Performance review: Tale of the Fire Phoenix, Adelaide Festival Centre

An ancient tale of rebirth and transformation.

Having toured through local schools last year, Zhao Liang’s musical storytelling project, Tale of the Fire Phoenix, arrived at the Adelaide Festival Centre in the middle of Lunar New Year celebrations.

This family-friendly event featured a fusion of Western and Chinese music and introduced the audience to the ancient mythology of the phoenix. This mythical bird, which goes by many names in cultures around the world (fènghuáng in Mandarin), was here presented as an inspiring symbol of the importance of caring for our communities.

Although attendees of all ages enjoyed the show, its simple script was aimed primarily at younger audience members. Danielle Lim, the show’s dramaturg and storyteller, was a clear, confident and expressive narrator. After explaining some of the cultural context of the phoenix and its significance in New Year celebrations, she guided us through the story of how one young bird used her powers to save her friends and their forest home in the face of environmental catastrophe. 

The tale was accompanied throughout by live music from the nine-piece ensemble on stage. Alongside a flute, trumpet, percussion kit and string quintet, Zhao Liang (who composed the music) performed on the guzheng: a traditional Chinese stringed instrument. These compositions beautifully captured the atmosphere of each scene.

One highlight was the urgent piece that conveyed the danger of a raging forest fire, and which featured an inventive range of percussion sounds from drummer Satomi Ohnishi. While the classical strings were certainly lovely, a more central focus on the guzheng and its distinctive sound (perhaps even a solo piece) may have made the music even more memorable.

In a number of scenes, dancer Yiling Zhang flitted onto the stage to represent the character of the phoenix. Performing in ethereal costumes that showed the phoenix’s fiery transformation, she was graceful and birdlike in her precise steps. Her skilful use of a fluttering fan evoked the movement of flight. Singer Nicky Tsz Tung Li’s soaring voice also accompanied several pieces, conveying the heartfelt message of the show.

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To close, Lim reminded us that we all have something to learn from the phoenix’s selfless bravery in this ancient tale. Both educational and beautiful to watch, it was clear that Tale of the Fire Phoenix must have been a hit in schools. It was also a delightful way to celebrate the Lunar New Year, and a reminder of the importance of passing on traditional stories to new generations.

Tale of the Fire Phoenix was performed on 28 January 2023 at the Adelaide Festival Centre.

Megan Koch is a writer and bookseller based in Adelaide. She studied English and Applied Linguistics at Flinders University.