China is a huge country, with tremendous regional diversity," notes Kennedy Center President Michael M. Kaiser. "When I first arrived at the Kennedy Center, I thought that we‹particularly as an institution that is known for presenting international festivals‹needed to do something very large and substantial."
Five years later, the Kennedy Center's monthlong Festival of China is as large and substantial as it gets, featuring more than 20 Chinese companies and nearly 900 artists in a multidisciplinary array of visual and performing arts, from Peking opera and symphonic music to fashion exhibitions and an opening-night fireworks event above the Potomac River. It will be the Kennedy Center's largest international festival to date and the leading display of Chinese arts ever to appear on American soil.
"It really took all that time to put a festival like this together," explains Alicia Adams, Kennedy Center Vice President of International Programming and curator for the festival. "This had a long incubation time, mostly because we needed events that would both reflect China today and be appreciated by our audiences."
Particularly remarkable for Adams are the country's traditional arts. "I was struck by their antiquity," she says, "as well as by the discipline I saw in the artists." For example, there's Deng Min, the leader of the China National Peking Opera Company's primary troupe who will be playing Mu Guiying in the company's production of Female Generals of the Yang Family (October 13-15). Deng recalls, "I was nine years old, studying pipa [the Chinese lute] at the local performing arts school on full scholarship, when my teachers said my eyes were expressive and selected me to train in traditional opera." Soon the future star was "eating bitter," waking up daily at 4 a.m. to a grueling regimen of physical and vocal acrobatics. No less intense, however‹and as Kaiser suggests, much easier for untutored American audiences to grasp‹is the range of Chinese contemporary arts. From the clothing designs of Vivienne Tam (included in the exhibition The New China Chic, October 4-16) to the music of Oscar-winning composer Tan Dun, few nationalities of late have made a greater impact in the global marketplace. "China is a country in transition, and you can see it everywhere," observes Adams, citing the National Ballet of China's production of Raise the Red Lantern (October 7-8), loosely based by director Zhang Yimou on his landmark 1991 film, which was originally banned in China. "You find artists everywhere today looking to push the boundaries," Adams says.
The most remarkable thing about the arts in China, however, is how the ancient and contemporary traditions have come together. The Western concept of modernism‹of high art remaining untainted by daily life‹has gained little ground in China. Rather, the country's artistic history has been a dramatic series of fits and starts, with periods of relative openness to Western influence followed by periods of often extreme political pressure to make those influences truly Chinese.
"The recent success of Chinese contemporary music has much to do with timing," says Chen Qigang, the Paris-based composer of the Raise the Red Lantern ballet and of Iris dévoilée, which receives its Washington premiere by the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra on October 2. "During the Cultural Revolution, when China was entirely closed to the rest of the world, European art music developed to its modernist extremes. Then, when our conservatories later reopened, we got a comprehensive education in both Western and Chinese music. We even traveled to remote areas to collect folk songs."
Those folk songs play a major role for Chen's Central Conservatory colleague Tan Dun, whose Concerto for Cello, Video, and Orchestra, The Map, introduces the rural minority culture of southwest China to 21st-century urban multimedia. "To me, an audience's heart can only be opened by composers who can relate to their roots," declares Tan, who conducts the piece's Washington premiere with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra on October 17. "As a listener, I find the same thing with Stravinsky, Bartók, or Ives. Each opened the world the same way, sharing their culture and childhood memories."
Likewise has Doudou Huang, artistic director of the Shanghai Song and Dance Ensemble, fashioned a distinctive Chinese modern dance vocabulary from traditional martial arts. "My end result is to use body language to express ideas and emotion, and martial arts is one of my means," he says. "The movements are very rhythmic, which makes them a great fit with contemporary music." Huang, who was featured in the closing ceremony of the 2004 Athens Olympics, will bring to the current festival his work Six Dance Imageries of Zhou Dynasty, choreographed to an original Tan Dun score that was inspired by the sounds of the ancient Hubei imperial bells.
The Kennedy Center, too, has done its part to inspire some fusions of past and present. It has arranged for the Beijing People's Art Theatre to bring a reconstruction of Lao She's seminal 1958 play Teahouse as a way of honoring the centenary of its original director, Jiao Juyin. "Jiao was the first advocate for a Chinese national theatrical style, and Teahouse has nurtured many generations of the country's best actors," says Lin Zhaohua, a former actor who, once the shuttered company had reopened after the Cultural Revolution, returned to become China's leading stage director.
Perhaps the most intriguing opportunities come when Chinese nationals find themselves working with fellow Chinese artists living abroad. To that end, the Kennedy Center has commissioned Cathay: Three Tales of China, written and directed by the Chinese American artist Ping Chong in collaboration with the Shaanxi Folk Art Theater (October 21-23). Performed by members of both companies, the show combines traditional shadow puppetry with cutting-edge multimedia effects. "Both sides wanted to collaborate," observes Adams, "but both had a hard time overcoming their difference in perspective."
For Chong, though, the process was as important as the piece. "I was struck right away by the company's breadth of technique and multidisciplinary approach, which were similar to mine," he says. "China has awakened after a long, unsettled sleep, ready to engage the world economically, politically, and culturally. As an American artist of Chinese descent, I think we have much to learn from each other."
The Kennedy Center Festival of China is presented in Partnership with the Ministry of Culture of the People's Republic of China. Major support for the Festival of China is provided by Morgan Stanley and the HRH Foundation.
Ken Smith is the U.S. correspondent for Gramophone magazine, and the Asian performing arts critic for the Financial Times.