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Into the woods: New York Theatre Ballet.

Lions and Tigers and Bears
By Mae G. Banner

New York Theatre Ballet
The Egg, March 20

You can say this about children’s ballet: When it’s good, it’s very, very good, and when it’s bad, it is horrid. A family-friendly matinee presented March 20 at the Egg by the New York Theatre Ballet was very, very good in the dancing and staging, where it counted most, but erred in being a bit too long for kids with short attention spans.

The dances, Suite from Mother Goose, choreographed by Keith Michael, and Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals, choreographed by Beth Storey Taylor, were breezy and innocent, relying as much on mime and the familiar patterns of children’s backyard games as on classical ballet steps. Children could relate to sequences from “London Bridge is Falling Down” and could share the rhythm of square-dance skips and slides.

The Mother Goose suite, based on a day in the life of the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe, was at its best in “A Was an Apple Pie,” when the full company of 11 dancers dressed in gingham and calico out of a Kate Greenaway storybook formed the shapes of every letter of the alphabet, all the while passing a lovely pie from hand to hand. Another fun bit was “Three Blind Mice,” in which Danielle Genest, Keiko Nakamura, and Melissa Sadler waltzed out on toe in pink body suits and sunglasses, waving their very long tails teasingly, until the farmer’s wife, with her long shears, cut them off. The 4-year-old sitting behind me kept squealing, “Mice, mice,” with equal measures of fright and delight.

My favorite was “The Littles,” an ingenious human-puppet dance for Little Boy Blue, Little Bo Peep, and Little Miss Muffet, who appeared in a window and danced with the upper half of their bodies, while three other dancers provided their capering feet. How do they do that? The feet dancers fit their arms into their partners’ tiny pantaloons and their hands into their partners’ doll-sized shoes. Hidden behind their partners, they drape these feet over the window sill and then, off they go. It’s a vaudeville trick that never ceases to amuse.

Mother Goose, set to an impressionistic solo piano score by Vladimir Shinov, would benefit from editing, but Carnival of the Animals, like the Baby Bear’s porridge, was just right. Set in a twilight forest ruled by Queen Diana (a sparkly Kathleen Byme in a royal blue tutu and wielding a bow and arrow), the action follows two children who lose their way and are frightened by a magnificent lion and tormented by a slew of animals: chickens, horses, an elephant in spats, a mother and baby kangaroo, a pair of goldfish and a brilliant red bird.

Demetrius King is a regal lion in gold velvet bodysuit and a magnificent mane. He provides his subjects with gigantic forks and knives, the better to eat the children, but, in the nick of time, Diana reappears to make peace and everyone does a bounding gavotte with big kicks, like a 16th-century chorus line.

The New York Theatre Ballet, founded in 1978, is a spiffy-looking company with crisp costumes and elaborate storybook sets. Their choreography hits the right balance of simplicity and challenge, saving the serious ballet moves for the climactic sequences. Their work is clean, not treacly, and is free of the flash and noise of much that passes for children’s entertainment.

My guests, an 8-year-old girl and her 11-year-old brother, get to see a lot of dance and theater, so they’ve become trustworthy critics. After the show, the girl stretched out and crept across the floor like the lion. The boy said, “I enjoyed it.” Then, they both got in line to get their programs autographed by the dancers.

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