The Christmas concert season came early to George Mason University's Center for the Arts on Saturday with ODC/San Francisco's production of "The Velveteen Rabbit," a children's ballet that has become a holiday standard. Judging from the confused reaction of some in the audience, the ballet's theme that anything deeply loved eventually grows real was far too abstract for many of the children. They fidgeted and slept and asked lots of questions like "Who are those people?"

To the credit of ODC/San Francisco (originally the Oberlin Dance Collective), the set and costumes by Brian Wildsmith are first-class and the dancing professional. Too often, children's shows are badly danced with stingy sets when the opposite should be the norm. Children deserve the very best.

This production was at its best when the story moved forward. Attention flagged when action was padded with lengthy dance sequences that seemed designed primarily to fill up the music (by Benjamin Britten, with original songs by Bob Franke and Gina Leishman).

So much more inventiveness could have been used to give the come-alive toys more personality and the dancing bunnies more pizazz. There were movement jewels sprinkled throughout the production, such as the amusing way the boy slept with his derriere in the air. But with the story line already thin and then stretched out to fill a 50-minute first act and 25-minute second act, the production tested youngsters' patience.

That the book (first published in 1922) is a success and this production has staying power is irrefutable. Yet given the abstract nature of the theme, one wonders why. The premise is that love makes you real. "Once you're real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand," says one of the characters. This sounds all warm and cuddly, but on second thought makes you scratch your head and wonder what it really means.

Perhaps the production has had such amazing longevity because the parents like it so much. After all, they're the ones buying the tickets. And with "The Nutcracker" coming out their ears, maybe a decently produced boy-and-his-bunny tale is a welcome change.

Clever costumes by Brian Wildsmith are a highlight of the production.