BRING the kids. That seems to be the message of many arts groups these days, as the ''graying of audiences'' makes the cultivation of the next generation of dance- and music-lovers ever more important.
In the past, a number of dance companies and symphony orchestras paid lip service to children's programming. Once a year they went all out with ''The Nutcracker,'' or offered balloons at a matinee concert, but not much imaginative fare surfaced that would build a child's allegiance to live performance. Those attitudes appear to be changing, and not just for reasons of self-interest. Arts groups recognize that families are seeking entertainment alternatives.
Organizations like the Boston Ballet are well aware of their competition, not just special-effects-crammed movies and theme parks, but more particularly live-theater spectacles like Disney's ''Beauty and the Beast'' in New York. But shows for children are often as lightweight as marshmallow topping, a turnoff for adults as well as their young charges. Companies know they need to effectively market to adult sensibilities as well as to children's tastes. Not an easy task.
Enter the Boston Ballet with ''Happily Ever After,'' a trio of charming, bite-size ballets. Each is built around a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale: ''The Steadfast Tin Soldier'' tells the sad story of a toy soldier devoted to a paper ballerina. ''The Nightingale'' deals with a foolish emperor who values a mechanical bird's song over the real thing. In ''The Princess and the Pea,'' sensitivity to foreign objects under one's mattresses proves advantageous.
While ''Tin Soldier'' is, forgive the pun, rather stiff, the other two ballets, both world premieres, are examples of quality performances that appeal to children but also engage adults.
Dance companies in other cities could take a few tips from ''Happily Ever After.'' Unlike longer story-ballets such as ''Swan Lake,'' the three segments are short and quickly delivered, which keeps children and non-ballet lovers interested. Scenery, costumes, and an occasional well-placed stage effect enhance the ''ooh-ahh'' factor. Adults respond to the the richly complex original music in ''The Nightingale'' (composed by Boston Ballet music director Jonathan McPhee) and the dancers' fine acting in ''Princess and the Pea.'' Kids like the Jester's pratfalls. Both age groups enjoy the comic moments, which are sprinkled liberally throughout.
The Boston Ballet has achieved the elusive mix of components for good family entertainment: Besides lavishing huge sums of money on costumes, scenery, and live orchestra, the company has created an environment where the dancers are able to invest themselves in the roles with energy and flair.
Of course, throwing money at a production doesn't ensure that imaginative ideas will rise to the top. But in the case of ''Happily Ever After,'' money seems to have freed up the designers' imaginations.
In one segment of ''Princess and the Pea,'' a corps of dancing mattresses - dancers zipped into bulky quilted squares with nightcaps on their heads - steals the show. The Princess draws laughter for her attempt to climb a Mt. Everest of mattresses. The king and queen wear elaborate headdresses complete with sailing ships - sort of Marie Antoinette meets Mother Goose. In ''Tin Soldier,'' an enormous blue and green fish swallows our hero.
Disney never had it so good.
* 'Happily Ever After' continues at the Wang Center through Oct. 29.