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TO JULY 7, 2002

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Think of them as the Silk Road’s version of a Christian Science reading room. All along the ancient trade route from India to China, caves were turned into Buddhist places of study, devotion, and contemplation. The largest surviving Buddhist cave complex in Central Asia is Qizil, in what is now Western China (and, these days, on the edge of the desert where China tests its nuclear bombs). Some 250 caves have been found there, about half of them relatively intact, dating from the 3rd to 7th centuries A.D. and decorated with artwork that illustrates Buddha’s life and teachings. The chambers were designed as minibiographies, culminating with a smaller final room showing Buddha’s achievement of nirvana. The 15 pieces in this show, mostly from the same cave, were painted on gypsum plaster that was applied to the cave surface because the existing rock was too soft and crumbly to be useful; what’s left of the paintings today is fragmentary and badly damaged. Artistically, the pieces are generally not that interesting, although the rendering of a near-ectoplasmic devotee in “Three Figures” is striking. Still, they offer fascinating evidence of a cosmopolitan culture in an area that’s now considered one of the world’s most remote: The paintings clearly depict a multiracial and multicultural religious community, showing worshipers of various appearances XXalongsideXX Indian and Iranian cultural artifacts. With Central Asia today a place of festering hatreds and bristling borders, these paintings are relics of what seems to have been a golden age. The exhibit is on view from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily, to Sunday, July 7, 2002, at the Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Ave. SW. Free. (202) 357-4880. (Mark Jenkins)

THURSDAY, OCT. 4, & FRIDAY, OCT. 5

Big Dance Theater

Caucasian rock singers waving fans between their toes while speaking in cockney accents is just one of the ingeniously loopy spectacles in Big Dance Theater’s adaptation of Junichiro Tanazaki’s 1933 story, A Portrait of Shunkin. Hailed by critics at its premiere earlier this month in New York, Shunkin gracefully moves between its origins in Japanese Noh theater and contemporary stylizations as it tells the story of a demonic woman who torments her willing lover. Gloria Deluxe frontwoman Cynthia Hopkins (pictured) plays Shunkin, the blind classical musician who meditates on art, convention, sex, and power while bossing around her devoted servant and bass player, Sasuke (Josh Stark). Other actresses occasionally take over aspects of the role, illuminating various corners of this small yet vividly realized world in a smoothly acrobatic synthesis of music, text, and movement. At once recalling Kabuki, Bertolt Brecht, Greek drama, and fashion layouts, Big Dance’s experimental performance was created by downtown heavyweights Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar and co-commissioned locally by the Washington Performing Arts Society as part of its ongoing Silk Road Project. The performances are at 8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 4, and Friday, Oct. 5, at the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, University Boulevard and Stadium Drive, College Park. $20. (301) 405-2787. (Neda Ulaby)