? Almost 50 children studying at ballet school, with the necessary inclusion of two adults as the narrator and the fabled Wolf.

"It is rare to see 46 children and only two principals from the Royal Ballet's company," said Hope Keelan, a ballet teacher at the Royal Ballet's Lower School, speaking at rehearsals yesterday. "When we do Nutcracker there are a similar number of children on the stage but there is a massive cast of adults. With Peter and the Wolf, some of these children have only been at ballet school for a year or two. There is a lot being asked of them. It's a lot of ballet."

The show, featuring children aged between 11 and 15, is likely to be one of the Royal Ballet's most popular end-of-year productions, but organisationally, it is a labour of love. Each morning, the children are woken at their home at White Lodge, their south-west London boarding school, before being driven by coach to Covent Garden. They then spend two hours assuming their make-up and costumes, some of which have been adapted from the original production.

Choreographed by Matthew Hart for the Royal Ballet School in 1995, the ballet was filmed by the BBC two years later. This year, it returns in style: with the Royal Ballet's youngest-ever male principal dancer, 20-year-old Ukrainian Sergei Polunin, as the Wolf.

"Everyone respects you; they all look up to you. For them it's amazing to have an experience with someone from the Royal Ballet," said Polunin, who joined the Royal Ballet in 2007 and was promoted to principal in June. "And I know people who previously did this production and they remember it for the rest of their lives. It's the highlight of their school life," Polunin added.

He joined the Royal Ballet School at 13 and was quickly advanced into a higher year. In 2006, aged 16, he won the coveted Prix de Lausanne. He also won this year's Critics Circle Most Outstanding Male Performance Award.

Killian Smith, 15, who plays Peter, said: "It's really exciting, a great experience and a great opportunity. I admire Mr Polunin. He is very inspirational and we all look up to him a lot."

The production was originally narrated by Sir Anthony Dowell. This year's narrator is the actor Will Kemp, who trained at the Royal Ballet School and was the first lead swan in Matthew Bourne's original production of Swan Lake.

Charlotte Edmondson, 14, who plays the Duck, said: "It's such an amazing opportunity because it is everyone's dream at White Lodge to dance on the Opera House's stage."

The production is part of a double bill running with The Tales of Beatrix Potter at the Royal Opera House until 10 January.