A cultural battle station has been set up in a basement room at the Kennedy Center.
Lists of things to do, art for brochures, sketches of banners are all tacked up on the walls. A dozen people are examining spreadsheets, tracking every detail that has to be taken care of in the seven weeks before the Festival of China opens.
It is "the largest celebration of Chinese performing arts in American history," according to the organizers, and the largest festival the center has ever undertaken. Offerings range from opera and ballet to acrobats, kites and a towering "explosion installation" above the Potomac River that involves nine boats, three dragons and a "tornado" of flame.
Preparation starts with Alicia Adams, a vice president at the center, who explains the logistical problems as she gets an update on visa applications from Teri Chan, one of the festival's liaisons. Without visas -- about 750 of them -- there can be no festival. Chan is looking at a computer sheet showing all the people who need visas.
"I know how many are coming from each company, the dates of the applications and how long the visa is for. And when the visa is approved, there is another step of going to the consulate and meeting one-on-one with a U.S. representative," Chan explains. Everything is on schedule, she adds confidently.
Here in the Banana Room -- called that because there's a banana on the door for some reason -- other members of the China team have their own brimming binders of information. There are pages on ordering 7,500 bags of black and green tea and others tracing the whereabouts of a shipment of six 44-pound drums that will be pounded during a concert unlike anything ever heard in this city.
Here's what else they are following:
* The movements of almost 900 people, including the artists from China, participants from the United States, translators, technicians, stagehands and support staffs.
* The arrival of 321 costumes, including 214 for the National Ballet of China's production of "Raise the Red Lantern."
* The delivery of 250 drums, traveling by cargo ship, that are part of a evening of music from the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra. (The drums will be given away after the concert.)
* The assembly of 140 almost-life-size puppets in both China and the United States for "Cathay: Three Tales of China," a multimedia show about the country's history.
* The delivery of 100 boxes of costumes and sets from the China National Peking Opera Company, which is doing the famed "Female Generals of the Yang Family."
* Strategies for getting 100 pianos delivered to the center's outdoor South Plaza, tuning them once they're there and protecting them from rain until a concert led by Leonard Slatkin.
* Installation of additional curtained dressing rooms under the Eisenhower Theater to handle the throngs of performers.
The month-long festival starts Oct. 1 with a sampler of the performances and a custom-made fireworks show, designed by gunpowder artist Cai Guo Qiang, that requires 7,350 pyro-devices, nine kilograms of powder and some than 1,300 yards of fuse.
Walking around the Banana Room, Adams shows the stoicism of someone who knows the secret truth of big projects like this: Something will go wrong. She has made nine trips to China over almost four years to work out a lineup that reflects China's traditional and contemporary artists.
"We want traditional audiences to come, as well as engage new audiences," she says.
Acrobats were high on the center's wish list. Adams wanted so many acrobats that she considered building an outdoor bamboo structure to showcase the flying stunts and was already talking to a contractor in Hong Kong. That had to be scratched because of the limits of a $5 million budget.
The Guangdong Acrobatic Troupe promises to deliver one of the festival's unusual performances: In "Oriental Swan," based on "Swan Lake," the female lead dances her part balanced on her partner's shoulders. The China National Acrobatic Troupe will also perform.
There will be a lot of logistical twists and turns the public won't see.
The performers, company managers and delegates have to eat, sleep and get around the city. Restaurant Associates, a catering firm, has to fill the canteen with dishes that will suit performers from many parts of China. For snacks, the center has ordered 2,500 packs of noodles, along with cookies, peanuts, dried fruit and granola bars.
Because many of the Chinese don't read English, the center is installing color-coded signs directing them to restrooms and the canteen. The team has also set up a hot line with Chinese-speaking operators at a phone bank in the Banana Room so that performers who can't find their rehearsal rooms or forget the location of the transportation van can get immediate assistance. The phone number will be on the back of the identity badges the participants will wear.
The center is also training 500 volunteers to work as ushers and sales people in the special marketplace set up for the festival. There are also many bilingual volunteers who will work as interpreters.
In addition to the performers, China is bringing over three of the terra cotta warriors of Xian. Found in 1974 after 2,200 years in underground vaults, these statues are archaeological wonders. They must be gingerly moved into upstairs galleries. One warrior is 6 feet 5 inches tall and weights 419 pounds. A statue of a horse weighs 750 pounds.
There is only one person in the Banana Room who has dealt with a bigger project. Gilda Almeida, a member of the festival team, is from Brazil and has worked as a coordinator of the riotous Carnaval parade in Rio de Janeiro. "That's 32,000 people who paraded at night," she says, shaking her head. Now she is lining up vans, nearly 600 hotel rooms, rehearsal time and meals. "This is a crazy puzzle, but I want all the people to have fun," she says.
Many are working late in the Banana Room these days, and when the lights are turned off, the work doesn't stop. Chan, a graduate student in arts management at Columbia University, has to go home and make her calls to China between 10 p.m. and midnight, double-checking each travel document. And Adams is up at dawn, making her own calls, and marking another day in the countdown to the festival.