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On the Potomac, a Cultural Evolution

In an artistic "war room" in the Kennedy Center, staff members leafed through signs in Chinese.

Wu Zhengdan and Wei Baohua rehearse for the Kennedy Center's monthlong "Festival of China."

In an artistic "war room" in the Kennedy Center, anxious staff members were leafing through signs directing artists to "stage right" and elsewhere in Chinese. Down the hall, hundreds of packages of instant noodles lined the walls of a rehearsal space, quick comfort food for performers who don't eat granola bars. Below the Eisenhower Stage, workers were constructing makeshift dressing rooms for the 150 performers and stagehands involved in opening night.

The mad-dash preparations were finishing flourishes in a four-year journey to "The Festival of China," a monthlong Kennedy Center event that begins on Saturday, China's National Day. (Sheer coincidence, organizers said.) Featuring more than 800 artists and 53 performances, the festival mixes traditional Chinese opera, folk music and acrobatics with modern dance, technology-infused puppetry, contemporary music and fashion. The splashy $5 million extravaganza, the most ambitious and costly international collaboration in the Kennedy Center's 35-season history, is part of a larger push by the center to increase its profile and relevance. "In terms of what we are trying to do on the international scene, this is the largest manifestation of that goal," said Michael M. Kaiser, the president of the Kennedy Center, in an interview days before the opening.

The festival serves an even grander ambition for China - to broaden and soften its image before the American public, which often views it as an emerging threat. Though initiated by the Kennedy Center, the cultural invasion of flying acrobats, painted opera singers and lithe dancers provides an opportune counterbalance to the recent focus in Washington on China's military buildup, its bids to buy American companies and its increasing financial clout fueled by a ballooning American trade deficit.

"It's coming at a very useful time for China," said Elizabeth C. Economy, director of Asia studies for the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "Anything, especially in Washington, that brings acrobats and arts and helps inform people about all the positives China brings to the world helps to provide a much more complete picture of the country."

Han Hong, first secretary for cultural affairs at the Chinese Embassy in Washington, said Americans should "stop scaring themselves" and enjoy the show. "We hope the American people will have a chance, through the arts, to see what the Chinese people are doing," she said, as she busily made arrangements for the arrival of two official delegations from China. "To see the direction the country is turning - toward peace, prosperity and harmony, within our society and with the outside world."

Alicia B. Adams, head of the Kennedy Center's international programs and curator of the festival, said the center controlled all artistic elements of the festival. The Chinese government, which contributed roughly $1.7 million in financing, selected some of the nonperformance contributions, like an outdoor sculpture exhibition that includes a rather puzzling bright red dinosaur near the center's main entrance.

Performances include an adaptation of Zhang Yimou's film "Raise the Red Lantern" by the National Ballet of China; a modern dance collaboration by companies from Beijing, Guangdong and Hong Kong; and a presentation by the Beijing People's Art Theater of "Teahouse," Lao She's 1957 play chronicling the fall of the last imperial dynasty to the rise of Communism as experienced by the patrons of a Beijing gathering place.

Outsize outdoor performances include one with 100 pianos, another with 250 drums. A fashion exhibition, "The New China Chic," features clothes by ethnic Chinese designers including Vivienne Tam, Derek Lam and Anna Sui. (Mr. Kaiser will wear a suit from the Hong Kong label Blanc De Chine on opening night.)

The opening gala will conclude with a rising funnel cloud of more than 7,000 pyrotechnic devices launched from a barge on the Potomac River, that should - organizers' fingers crossed - swirl into a dramatic 10-minute fireworks display.

"It will not rain, it will not rain," Ms. Adams willed aloud, as she surveyed the sweep of outdoor activity space.

In a project commissioned by the Kennedy Center, the Chinese-American playwright and director Ping Chong has teamed up with China's Shaanxi Folk Art Theater for a puppet production called "Cathay: Three Tales of China." The work mixes traditional puppetry and multimedia effects to explore, like "Teahouse," pivotal moments in China's history.

Unlike "Teahouse," however, the production ends not with the rise of Communism but with China's frenzied rush toward capitalism. The final scene is a conversation between two statues - Tang dynasty tomb guardians now trapped in a glass showcase in a modern five-star hotel - listening to tourists quizzically observing an old man in a Mao suit as they head for Pizza Hut.

Though the work is not overtly political, Mr. Chong said, he initially worried about interference from China's Ministry of Culture, which has a liaison official in the Shaanxi theater company. "It could have been a cultural train wreck," he said, adding that he ended up very pleased with the collaboration.

He said a Chinese culture official did express concern over one line in which a puppet character ranted: "Corruption, corruption! There's nothing but corruption, from top to bottom!" Mr. Chong said that while he was unclear just what it was about the line that set off alarms, he was able to appease worries by removing "from top to bottom" to make the charge more general.

Ms. Adams, who has made nearly a dozen trips to China in the past four years to organize the event, said her only tussle with Chinese counterparts was not over politics, but art. As China's arts companies lose state subsidies and have to depend more on market popularity, large, Disney-like spectaculars have become extremely popular. The Chinese wanted one such Shanghai-based production included in the festival.

Ms. Adams said that when she declined, believing the show was more entertainment than art, her Chinese hosts gently prodded her by repeatedly scheduling meetings about the production and sending brochures to her Washington office. "It went on for months," she said.

So far, said organizers, there have been few hitches for a project with so many moving parts. Only one of the hundreds of Chinese participants involved was denied a travel visa by the United States. As of Friday, there had been no applications for protest permits in the area surrounding the Kennedy Center from groups opposed to the Chinese government.

As performers arrived, rehearsals began for an acrobatic rendering of a "Swan Lake" pas de deux in which a dancer performs most of the scene balanced delicately on her partner's shoulders. As Washington readies for the grand cultural showcase in the midst of an uneasy political climate, it is a balancing act all sides can relate to.


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