Ireland’s CoisCéim Dance Theatre is in Australia with a playful, contemporary reimagining of Peter and the Wolf.

Like many of us, David Bolger was introduced to Sergei Prokofiev’s “symphonic fairy tale for children” Peter and the Wolf at primary school, and remembers being fascinated by the composition, written to introduce children to the different instruments of the orchestra.

Bolger is now Artistic Director of CoisCéim Dance Theatre, an award-winning Irish company which he co-founded in 1995. CoisCéim – an Irish word for “footstep”, pronounced “Kush Came” – is currently in Australia with a production for children called The Wolf and Peter. As the title suggests, the show is a response to Prokofiev’s tale but turns it on its head, telling it from the perspective of the wolf.

Mateusz Szczerek as the Wolf in The Wolf and Peter. Photograph @ Ros Kavanagh

Directed and choreographed by Bolger, The Wolf and Peter premiered in Ireland in 2015 to five star reviews, with The Irish Times describing it as “reassuringly traditional and startlingly modern…. funny, imaginative, and finally, very moving.”

“The way Prokofiev wrote it was that each character had an instrument of the orchestra that represented them, but it was the kind of music that I always thought was really danceable,” says Bolger.

“A few years ago, I was thinking about making a children’s show and I kept coming back to the first thing I remembered as a child, which was this piece of music. And then I started researching a little bit about the story and began to realise that the wolf gets such a hard time in children’s stories really. There are so many stories that teach children that wolves are bad. I started to research wolves a little bit and I spent some time with a [zoo] keeper who has five grey wolves, and he totally loves them and they have a great relationship with him.”

“They’re highly intelligent and organised and really beautiful creatures, quite shy. They don’t really like human contact. It just got me thinking about the wolf, why we think they’re bad, and how to make a show that would put the wolf first, as it were. [So I decided] to twist Peter and the Wolf around and call it The Wolf and Peter and tell it through the eyes of the wolf,” says Bolger.

In Prokofiev’s tale, Peter lives on the edge of a forest with his grandfather and, one day, even though he’s been told not to, he goes into a meadow and leaves the gate open, unleashing a train of events involving a duck, a bird, a cat and a wolf. The wolf eats the duck, but Peter eventually captures wolf with the help of the bird, then persuades some huntsmen not to kill it but to take it to the zoo.

Ivonne Kalter as Peter in The Wolf and Peter. Photograph © Ros Kavanagh

“I was curious about the wolf wanting to kill the duck,” says Bolger. “I learned that wolves don’t overeat, they actually do good things for the ecosystem. There was a study done in Yellowstone Park in the States where the wolves had disappeared from the 1930s on. They reintroduced a pack of grey wolves and in the space of two years the whole ecosystem had changed.”

“The elk and deer had been over-grazing in certain areas, which meant vanishing food sources for birds, which affected the rivers, which affected the fish. When they reintroduced wolves, they were chasing the deer and elk so they weren’t over-eating. Bush and trees started to grow back, which meant less soil erosion, which meant the birds that hadn’t been in the park started to come back, and the rivers started to flow. So, I thought that was an interesting story and one that I wanted to embrace for the telling of this to a family audience,” says Bolger.

“In the world that we’re in at the moment, we’re not always encouraged to celebrate difference. We’re sometimes conditioned by stereotypes about people from different backgrounds so I thought that this may be a good way of getting into that – yes, a wolf can be bad, but they’re generally not bad. Maybe they have something to teach humans,” adds Bolger.

For The Wolf and Peter, Bolger is using Prokofiev’s music interwoven with a new score with a contemporary, electronic sound by Irish composer Conor Linehan. “We really wanted the music to be central to the piece because of the nature of how the original story was born, but also to be able to expand on it, and bring our modern eyes and notions to it,” says Bolger. “It was a really fantastic adventure and I’m so proud and privileged to be working with such a great composition.”

Though written for an orchestra, The Wolf and Peter uses a solo piano (played in Australia by Lance Coburn). “I listened to a piano reduction of the orchestra and got a concert pianist to play it on an upright, and for some reason it unleashed something in the music for me that I’d never heard before,” says Bolger.

“The piano is such an intimate instrument and I could hear the influence of Stravinsky and other Russian composers in the music. And when I began to work with our composer Conor Linehan – who is a fantastic concert pianist himself – we started to pull out what the wolf might be and build the other characters around that. And [then we thought] what would happen if Peter saves the wolf and frees him from the prison he’s thrown into by the hunters? [So we have] the wolf thanking Peter and teaching Peter a lesson, and there’s a lovely piece toward the end of the show where Peter is introduced by the wolf to the wolf pack and they are allowed to play together in the forest.”

The Wolf and Peter. Photograph © Ros Kavanagh

Bolger took the dancers to study the wolves in the zoo, to learn exactly how they move. “I thought it was really important [in order] to find the character of the wolf,” he says. “We also worked very closely with our designer, Monica Frawley, and she did a lot of drawings for us, because I think playing animals on stage is quite difficult to get right, and it can be pantomimic at times. I wanted to get a purer form, or to find something in the character of the wolves themselves.”

Though Bolger comes from a ballet and contemporary dance background, he says that he kept imagining “a streetwise, all-knowing wolf.”

“I’ve met some great street dancers in my travels. I found a Polish dancer [Mateusz Szczerek] and asked him if he would come in and help us think about playing the wolf as a street performer – somebody who knew an awful lot about modern dance but was also able to be soft and agile, so we worked with him and mixed up the contemporary dance language with the more traditional contemporary freeform that I use a lot to find the animals through dance.”

Emma O’Kane who plays the cat, based her characterisation and movement style on her own cat, Bunny, who doesn’t like being held and turns its nose up at tinned cat food. “It’s really funny. People really connect with the way the cat runs the household,” says Bolger.

Rather than creating animal masks, Frawley designed brightly coloured costumes, focusing on the right shape for each animal, including a yellow rubber ring, goggles and flippers for the duck.

The duck in The Wolf and Peter. Photograph © Ros Kavanagh

In Bolger’s version, the wolf does still eat the duck. “Though the show looks very simple, we did a lot of work on that,” says Bolger. “The audience generally loves the duck because he’s silly and he’s got a particular way of moving. I think, without getting too heavy about it, you question everything when you’re younger including death. Younger audiences tell you what they’re thinking, and that’s fantastic – it’s something we encourage. No-one’s allowed to shush anyone, everyone is allowed to partake, and if they want to say something they’re allowed to. Sometimes it’s like a rock concert, [the children in the audience] really get connected. It’s beautiful.”

The Wolf and Peter plays at The Joan, Penrith, July 6 & 7


Sydney Opera House, July 12 – 20