Can hundreds of third- to eighth-graders, products of the "sound-bite" generation, sit still for an hour of Greek mythology and Asian folklore?
They did Monday at Caltech's Beckman Auditorium where quiet anticipation, gasps and giggles were the responses as the Fire Plume Story and Music Ensemble fired young imaginations with centuries-old tales of enchantment.
Storyteller Margaret Wolfson, founder of the New York-based Ensemble, used no props, instead creating images with words, silence and graceful body movement.
Musician Paula Chan Bing accented each story with an unusual array of instruments: a small harp, an alto flute, bamboo flutes, a Mayan bird whistle, a Brazilian rain stick, an African log drum and a Japanese temple bowl.
The stories were dark and strange and brushed with eloquent melancholy, particularly a Japanese folk tale called "Urashima Taro," about a fisherman spirited away to the Dragon King's undersea palace for 300 years.
There was a rapt silence, then soft intakes of breath as Wolfson told how Urashima Taro opened a forbidden box, hoping to regain the years he had lost, but instead became suddenly old. "When the mountains turned deep violet with shadows," Wolfson said, "he closed his eyes and went to join his ancestors."
Bing's startling sound effects sent an enjoyable scare reverberating through the audience in a Korean horror story about a woodcutter saved from an evil snake by two golden birds.
As an encore, Wolfson offered a quick, comic tale about a cowboy and a magic horse, leaving the audience buzzing.
According to Bing, storytelling for children is "an awakening process, bringing them into the world of the imagination." She hopes they will "see beyond the rim of the visual world."
Through the Kennedy Center, the ensemble has performed worldwide; the Caltech performance, ending a monthlong school tour, was the first in a new series of public events co-sponsored by Music Center on Tour and Caltech.