East Meets West

By Eve Zibart

Washington Post

Friday, September 30, 2005; Page WE34


IT IS one of the world's great cultures; more accurately, it is many of

the world's great cultures. China is the oldest continuous civilization on

the globe, a nation of more than 50 ethnic peoples and 1,500 dialects --

more than 100 languages in the province of Fujian alone -- whose

traditional arts, costumes, music and metaphors embrace an almost

inconceivable variety. Even in the age of video and satellite television,

much of Chinese art remains mysterious to American audiences, even as its

quality, particularly of its dance and multimedia art, is reaching new



But not here. Throughout October, an unprecedented number of China's

finest performers and visionaries, nearly 900 in all, will be on stage at

the Kennedy Center. The Festival of China, four years in the making and

featuring an extraordinary lineup of the most acclaimed dancers,

musicians, actors, acrobats and puppeteers, is the single largest

celebration of Chinese performing arts ever hosted by a single

institution, even in China itself. Painstakingly assembled by Kennedy

Center Vice President Alicia Adams, the schedule includes eight premieres

and more than a dozen free shows as well as an open-air marketplace,

exhibits and family activities, and a glimpse of what has been described

as "the eighth wonder of the world," the terra cotta warriors of Emperor

Qin Shihuang.


I traveled to China last year and was fortunate to see not only the

warriors but several of the country's performing companies; the following

"postcards" from some of the cities I visited were taken from my journals

of the trip.


In conjunction with the festival, Adams has helped many of the troupes

arrange appearances in other U.S. cities -- in some cases, fairly

extensive tours -- because she believes that as the nation's capital of

performing arts, the Kennedy Center should also serve as the doorway into

America for artists from other nations.


For Festival of China schedule details and dates, see Page 36. Tickets for

the performances, where needed, are available at the Kennedy Center box

office, by phone at 202-467-4600 or online at

http://kennedy-center.org/china .


The performances by the China National Peking Opera Company and the

Beijing People's Art Theatre will have supertitles, and others will be

interpreted for visually or hearing-impaired patrons. Two weeks' notice is

requested to arrange for the aids, but the Kennedy Center will try to

accommodate those with less time; call 202-416-8727.


BEIJING -- An hour or so before the performance begins, the actors begin

to gather around a bank of makeup tables and lighted mirrors. Some are

already in costume, with tissue folded carefully around the neck and

sleeves to prevent the heavy silks and brocades (they are quite elaborate)

from being smeared. Others wear robes or what looks like surgical scrubs.

Their hair is slicked back, some braided, some under nets or skullcaps,

and many have plucked not only their eyebrows but their hairlines to make

their foreheads look higher and more imperious. They can increase the size

of their eyes that way as well, creating dramatic brows and carrying the

black eyeliner far out to the sides.


Many of the actors start with a base of white or even pale pink, expertly

and evenly sponged over the entire face. Typically, the eyelids and up

under the brows are shadowed in dark rose or red, and red dots painted

into the curve of the nose to emphasize the corner of the eye. The lips

are shaped into a bright, scarlet moue. The most stylized paintings may

have flames of red and gold and black or loopy clown eyes. All this the

actors draw freehanded and immaculately.


The festival kicks off with a salute to Beijing culture, nine days of

mostly free and family-friendly offerings including demonstrations of face

painting in the Peking opera style, martial arts, dragon and lion dancing,

kite-making, seal-carving and calligraphy, plus an open-air market with

handicrafts and mementos. The Inner Mongolian Chorus will make its first

appearance in the United States, performing traditional a cappella music

on the Millennium Stage. Musical prodigies from Shenzhen, pianists He

Qizhen, Zuo Zhang and Zhang Haochen, all younger than 18, will perform two

classical programs, including one with 97 other young pianists (with a

little help from National Symphony Orchestra conductor Leonard Slatkin, in

a program titled "100 Pianos").


Throughout the festival, the Kennedy Center will be adorned, inside and

out, with contemporary arts and even a fashion exhibition, "The New China

Chic." For nearly a fortnight, the Terrace Gallery will become both a

showcase and a shop featuring clothing and accessories by 16 prominent

Chinese or Chinese American designers, including Vivienne Tam, Shanghai

Tang, Jeffrey Chow, Anna Sui and Vera Wang.


The entire building will be decorated by Tim Yip , Oscar-winning art

director of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," with huge hanging banners

along the Potomac River facade, lanterns and elaborate paper cuttings, all

in the auspicious color of red. Contemporary sculptures by Chinese

artists, both traditional and avant-garde, will be installed throughout

the center and the grounds. Eight contemporary Chinese films will be

screened (free tickets required), and photographic exhibits of Shanghai

and Beijing will line the Hall of States and Nations Gallery.


SHANGHAI -- The Shanghai Acrobats are a lively and self-possessed troupe

that takes to somersaulting through hoops and vaulting over one another in

simultaneous waves from both sides of the stage, slipping through with

seemingly effortless ease and extreme good humor. The pyramids of men and

boys, the towers of hats tossed and piled atop the jugglers' heads like

the "500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins," the girls with those preternatural

hip joints that seem to rotate 360 degrees -- no longer unfamiliar to

Americans, perhaps, but breathtakingly exact.


The China National Acrobatic Troupe was founded more than 50 years ago,

and its repertory includes more than 100 programs -- acrobatics, aerial

acts, farce, magic and vocal imitations. The performances (free but

tickets required) feature plate spinning, hoop diving, umbrella juggling

and so on.


But no celebration of Chinese culture could be considered properly

inaugurated, or propitious, without a display of fireworks, that beautiful

and characteristically fleeting art. On Saturday night, pyrotechnic

choreographer Cai Guo-Qiang will unleash a program created specifically

for the Kennedy Center, an eight-minute, three-sequence suite with

displays from nine barges. Called "Tornado," it will feature visions of

flying fire dragons and kites, and the climactic whirlwind reaching up to

the sky should be visible for quite a distance.


SHAANXI -- The terra cotta warriors really are amazing, standing eternally

vigilant in their graves and staring with a peculiar despair into

eternity. There are 8,000 or so figures -- archers, foot soldiers,

charioteers and horses, officers, etc. -- many still in tiny pieces

awaiting reconstruction. They rise in waves from the earth, some rows

fully exposed, some still buried up to their knees, others fallen onto the

backs of their comrades. The horses, too, some rearing, some seeming to be

struggling to get their legs free of the muck. There were about four major

facial molds for the heads, and they were painted to look more

individualistic -- research suggests there were at least 17 colors -- but

it's all faded off, and oddly it's just that blank-eyed expression that's

the eeriest part. Each statue weighs between 440 and 680 pounds; the legs

are solid but the bodies are hollow, which helps (or did help) keep them

upright. Not only that, but according to scientists, they must have been

baked at something like 800 degrees, nobody is quite sure how. They're

also larger than life-size, so they would have been quite intimidating to

even a spiritual opponent.


Qin Shihuang, the emperor who had them constructed, became a prince at 13

and immediately began assembling two armies, one for this world and

another for the next. He succeeded in overthrowing his seven rivals and

uniting the country and also ordered the construction of the Great Wall,

his country's most famous landmark. But two years after Qin's death, a

peasant uprising set fire to his tomb complex. It burned underground for

three months, collapsing the timbers that held up the ceiling. It

gradually vanished and was rediscovered only about 30 years ago by a

farmer who brought up some fragments while digging a well.


Although his tomb was nearly forgotten, Qin -- pronounced "Chin" -- left

another mark on history: He gave his name to the nation of China.


Three of the Qin statues, two soldiers and one of the great horses will be

on display in the North Gallery throughout the festival. The impact of

their discovery has been dramatic, not only in sheer archaeological and

artistic terms, but as symbols of a great imperial vision of the nation

from more than 20 centuries ago. They have become icons of the culture and

popular subjects for theatrical works, including two rather different

pieces here.


The Shanghai Song and Dance Ensemble , headed by Artistic Director Doudou

Huang, arguably China's most influential choreographer, will perform

"Symbols of China," a four-part suite inspired by weiki (an ancient board

game similar to backgammon) and martial arts as well as the terra cotta

warriors. Another piece on the program, "Bronze Bell Music and Dance: Six

Dance Imageries of Zhou Dynasty," is set to a score by composer Tan Dun,

inspired by the ancient imperial chimes. Tan is best known here for the

Oscar-winning score to "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and the operas

"Marco Polo" and "Peony Pavilion."


The Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra , making its Washington debut, will

perform "Fantasia on Terra Cotta Warriors," set to a three-movement piece

by Peng Xiuwen, the renowned 20th-century Chinese composer. Tan Dun's work

is represented here, too, with "Fire Ritual."


In fact, Tan's music runs like a motif throughout the festival: The

Shanghai Symphony Orchestra has Tan'smultimedia piece called "The Map,

Concerto for Cello, Video and Orchestra" on its program, and the Ying

Quartet -- siblings Janet, David, Timothy and Phillip -- will perform

Tan's "Three of Eight Colors" as part of what it calls a "dim sum" tasting

menu of small Chinese musical delights. A Tan composition is even on the

program of the Hong Kong Festival of 250 Drums on Oct. 8.


Shaanxi province is, as the Kennedy Center's Adams points out, the cradle

of puppetry. It's a personal favorite -- she has several puppets on her

office wall -- and she had shadow puppetry on her short list from the

beginning. However, high-level puppet companies, like the opera troupes,

often perform only beloved vignettes or excerpts from famous works,

snatches that might not be easily understood by American audiences. So

Adams commissioned the prominent Chinese American artist Ping Chong to

create a piece for the Shaanxi Folk Art Theater to premiere at the

festival. "Cathay: Three Tales of China" uses traditional shadow puppetry

and multimedia effects to evoke the nation at three stages: during the

imperial splendor of the Tang Dynasty, in the struggle to survive during

World War II and now in the midst of the country's building boom and

luxury tourist development. Shaanxi Folk Art Theater will also present a

more traditional short-scene program of folk tales aimed at younger

audiences, such as "The Crane and the Turtle" and "The Bear and the



The 1957 classic play by Lao She, "Teahouse" -- performed by the Beijing

People's Art Theatre in its first appearance in the United States -- also

employs the vignette tradition to suggest cultural changes. Set in

Beijing, it chronicles the 50-year rise and decline of the institution of

the teahouse -- a gathering place that might be society hall, gambling

den, political hangout, formal business office and sometimes brothel all

rolled into one -- in three crucial periods: the 1898 coup d'etat by the

Qing (Manchu) Dynasty, which embarked on a harsh modernization policy; the

1918 chaos of the warlord regimes; and 1947, after the Japanese occupation

of Beijing.


SHANGHAI -- The dancers' costumes had extraordinarily long sleeves made of

chiffon that they unroll and whirl in great loops like gymnasts' ribbons

(and surely were the source of those routines) before recovering them into

their bodies. Actually, the sleeves don't "unroll" so much as they seem to

launch themselves from the dancers' wrists, becoming banners, tidal waves,

clouds, even weapons.


"Dance in China, especially modern dance, is really at its zenith," says

Adams, and she has assembled a showcase of the nation's most electrifying

troupes, classical and contemporary. Many are both in one: In fact, one of

the festival's most sought-after tickets has to be the National Ballet of

China 's performance of "Raise the Red Lantern" (See story, Page 26) a

full-length ballet created by Zhang Yimou, director of the critically

acclaimed film of the same title (and also of "Hero" and "House of Flying

Daggers"), which folds the pas de deux convention in with elements of folk

dance, classical Chinese opera and acrobatics. The score, by Tan Dun's old

classmate, Chen Qigang, and the dancers' technique have been widely



The National Ballet's repertory nights offer a blend of traditional,

modern and capital-R Romantic pieces: "The Yellow River," set to Ying

Chengzong's "Yellow River Concerto"; a duet set to a Richard Strauss song;

Fei Bo's "Remembrance," a new work that won the choreography prize at the

2005 Helsinki International Ballet Competition; and Act 2 of "Giselle."

Here again is a mini-motif: The "Yellow River Concerto" is often called

China's national anthem: It was based on a 1930s cantata and rewritten as

a concerto during the Cultural Revolution. It is also being performed as a

concert piece by the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra , along with a piece

celebrating the different characteristics of women composed also by Chen



Here is another: Both the Shen Wei Dance Arts, a New York-based troupe

known for an almost brazen tendency to combine traditional Chinese dance

with formalized opera, theater, even the visual arts, and the Beijing

Modern Dance Company have choreographed works to Stravinsky's "Rite of

Spring." The New York Times has called Shen Wei's choreography "something

to write home about in the dance world," praising his "painterly,

mathematical and idiosyncratic" vision. (The other piece in the program is

a stately, meditative one called "Folding," inspired by the drapery of

costumes set to the sounds of Tibetan Buddhist flutes and Tavener's "Last

Sleep of the Virgin.")


The Bejing Modern Dance Company's production, an avant-garde work called

"All River Red," by husband-and-wife choreographers Li Hanzhong and Ma Bo,

portrays the violent clash of conformity and radicalism. It's part of a

three-company program titled "Trilogy of Modern Dance," also showcasing

the Guangdong Modern Dance Company and the City Contemporary Dance Company

of Hong Kong.


XI'AN -- Wu Zetian is the only woman emperor in Chinese history, a

beautiful and shrewd lower-level concubine who slept with one emperor and

then his son when he ascended to the throne, eventually marrying him and

replacing the former empress. After her husband suffered a stroke, she

took effective control, forming a secret police squad and eliminating her

enemies. When her husband died, she put two of her more malleable children

on the throne as puppet rulers but seven years later claimed it in her own

right and duly acquired, as one temple guide put it, "hundreds of male

concubines and boy toys."


Some historians point to Wu's reign (from 690 to 705) as a time when women

were given unprecedented freedom and respect, the military was downsized

and the scholarly class encouraged. She raised Buddhism to a favored place

and presided over the building of many beautiful temples and shrines.

Finally -- at age 80 --she retired in favor of her third son.


Strong women, especially in noble and often martial situations, are a

common subject in Chinese theater. One of the most popular scenes is that

of the warrior maiden who faces down many times her number of soldiers,

using fantastical acrobatics and elaborate choreography to turn aside

their spears and swords -- a theme familiar from Zhang Yimou's

magical-realism movies. The China National Peking Opera Company ,

returning to the Kennedy Center after 25 years, presents "Female Generals

of the Yang Family," inspired by the history of the Northern Song Dynasty

in the 10th century. According to the play, She Taijun, the centenarian

dowager head of a family reduced to widows, leads her female army to

avenge the death of her son. Their military maneuvering explodes into an

acrobatic display straight out of Yimou.


A more up-to-date group of female warriors, in a musical sense, is Red

Poppy , an all-women percussion band that plays eclectic arrangements of

Chinese music on more than 40 Western and traditional Chinese instruments.

Since 1999, Red Poppy has played across Asia, in Canada and South Africa

and inspired a host of out-of-the-conservatory women's groups that pop up

in trendy nightclubs from Beijing to Chiang Mai.


GUILIN -- Along the Lijiang, that is, the Li River, the scenery is truly

fabulous, lined with those huge and weirdly abrupt limestone mountains,

some humpy, some sharp as molars, that jut up into the sky only a single

scanty field's distance from water's edge. Early on, the tallest peaks are

wreathed with scraps of fog like torn clouds. Men poling bamboo rafts are

dappled with the shadows of hawks soaring overhead. Water buffalo, ducks

and geese, skinny yellow dogs and occasionally horses gaze without

interest as boats go by; and every once in a while herds of mountain goats

appear on the sheerest of slopes.


Not only is the pen an instrument of representational art in China, as

with the great watercolor scrolls of mountains and natural marvels; it

also turned writing into an art -- or rather several, as there were quite

distinct styles, some pared down and almost palpably curt, some ornate and

mannered, that were used for official correspondence or meditation in

different eras.


Wang Xizhi, considered the greatest calligrapher in history, created a

flowing, cursive style used for poetry that itself became a discipline.

His preface to a 4th-century collection of poetry was considered so

beautiful by the Tang Emperor Tai Zong that he ordered the original buried

with him. Professor Sun Jinbgo of the Central Academy of Fine Arts in

Beijing has created a lacquer mural inspired by the Lan Ting Xu, as the

preface is called. It, and a second mural of musicians, are being

presented to the Kennedy Center as a permanent gift from the Chinese

government in recognition of the festival. They are on display in the new

China Lounge on the box tier of the Eisenhower Theater.


Eve Zibart's mother, a professional dancer, was born in Shanghai to

American parents.