Seattle International Children's Festival
Seattle Center, 684-7346,, Mon-Sat May 14-19.

Few audiences are more demanding than children--if you don't offer sophisticated tot entertainment, you're liable to end up aswirl in a knee-level riot. So every year the staff members of the Seattle International Children's Festival scramble across the globe to find performers who can rise to the demands of Seattle's tiny elite, and as a result they end up with acts that may very well appeal to adults. This year, for the 15th anniversary of the festival, acts have been culled from India, Korea, the Netherlands, Nigeria, China, Cuba, Hungary, Australia, England, and the U.S. There are dancers and skaters, singers, scary puppeteers, musicians of vegetables, and Architects of Air.

I thought previewing these various entertainments would be a gentle spring activity. Little did I know that the unforgiving gaze of the prepubescent would quickly descend on me and render me a harsher critic than I have ever been in my entire adult life. Watching each performance, I found myself adopting the short attention span and highly verbal critical skills of a 10-year-old.

Fred Ho's Battle for the Shaolin Temple!, for example, was a huge disappointment. Billed as a "martial arts ballet," it had an impressive jazz score that was not entirely lost on my suddenly pre-teen sensibilities, but the prancy "This Is A Fairy Tale!" tone of the narrator was nearly unbearable. "Why is he talking like we're idiots?" I found myself whining to my nonplused adult companion. And then, the fatal, "God, this is boring. It just goes on and on!" The martial arts weren't even fun to watch; they were like wussy dance moves.

I had the same reaction, surprisingly, to the "all-skating, all-singing, all-dancing celebration," ISH: Ultimate Skatedance Experience. At first glance, the hiphop stylings of the group seemed attractive, and the half-pipe in the middle of the stage certainly encouraged some phat stunts. But the short narratives of the piece were as gutless as after-school specials, and I found myself rolling my eyes and fiddling with my hair barrette.

The kind folks at the Children's Festival also invited me to witness the arrival of Kunjban and the Shiv Shakti Dance Party, straight from the newly appointed state of Jharkhand, in India. This group has never before performed in America, and in fact its members all departed from the plane in traditional robes, with flip-flops on. Out of handmade tin boxes the performers pulled object after festooned object: masks of gods and animals, long brass horns, and traditional drums called dhol. Costumes of bead-trimmed, brightly colored silk littered the floor. After the group members unpacked, the next thing on their agenda was an outfitting trip to Value Village, so they wouldn't freeze to death. In their home town, Kunjban and the Shiv Shakti Dance Party are not considered children's entertainment. They perform for local holy days, and they come out of a tradition of Hindu mythology--The Ramayana, The Mahabharata, and Puranas. And this, I realized, is precisely why they are so good: There's no hint of "talking down."

The narratives in PungMuAk's Tokebi--Goblin from Korea also threatened toward cutesiness, but what saved this performance was the extraordinary rock and roll energy of the "master drummers," and the visual pleasure of the ribbon dancers. I also previewed the terrifying Theater Terra presentation Circus, a puppet show from the Netherlands of almost supernatural liveliness. You will swear that Jimmy, the clam-faced main character, is actually alive, as he is tossed around on the cane of his human companion, hides from the Nurse Ratched-like neighbor, and investigates a ghost story. Worry-prone budding poets should avoid this one.

But I was most eager to see the Architects of Air. In the festival brochure, the creation promised by England's Architects of Air--an 8,900-square-foot inflated structure with colorfully illuminated passages and domes (the highest reaches 26 feet tall!)--looked like an alien heaven in some freaky space movie. However, the "luminarium," as I learned it was called, would not be set up until just before the festival begins. Upset and leakily whiny, I had to be satisfied with gawking at the pictures. You, however, should not be.