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Cue the dancing elephants

Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon and actor John Lithgow team up for 'Carnival of the Animals'

As a child attending the Royal Ballet School in England, choreographer Christopher Wheeldon went on a class trip to the British Museum of Natural History.

After returning to school, "all the other kids wrote about what they had seen," recalls Mr. Wheeldon. "[That] didn't appeal to me much, [so] I wrote a fantasy about being locked in after hours and wandering around on my own in this cavernous building."

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The image stuck.

Last week, New York City Ballet presented the world première of his new work, "Carnival of the Animals" (music by Camille Saint-Saëns), at Lincoln Center.

Its hero is a mischievous - and curious - young boy named Oliver, who spends a night in the Natural History Museum where the animals come to life. Remarkably, the animals all look like Oliver's family and teachers.

Wheeldon, resident choreographer at the New York City Ballet and one of the hottest young dancemakers today, wanted to make "a family-friendly ballet, but not specifically only for children."

He asked actor John Lithgow, who is also a children's author, to write the scenario for "Carnival" and perform as narrator. "I told John about the story I had written as a child," says Wheeldon.

The pair met in 2001, when Wheeldon snagged his first Broadway assignment for the musical "Sweet Smell of Success." Mr. Lithgow, who is best known from the television series, "3rd Rock from the Sun," won his second Tony Award for his role as J.J. Hunsecker.

"Chris called me out of the blue last August," says Lithgow, "and proposed that I make up a story to knit together the 14 musical sections of 'Carnival of the Animals' and write verse introductions to each of them."

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Saint-Saëns's "Carnival," like "Peter and the Wolf," has traditionally been used to introduce children to instruments, so it was a natural choice for a family-oriented story.

"But Chris didn't want the dancers in animal masks and costumes," adds Lithgow. "He wanted them to be people from the boy's world."

That comes across in the costumes, designed by Jon Morrell, which incorporate whimsical touches - like a few tail feathers or a pair of fins, rather than stuffing the dancers in furry suits.

The creative chemistry between Lithgow and Wheeldon began with an exchange of phone calls and e-mails.

"Chris was listening to the music constantly, thinking about the dance," says Lithgow. "I was listening to the music, thinking about the characters.

"We spent a day together at the zoo, to put us in the mind-set," Lithgow added. "[Wheeldon] would cross-refer to that day at the zoo while doing the choreography."

At the May 14 première, 37 dancers plus Lithgow personified Wheeldon's childhood story in a delightful pageant of a ballet.

Lithgow introduced each segment and took a surprise dancing role as the elephant, padded and dressed in a Victorian-era gown as the school nurse.

P.J. Verhoest, a student at the School of American Ballet, portrayed Oliver as a red-headed whirlwind cavorting with the animals. Saint-Saëns's aviary became a quartet of teeny-bopper pompom girls; the bouncy kangaroo was his school librarian, complete with book in hand.

Former NYCB ballerina Christine Redpath poignantly portrayed Oliver's great-aunt as a swan. In her segment, which evoked famed dancer Anna Pavlova's solo for "The Dying Swan," the aunt relives her past as a ballerina performing in "Swan Lake."

During the finale, the animals parade in salute to Oliver before he returns to his mom and dad, who appeared as cuckoo birds, worrying about their lost child.

"Chris is such a boy himself," says Lithgow of his collaborator. "He's a humorous storyteller."

'Carnival of the Animals' will be performed during the New York City Ballet's summer season at Saratoga Performing Arts Center on July 23, 25, and 26; Lithgow's scenario and verses will be published in 2004 by Simon & Schuster.