It's a safe bet the only thing standing between children and their ability to absorb the most challenging art is the adult with a limited imagination. There was no danger of that happening Sunday at the Curtis Institute of Music, where a new production of The Jungle Book emerged from the pen of a group of grown-ups with an enormous sense of regard for their audience.
What's more, the 45-minute ballet with a stunning small-ensemble score and crisply told story is an absolute charmer.
This Jungle Book, a coproduction of Curtis and Pennsylvania Ballet II, manages to avoid every cliché of bad children's programming. Composer John B Hedges, a 2002 Curtis graduate, leans heavily on Indian sounds - not just a droning Shruti box and various percussion exotics, but also an unusual seven-member ensemble of alto flute, English horn, French horn, and strings. A fluttering motif sounds like it has bubbled straight up from the jungle floor, and a variety of special effects and shrewdly composed textures and melodies add meaning and mood without ever growing literal.
Narrator Anthony Martinez-Briggs tells the story of Mowgli (danced with bright boy energy by Michael Matthews) as he encounters the viper, monkeys, and other denizens of the wild world the man-cub eventually outgrows. Cartoonish soft-sculpture sets by Sebastienne Mundheim, vernal costumes by Rebecca Kanach, and cobalt-to-flame lighting design by John Hoey are assertive enough to set mood, but are never distracting.
And there's a lot to follow. R. Colby Damon is the choreographer, and he and Hedges smartly toggle between action scenes and lovely pools of introspection. The section in which Mowgli and his parents dance through a moment of family communion is warmed by English horn and cello, to which Hedges adds a bit of bell-like magic (crotales). The fight-scene music is a complex crosshatch of sounds, and the way Hedges captures hearts fluttering to life is gorgeous as Mowgli and his love interest discover each other, but in an unobvious way. Curtis conducting fellow Teddy Poll was an astute leader.
You always wonder with a piece like this whether it can become part of the canon, following in the steps of Peter and the Wolf or Carnival of the Animals. It would be hard to remount given the relative scarcity of dancers and musicians on this level. But there's so much going on in the music a music-and-narrator-only version is worth pursuing.
What's obvious is that everyone involved realized his or her creative charge with great invention. More than once, though, I wondered: with no dancers or sets, with just a simple spotlight on the narrator and ensemble playing in darkness, whether the imagination of our smartest listeners would have envisioned everything they wanted to know about Mowgli's world and more.
Sunday's 2 p.m. performance of "The Jungle Book," which was streamed live, is available through 2 p.m. Wednesday at curtis.edu/CurtisPerforms. Additional performances are scheduled for April 9 at the Upper Darby Performing Arts Center and April 23 at the Ware SCenter at Millersville University in Lancaster.