China's most beloved work of art comes to life at the Kennedy Center in "Qingming Riverside," an epic dance spectacle performed by Hong Kong Dance Company. The dance, first performed at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, recreates the beauty and impact of a cherished silk scroll painted between A.D. 1110 and A.D. 1125 by Zhang Zeduan, the imperial court painter.

His detailed visual account of life in the progressive city of Bianjing during the booming Northern Song Dynasty captures every aspect of life in the city, suburbs and countryside, a panorama displaying 814 humans, 50 animals, 30 buildings, 28 boats, 20 vehicles, nine sedan chairs and 170 trees.

'Qingming Riverside'
Where: Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater, 2700 F St. NW
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Info: $10 to $180; 202-467-4600; 800-444-1324;

Renowned art historian Gerard C. C. Tsang, the script and research director, is now the executive director of the Hong Kong Dance Company. During a telephone call from Hong Kong, he described "Qingming Riverside" and its cultural impact.

"This scroll is a kaleidoscopic view of the capital of the Song Dynasty by a painter who responded to the emperor's call to create a painting about the city," he said. "This was a period of great prosperity in China. The center of the scroll is dominated by a bridge crossing the Bian River that flows through the bustling city and countryside. The bridge is also a focal point on our stage. People from all walks of life are represented, from farmers, goatherds and pig herders to doctors, teachers and innkeepers in the city."

The Song Dynasty, in what is today's Henan province, thrived from the 10th through the 12th century. Then it was invaded by Mongols and succumbed after several decades of wars, ultimately surrendering to the armies of Kublai Khan. The silk scroll survived for more than a thousand years with the help of private owners.

"The beauty of the scroll spurred us to put the story to dance," Tsang said. "The costumes, music and movement of the dancers reflect the scene. The composer spent five years in survey and composing appropriate music that uses a woodwind section and a small family of Chinese instruments. The costume designer chose fabrics that glow like a rainbow when a light shines on them. There are 16 major sections to 'Qingming Riverside,' each with different costumes.

"We are bringing all 30 of the dancers in our company to Washington, and the ensemble is sending 12 dancers. One dance near the opening shows willows swaying in the breeze. It brings out the feminine qualities of the women dancers, while an acrobatic dance later on emphasizes the masculinity of the male dancers.

"The dance has been performed 30 times, and each time we have tried to introduce something new. The painter thought his effort to depict life along the river was a failure. In one new dance, he walks along the river bank where nymphs and fairies live. He falls in love with a nymph, but she does not return his love, so his hair turns gray."