The 7th-century Buddhist monk Xuanzang trekked for 17 years and thousands of miles, traversing empires on foot and on horseback, to complete a self-directed religious and cultural fact-finding mission. Traveling along the fabled Silk Road from China to India and back again, he risked his life and freedom to gain knowledge that, in turn, he brought back to share with his homeland.
Xuanzang’s journey and written record of bridging East and West made him a national hero, a bold historical figure who’s been depicted in art, music, fiction, and film. In 2017, the Chinese National Traditional Orchestra combined those disparate forms to interpret his story as a concert drama, Xuanzang’s Pilgrimage. It makes its U.S. premiere at the Kennedy Center next weekend.
Presented by the China Arts and Entertainment Group, a state-owned entertainment company, Image China: Xuanzang’s Pilgrimage continues CAEG’s annual ventures to D.C. bearing the gift of a large-scale, live production that “introduces traditional and contemporary Chinese performing arts to audiences around the world.”
For the grand, multimedia production that includes over 100 actors, musicians, dancers, and performers, the Chinese National Traditional Orchestra enlisted acclaimed young talent Jiang Ying to compose the music, write the libretto, and direct. But before Jiang managed that massive undertaking, she first hit the road to follow in Xuanzang’s footsteps along his epic journey.
“Absolutely, I had to see and experience first-hand the places along the Silk Road,” says Jiang. “I wanted to be able to effectively portray the famous story, and to help bring the audience along through the places Xuanzang traveled — the terrain, the mountains, the difficult journey for Xuanzang, the special places and people living long ago.”
The production depicts those various locales through video projection, with the orchestra embodying a multitude of regions by playing traditional instruments specific to each culture. Led by Ding Xiaokui, the CNTO’s principal flute soloist, who acts and performs the starring role of Xuanzang, the show represents an extraordinary achievement in multitasking.
“As the world’s first concert in drama, it blurs boundaries and connects acting with playing music instruments,” says Jiang. “Integrating instrumental music performances with the drama, together with spectacular multi-media features, elaborate costumes, lighting, staging, and impeccable visual effects, we’re delighted to showcase the diversity, inclusiveness, history and rich heritage of Chinese traditional music.”
Image China: Xuanzang’s Pilgrimage runs January 25 to 27, at Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater. Tickets are $70 to $200. Call 202-467-4600, or visit kennedy-center.org.