Once there was an emperor of China who had everything beautiful in his life but music. The poor fellow never had heard the nightingale sing, but he was an emperor, so he sent out his courtiers to find one and bring it back to the palace.

How that nightingale sang! She sang and sang and sang -- until some buttinsky sent the emperor a wind-up bird that never took a rest or asked for a drink of water. In ancient China, as in modern life, the true artist is sometimes eclipsed by lesser imitations.

For the rest of the story, you'll have to check out "The Nightingale," at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theatre. A dance-driven play with music, "The Nightingale" is an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's retelling of a Chinese folk tale. Conceived by choreographer Dana Soon Tai Burgess, it was written and directed by Mary Hall Surface and features music by David Maddox.

The production is a remounting of a commissioned work that toured nationally in 1996 as part of the Kennedy Center's Imagination Celebration. This year, in fact, marks the 10th anniversary of the program, which has taken professional theater for young audiences to almost every state and parts of Canada. "The Nightingale" is on the second stop of a 35-city schedule that concludes next May.

Intended for theatergoers ages 5 and up, "The Nightingale" might appeal to an even younger crowd. The night I saw it, one little guy next to me, who was about 9 months old, leaned on the seat in front of him and stared at the stage. He was quiet for most of the performance, which, as any parent can tell you, is quite an endorsement.

In "The Nightingale," a servant (Lisa Woo) narrates the emperor's story through words and song. Five other performers present the scenes in dance. While the music takes its inspiration from the original source, an ancient Chinese fable, the movement draws on several styles, particularly ballet. One stunning number is especially acrobatic, as a masked figure representing death enters the scene on the backs of two other dancers.

It's a delightful package that young audiences will appreciate as much for its clever movement and costumes as for the story itself. When the emperor's two courtiers are surprised, their hoop skirts pop up -- a sight many 5-year-olds will find hysterically funny.

The Nightingale, conceived and choreographed by Dana Tai Soon Burgess. Adapted by Mary Hall Surface from a story by Hans Christian Andersen. Composer, David Maddox; sets, Tom Donahue; costumes, Jane Schloss Phelan; lighting, Lynn Joslin. With Elizabeth Coker, Rachel Merga, Rahmein Mostafavi, Miyako Nitadori, Leonardo Giron Torres. Approximately one hour. At the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater through Sunday. Call 202-467-4600 or visit www.kennedy-center.org

"The Nightingale" tells the Andersen story through words, dance and song.