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Two Countries On the Potomac

China and American Music Top Kennedy Center Season

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 2, 2005; Page C01

The Kennedy Center announced yesterday that its next season will feature two groups rarely seen on its stages: Chinese performers and country singers.

Michael Kaiser, the center's president, said the 2005-06 season will include a Festival of China that will bring 600 artists to Washington in October, and next spring the center will host a festival that will explore all aspects of country music.

The Tony-winning musical "Wicked" will visit the Opera House in December. (Joan Marcus)

The four weeks of performances by Chinese dancers, musicians, actors and acrobats "will be the single largest celebration of Chinese performing arts in American history," Kaiser said. "There is so much art in China we don't see very often in this country." The program will include eight U.S. premieres, including the American debut of the Beijing People's Art Theatre and its production of "Teahouse" by the revered playwright Lao She.

Kaiser and Leonard Slatkin, the music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, unveiled the expansive lineup at a news conference in the Terrace Theater. The NSO will celebrate its 75th anniversary with guest appearances by leading conductors, including Christoph von Dohnanyi, Kurt Masur, Lorin Maazel and Mstislav Rostropovich.

The theater schedule is capped by a new production of "Mame" with Tony Award winner Christine Baranski stepping into the wild title role originated by Angela Lansbury in 1966. Eric Schaeffer, artistic director of Signature Theatre in Arlington, will direct the revival of the Jerry Herman musical. The center is also bringing back Frank Gilroy's "The Subject Was Roses," a Tony winner from 1965, produced by Jeffrey Finn Productions and Stuart Thompson Productions, which packaged "On Golden Pond" for the center last year.

Two touring Broadway shows will appear at the Kennedy Center Opera House. The musical "Wicked," which won three Tony Awards last year, is booked for December under the direction of Tony winner Joe Mantello. "Little Women," which opened in New York in January, will be staged at the center next summer.

Kaiser announced the center has reconfigured its Fund for New American Plays after a two-year hiatus. Now, instead of doling out small grants to several theaters, the fund will underwrite a single production from a regional theater. The play will premiere at its home base and then move to the Kennedy Center. "I felt we weren't doing enough to make a difference and then we weren't seeing the work," Kaiser said. Steppenwolf Theatre of Chicago, a leading American troupe and a National Medal of Arts winner, will be the first recipient. It will produce novelist Don DeLillo's new play, "Love-Lies-Bleeding."

In September the center will host the world premiere of "Dracula" from the Arlington-based Synetic Theater. The work will be directed by Paata Tsikurishvili and choreographed by Irina Tsikurishvili.

The center is also commissioning several other works. To open its new Family Theater in December, the center is financing an adaptation of comedian Whoopi Goldberg's children's tale, "Alice." It is also helping to underwrite a children's musical with the Performing Arts Center of Amman, Jordan. The show is called "Walking the Winds: Arabian Tales."

Details of the country music programs are still being negotiated. The center has enlisted singers Emmylou Harris and Vince Gill to help plan the salute to this indigenous American music.

In addition to one all-star concert in the Opera House, the festival will explore different styles of country music, its innovators and its international reach. There will be a week of concerts in the smaller Eisenhower Theater focusing on such varied styles as alternate country, country gospel, country rock, Texas country, western swing and bluegrass fiddlers.

"I love country music and I think no arts center has taken it seriously. It has a large audience with an important body of work and great performers," Kaiser said.

The center also announced that it has added two artistic advisers to consult on various programs -- Harold Prince, the director and producer, and Suzanne Farrell, the celebrated ballerina.

The Festival of China will be the center's largest and most expensive international program to date. It will open with an eight-minute display of fireworks shot from nine boats on the Potomac.

Kaiser said many people are familiar with Chinese opera but are not as familiar with the country's contemporary styles, which is why the center plans to show both old and new forms.

The center has commissioned a theater piece, "Cathay: Three Tales From China," from the highly regarded playwright and director Ping Chong. The Beijing Modern Dance Company, City Contemporary Dance Company and Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra will also appear in Washington for the first time as part of the festival. The China National Peking Opera Company will perform at the center for the first time in 25 years. The National Ballet of China is scheduled to appear, along with three contemporary companies. Other acts include the band Red Poppy, the Inner Mongolian Chorus, the Twelve Girls Band and the rock star Askar and his band Greywolf.

"All of this together should give us a remarkable look at a vibrant country," Kaiser said. The festival, which has been in the planning stages for four years, will cost $5.5 million.

A new venture in dance called "Proteges: The International Ballet Academy Festival" will feature students from ballet schools in Japan, Denmark, England, Russia and New York.

American Ballet Theatre, the Suzanne Farrell Ballet, the National Ballet of Canada, the New York City Ballet and the Kirov Ballet are all returning to the center. The Royal Ballet will present the U.S. premiere of a refashioned and controversial "Sleeping Beauty." Contemporary dance performances include the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company and a work co-commissioned by the center from choreographer Merce Cunningham set to music by John Cage.

In recent years the center has expanded its jazz offerings. When its KC Jazz Club opened in 2002, it had 28 performances. Next season it promises 80. The outlay for jazz has increased to $2.9 million, from $1.1 million in 2001. Next season's bookings feature Wynton Marsalis, Dianne Reeves, Lou Rawls and a salute to James Moody on his 80th birthday.

The Royal Shakespeare Company will also return but hasn't announced its program. And Shakespeare's "A Winter's Tale" will be staged by Britain's all-male Propeller Theatre Company, directed by Edward Hall.

Besides the National Symphony Orchestra and National Opera, which are the center's resident companies, Kaiser has booked the Kirov Opera and Orchestra to do three productions -- "Turandot," "Parsifal" and Verdi's "Requiem."

For one night only, on Oct. 18, soprano Renee Fleming will appear in Richard Strauss's "Daphne."

To help with NSO's anniversary season, the center has added $2 million to its usual underwriting of $8 million to $9 million. The theater programs are underwritten by Kennedy Center Board Chairman Stephen Schwarzman, the family theater's opening season by Catherine B. Reynolds and the ballet by the Altria Group.

Staff writers Peter Marks, Sarah Kaufman and Tim Page contributed to this report.

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