China: The Art of a Nation

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Editorial Review

Kennedy Center revisits China

By Stephanie Merry
Friday, Sept. 16, 2011

The Kennedy Center's Festival of China in 2005, which featured 900 visiting artists and a colorful array of Chinese art and culture, was no small undertaking. The challenges for Alicia Adams, vice president of international programming and dance, were myriad - from visa logistics to language barriers when dealing with China's Ministry of Culture - before even considering the side effects of jet lag.

"I went [to China] 15 times when I was doing the 2005 festival," Adams says. "What was really important was to build the relationships and the trust and to have them understand what I was trying to do with the festival."

But all those flights, plus discussions with artists near and far, paid off with an almost clairvoyant lineup of next-big-thing talent.

"Many of those artists - Chinese Americans like Shen Wei, like Xu Bing, living in America, and Cai Guo-Qiang - those artists ended up being part of the Olympics and the opening ceremonies," Adams says. "And these were people that were not necessarily known at that time in mainland China."

A lot has changed in China over those six years, which is one reason the Kennedy Center opted to stage the mini-festival "China: The Art of a Nation," which runs through Oct. 30 and brings 400 artists to the region.

Some of those performers are returning acts, including Inner Mongolia Chorus, Beijing People's Art Theatre and National Ballet of China. The center will also revive its outdoor exhibition of installations by contemporary Chinese artists. But that doesn't mean theatergoers will be getting repeat performances. The Inner Mongolia Chorus, for example, will be unveiling an unexpected collaboration with up-and-coming Chinese American composer Huang Ruo, whose work is fairly modern, yet influenced by Mongolian music.

"I think they have an opportunity to move from the traditional into a more contemporary realm, so that they would have a wider audience for their music," says Adams, who suggested the alliance.

There will also be new companies, including the National Theatre of China, which will present "Two Dogs' Opinions on Life."

"[The play is] different from anything we ever presented before out of China in that it is much more progressive, much more avant-garde," Adams says. "It is dealing with politics in China and it's comedy. We've not done comedy before, and it will be a challenge to do it because we've got to get the translation just right. And it had to be tweaked so that it would make sense for an American audience."

But that challenge pales in comparison to what the center faced the first time around. And leading up to this festival, Adams had to visit China only twice. She had laid the groundwork six years ago and gained the ministry's trust.

"We did a high-quality festival in 2005, and we would not do anything less this time," she says.