I went to Raleigh Memorial Auditorium last week to see the 17th annual Pieces of Gold performance (sponsored by the Wake Education Partnership and Wake County Schools) not for entertainment, but out of a sense of parental duty. Several months ago, my 5th-grader came home dancing a jig and shouting, “We’re in! We’re in!” Her school had auditioned with many others across the county and had made the cut.

“It’s an honor to be chosen!” read notices later sent home by the school, notices accompanied by–no surprise–a strong sales pitch: Tickets at $8 to $50 a pop, T-shirts at $15 and even program ads for congratulatory messages to kids. Expensive maybe, but proceeds would help further arts education in county schools, including start-up of the Pieces of Gold Arts Institute, which will provide inspirational workshops and seminars to local arts teachers.

Worthwhile fundraising aside, the prospect of sitting through three hours of squawking–I mean singing–chorus routines and cutesy dances left me less than thrilled. I’ve been more eager about trips to the dentist.

Man, was I in for a pleasant surprise.

The students, from elementary- to high-school age, were stunningly talented. Vocal acts ran the gamut, from a barber shop-style quartet singing “Under the Boardwalk,” to an opera ensemble–wearing stylized Italian costumes–singing “Chi mi friena in tal momento.” (Whatever it means, the kids’ pained facial expressions and hands-over-heart gestures were convincingly sad.)

There were also musical renditions of Broadway tunes by Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Bob Fossey’s “And All That Jazz” was superbly choreographed. But while those acts deserved two thumbs-up, they were upstaged by several non-traditional performances.

Tchaikovsky might be a classical music standard, but a group of costumed “chickens” gave it new meaning when they took center stage and, with serious decorum, launched into a dramatic, staccato “Cluck, Cluck, Cluck, Cluuuucccck!!!” The house rocked with laughter. And that was only one of the unusual highlights.

Others included a routine called “Playground Shuffle.” Using hand-pat sounds on their bodies, along with salad spoons, jump ropes and trash can “drums,” the kids moved to a rhythm that left the audience slack-jawed.

Another offering–again from the youngest cast members–was a modern dance routine called “Calculations.” The premise, the kids said during an introductory video, was to dance math problems–think dance as algorithm.

Wearing all white (tank shirts, drawstring pants, headbands), the children wafted across the large wooden stage under blue lights. Audience members whispered to one another, maybe asking the same question I silently posed: “Where’s the math? I don’t see it.” The dancers entered the stage, exited, re-entered. Addition and subtraction?

Whatever its concept, the dance seemed like a kind of new holistic exercise–more fluid than tai chi, a helluva lot less spastic than Tae Bo. The music had a funky, pulsating bass, like something from new-age groups Deep Forest or Suave. Then, there were the movements themselves, jazzy but also classical–and totally unpredictable. Better than math.

Sadly, my 5th-grader’s group wasn’t one of my favorites, but in a way that was a good thing. I’d gone to the show imagining great interest only for the couple of minutes my kid was on stage. Instead, I wound up permanently on the edge of my seat, applauding many pieces of gold.