Photo: Courtesy of China Arts and Entertainment Group
Photo: Courtesy of China Arts and Entertainment Group

Follow the Legendary Silk Road in Xuanzang’s Pilgrimage

A new form of performance is coming to the Kennedy Center this month: the national concert drama. DC theatergoers are invited to experience Chinese culture with Xuanzang’s Pilgrimage on January 25-27, featuring the 80-piece China National Traditional Orchestra and 24 performers onstage.

The 100-plus group will perform writer, director and composer Jiang Ying’s interpretation of Buddhist monk Xuanzang’s journey across China via the Silk Road on a pilgrimage to India. The production is part of China Arts and Entertainment Group’s cultural exchange program, Image China, and relies heavily on instrumentalists to carry the concert drama. The musicians play characters, breaking the boundaries between the stage and the music, with many roles designed to be interchangeable to help guide and promote the development of the story.

“[Our] comprehensive and dynamic interpretation has never been seen before by American audiences,” Jiang says.

The production’s intricate design and use of multimedia technology “makes the play more colorful than the traditional drama,” she continues, “which will definitely give the audience a more perfect artistic experience that goes straight to the ear.”

Jiang’s production captures the hardships and dangers Xuanzang experienced during his 17-year expedition from Chang’an to Tianzhu while on his quest to discover religious texts that had not yet come from India to China. Ultimately, he obtained the scriptures from the West.

“I aim to convey a positive energy through this drama – a spirit of perseverance and obstinacy for ideals and beliefs,” Jiang says.

Though the drama focuses on Xuanzang’s Buddhist experiences, it also explores the wisdom and compassion of Buddhism and promotes positive energy. The overarching theme in the story is the spirit of progress – Xuanzang is not afraid of the difficulties that come with developing firm ideals and beliefs.

“It is not only of historical significance but also of practical significance,” Jiang says, reinforcing the importance of progress in the production. “This is the common spiritual wealth and strength of all mankind.”

Jiang’s large-scale, multimedia experience offers a lens into China’s music culture with unique wind instrumentation – the zither, Chinese harp, dulcimer and eagle flute are featured, among others – to help highlight amicable cultural exchange in Chinese history along the legendary Silk Road.

“National instrumental music is the soul of this kind of drama,” she says. “My intention was to introduce Chinese instruments that were just imported from the Silk Road in a [historical] series. It’s because of the combined strength of each component that this concert drama is perfectly presented.”

Catch a performance of Xuanzang’s Pilgrimage at the Kennedy Center Opera House on Friday, January 25 at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, January 26 at 1:30 p.m. or 7:30 p.m., or Sunday, January 27 at 1:30 p.m. Tickets start at $70. Learn more at www.kennedy-center.org.

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts: 2700 F St. NW, DC; 202-467-4600; www.kennedy-center.org

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Kayla Marsh

Kayla grew up in Falls Church and graduated from JMU in May 2016 with a major in media arts and design. She was an editor for two student-produced publications in addition to studying Spanish, Italian and American Sign Language. She has Harrisonburg's incredible food scene to thank for her beer and food obsessions. You can find her singing in traffic, eating tacos or live tweeting The Bachelor.