Chinese New Year Arrives at Kennedy Center with Great Fanfare

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Henan Arts Troupe. | Courtesy the Kennedy Center

On Thursday afternoon at the Kennedy Center, you could see them milling around in the Hall of Nations, taking selfies, young Chinese men and women, with Chinese media types in tow.  It was a small moment of a hint that this weekend—Feb. 5 to 8—will be all about Chinese New Year and the arts in China at the nation’s performing arts center on the Potomac.

The young people were part of a musical group that would be performing during the course of the Kennedy Center’s  Celebration of the Chinese New Year. The four-day celebration marks the first of what will be an annual festival at the center. For the first time, the Kennedy Center will be celebrating the Chinese Lunar New Year with a big, four-day festival filled with live performances of all sorts, most of them free including a family day on Saturday.

While the New Year’s initiative is a first-time celebration, it’s not the first time that the Kennedy Center has celebrated Chinese culture.  For Alicia Adams, the vice president for International Programming and Dance at the Kennedy Center, the festival will bring back good memories from the center’s first major celebration of Chinese culture and performing arts in 2005, a festival that featured four weeks of performances and exhibitions from some 900 artists.

Adams remembers making 13 trips to China in preparation for and in the coordination of the unprecedented 2005 festival. 

“We discovered the tremendous variety inherent in the performing arts there—not only its own traditions and styles in dance and music and visual arts but in its embrace of Western arts, especially classical and pop music,” she said. “Some of the top classical musicians in the world are Chinese.  A case can be made that it’s the Chinese who are helping to keep interest in classical music alive on all levels—performing, education and audience appreciation.”

Adams has curated and organized numerous acclaimed international festivals at the Kennedy Center, including “Iberian Suite, global arts remix” (2015), “Nordic Cool” (2013), “maximumINDIA” (2011) and “Arabesque: Arts of the Arab World” (2009). She is spearheading this year’s “Ireland 100: Celebrating a Century of Irish Arts and Culture.”

The Chinese New Year’s Celebration won’t be quite so elaborate, but it offers a significant number of examples of Chinese contemporary performance art practitioners.

Adams cited the  center’s history of presenting Chinese artists on Washington stages. “The Lunar New Year celebration is a little like our holiday seasons. The festival gives us a chance to present some of China’s most established artists and its younger performers.”

“It’s amazing to me how the Chinese have taken to Western traditions in addition to their own,” she said. A principal example of an internationally renowned group is the Shenzhen Symphony Orchestra, under conductor Muhai Tang. “Shenzhen is known as ‘piano city,’ ” Adams said. “It’s known as an incubator of young musical talent and is known to have 8.5 pianos for every 100 families. It also hosts the China International Piano Concerto Competition every three years.”

The Shenzhen Symphony Orchestra will perform in a ticketed event at the Concert Hall which is the actual Chinese New Year Day, Feb. 8 (This year, it’s the year of the monkey). Guests soloists include pianist Haochen Zhang and violinist Dan Zhu. The program will include Chinese folk music the Kunqu Opera, and classical masterpieces by Puccini and Waxman, composers who are favorites in China.

Most the performances and events throughout the festival are free. They include free performances at the Millennium Stage, including a pop music show that highlights popular Chinese acts on Feb. 5. Also on tap is a recital by the world-class all-girls choir from Shenzhen on Feb. 7 as well as a multi-disciplinary production by an arts troupe from Henan, showcasing opera artists, acrobats and traditional Chinese music.

Saturday, Feb. 6, is a family day, celebrating the Year of the Monkey, with Monkey King mask demonstrations, Chinese paper cutting and paper lamp lessons and other activities in the Kennedy Center atrium.

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