- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 6, 2005

The Chinese Festival opened by the Kennedy Center this week is an ambitious multimedia extravaganza. Never has the center turned itself quite so inside out, with exhibits and performances throughout the building. Banners and huge colorful cutouts by the art director of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” decorate its soaring spaces. The Hall of Nations is lined with pictures of Beijing. Three of the ancient terra-cotta figures of Emperor Qin Shihuang are beautifully displayed on the Terrace level. Close by is an exhibit of striking, exquisitely designed fashions titled “The New China Chic.”

So far, these peripheral pleasures have been more captivating than the two onstage performances I have seen.

The festival opened Saturday evening with a Las Vegas-style variety show long on dazzling effects, extravagant costumes and staging, and breathtaking aerial feats — a once-over look at the light side of Chinese culture. A little depth was provided by singers from the Peking Opera and the playing of a two-string instrument by Zhou Wei of the China Oriental Song and Dance Ensemble. Also performing were the Guangdong Acrobatic and China National Acrobatic troupes.

Tuesday evening, the China Festival presented one of its major groups — the National Ballet of China — in an ill-conceived program.

The evening opened with the second act of “Giselle” — a strange choice. It’s interesting when a foreign company shows a work familiar to the local audience as well as works indigenous to the visiting company. But the National Ballet’s staging of “Giselle” is musty, based on a 50-year-old version by Anton Dolin set for the company by two of his pupils. The troupe has ballets by Balanchine (“Four Temperaments” and “Who Cares”) and Roland Petit (“Carmen”) that would have made for a much livelier beginning.

“Giselle” is one of the most organic full-length ballets, with the story of a young girl betrayed in the first act segueing into her continued devotion to the man who betrayed her in the second. It’s a touching story, but presenting only the latter made for a bleak beginning.

Before the curtain went up, a prolonged musical introduction made us aware of another flaw: The Kennedy Center is putting on this large celebration with just its two smallest theaters available most of the time, so there was no room for an orchestra, and the music was canned.

While the dancing was creditable if not inspired, the acting was virtually nonexistent in this most touching of classical ballets. Such reserve was well suited to Zhu Yan’s icy Myrta, Queen of the Wilis, but not to Wang Qimin and Li Jun playing correct if pallid lovers.

After intermission came three dances by Chinese choreographers.

According to the program, “Remembrance,” by Fei Bo, set to Bach’s “Air on the G String,” was to have been performed. Instead, we saw that choreographer’s “Once Upon a Time” danced to a French pop song — with no announcement to the audience of the change. Nonetheless, Zhang Jian and Yu Bo gave a vibrant performance of the acrobatic adagio.

In this work and the rest of the program, there was an emphasis on high extensions, one-armed lifts and the like, almost as if the dazzling acrobatics that are so much a part of the dancers’ heritage had exerted undue influence on their conception of dance art.

A duet, “Piercing the Heart,” choreographed by Wang Yuanyuan, did clever things with a lethal-looking sword, informing the work with an edge of danger. It was performed with cool authority by Jin Jia and Hao Bin.

The evening closed with what appears to be the company’s signature piece, “The Yellow River,” set to the embattled concerto of the same name, which was resuscitated after being purged during the Cultural Revolution.

The dance is heroic in stance, boldly sentimental and acrobatic, with phalanxes of men and women taking turns onstage, leaping, falling to the ground, vaulting with fists raised in flurried abandon. Sometimes its simple formations recalled Ted Shawn’s male dancers of the 1940s; at others, its military fervor looked like the Soviet dances of the ‘60s.

Tomorrow night and through the weekend, the National Ballet will dance “Raise the Red Lanterns,” loosely based on the popular movie, while three modern dance companies will perform in the Terrace Theater. The month is young, and more revelations await.

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