Imagine a classroom where Chinese children perform in a beautifully choreographed dance that portrays the children as flowers on a mountain. Or where Armenian children sing and dance to show the perseverance of their people's spirit after that country's devastating earthquake a decade ago. Or where young British performers put on a Broadway-like show with songs from past musicals.
For thousands of Fairfax County fifth-graders, such was the classroom this week at Wolf Trap Farm Park for the Performing Arts. As the 29th annual International Children's Festival gears up for the general public this weekend, Fairfax students got an early taste with sample 90-minute performances. By tomorrow, more than 13,000 students will have seen the abbreviated sample shows given by children not only from China, Armenia and Britain but also from France and the Ukraine.
As with the upcoming weekend show, the goal was for children of other nations to share their music, dance and cultures with an American audience. But the performances this week had something extra: an announcer at different intervals who explained to the crowd what they were about to see.
"This is much too an important group of people to have in the area and not have them involved with [area children] in some way," said Toni McMahon, the president of the festival. "This brings great enrichment to children's lives."
The shows began on Tuesday morning after the line of 50 buses dropped off their passengers and more than 3,000 10-year-olds sat buzzing in their seats. Soon Chinese dancers, ages 6 to 14, from the Children's Art Troupe of Guangxi began a dance in which they represented flowers on a mountain. A short time later, another performer showed her acrobatic skills by balancing a half dozen lamps as she twisted her body in different mind-boggling directions. The crowds of children, whose attention can be notoriously difficult to hold, cheered and were transfixed as they watched her every move.
Soon a group of Armenian children ages 7 to 16 gave a haunting show that symbolized the devastating earthquake of 1988 and the rebuilding of the country's spirit since then. At the center of the stage, 7-year-old Maryam Baloyan, standing no more than 4 feet tall, movingly pleaded with those representing her fellow citizens to keep their artistic talents alive despite desperate conditions.
Ukrainian children from the town of Lviv followed with traditional folk dances that emphasized quick foot movements. Then a Paris-based French theatrical group moved the show into a more contemporary mood with pieces that included rap, rock and a humor skit that poked fun at the business of movie-making. The show finished with a rousing show by British students from the Sylvia Young Theatre School in London who sang and danced to songs from "Evita" and "The Phantom of the Opera."
"It's unbelievable how talented they are," said Major Sturm, a fifth-grader from Stratford Landing Elementary who particularly liked the Chinese acrobat and the way she balanced a half dozen candles on her body while twisting in different directions. "I never thought she could do that."
McMahon said she hoped Fairfax students who come from the different countries represented in the show would feel pride in seeing some of the artistic talents of their native lands. And she hoped others would gain a sense of respect for other cultures. For some of the students, she added, the show might be their first introduction to a major arts arena.
The children performing in the event said the shows were equally important to them.
The organizer of the Armenian group said this week's events gave her children a chance to show American audiences that their artistic lives still endure after the earthquake. And she said her children were learning things about American life. They were amazed at the running hot water coming from their hotel taps, something they don't have at home because the conflict with Azerbaijan has blocked utilities. They also were eagerly awaiting some American culture, including planned pizza parties and an outing to a bowling alley.
"It is a big deal to us," said the Armenian organizer, Gaiane Karapetian, through an interpreter. "Everyone dreams of visiting the United States, and we wanted people to know about Armenia. Maybe this way, the little kids will know and remember our country."
The International Children's Festival will be held Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at Wolf Trap. In addition to the children's performances, there will be a craft workshop tent that will feature crafts from the five countries where the performers live.
Bob McGrath of "Sesame Street," along with the show's Big Bird, also will be present. Tickets are $10 for adults and teens, $8 for children and senior citizens. It's free for those younger than 3.