- The Washington Times - Friday, October 7, 2005

A week into its monthlong “Festival of China,” the Kennedy Center has already staged a wide range of events, many of them free. The programs expand further this weekend with two of its more ambitious groups — the National Ballet of China in “Raise the Red Lantern,” and a trio of the country’s modern dance companies.

Looking back at the process that led to all this, Michael Kaiser, the Kennedy Center president, says, “We began planning this festival shortly after I arrived four years ago. Alicia Adams, who is our international curator, felt it was time to do something Asian. She suggested Korea, and I said, ‘Let’s do something really big — let’s do China. So she went over and has spent a lot of the last four years exploring China to determine which groups should come and negotiating about their coming.”

Mr. Kaiser visited China, as well, but principally to train arts administrators.

“There’s not a great deal of sophistication and knowledge about marketing and fundraising,” he says, pointing out that those skills are important as the country is changing into a market economy.

Building the “China Festival” was not only ambitious but time-consuming.

“In Asia there’s a different way of working longer discussion periods, multilevels of government. That was a hurdle. But there was no hurdle in terms of interest: Everyone in China has been very excited about this, and we have innumerable Chinese journalists here for the next few weeks, documenting everything. It’s a very challenging process these days, to bring foreign artists to this country. We had to get 900 visas. I believe only one was denied a visa.”

The logistics of accommodating that many artists and support staff were daunting. “It had to be organized like a mini-invasion,” Mr. Kaiser says with a laugh. The center built 120 extra dressing rooms for the artists under the Eisenhower stage.

Alicia Adams, who made nine trips to China leading up to the festival, faced the nitty-gritty of hammering out programs with the Ministry of Culture. Negotiations were often drawn out.

“The infrastructure is monolithic in lots of ways,” she says. “They would say, ‘Well, when we did the China Year in France this is what we did,’ and I had to remind them the Kennedy Center is not a country, it’s a cultural center and we don’t have a Ministry of Culture. I always make it clear when I’m working with governments on these international festivals that the Kennedy Center has artistic approval: This is our festival.”

At times it was hard to get every one on the same page on artistic choices.

“China is doing a lot in terms of Broadway and Disney productions,” Miss Adams notes. “I think they see that as their contemporary work; so when I said I was interested in contemporary work very often that’s what I was shown. I had some really hard, tough conversations to explain that that was not the kind of work I was looking to bring. I’d say, ‘I’m sorry, this is not what I’m interested in, it’s also not what the Kennedy Center audiences would expect. If you did this you would not be perceived as you would like to be.’”

Both Kennedy Center directors are excited about what they see as China’s expanding take on art, especially when placed against the restrictions or downright extinction of artists in the past. “When I look at the three modern dance companies performing here this week,” Miss Adams says, “I see they’ve developed their own movement vocabulary and they’re dealing with social themes, as well. They’re expressing their Chinese-ness in a way they didn’t before.

“I think China is much more open now, otherwise you wouldn’t have modern dance companies at all, and you certainly wouldn’t have them making social commentary. You wouldn’t have ‘Raise the Red Lantern,’ you wouldn’t have a collaboration between Ping Chong, who’s an avant garde director and puppeteer in the United States, working with a puppet company in Shaanxi, with Ping writing the script. And they allowed this without questioning what he was going to do.”

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