The audience gasped as the cocoon of the curtain lifted on the Dunstan Playhouse stage, revealing 15 exotic white and red butterflies and a swarm of song.
The instruments wielded by China’s Butterfly Ladies Band were both foreign and familiar. A discerning Western eye could easily group each of them into the categories of percussion, wood-wind and string; some almost looked like guitars or mandolins, another almost like a sitar, but all were crafted and produced melodies and rhythms representative of the rich and ancient culture of the Orient.
The sheng, an intricate and undoubtedly complicated reed instrument consisting of a collection of vertical pipes, looked positively otherworldly during ‘Dingdingdang’ while the erhu proved that two strings are sufficient to convey emotions ranging from the sorrow of a loved one departed to the joy of fishermen returning from sea.
The touring collective provided a melodic insight into domestic Chinese life; the sounds of work in the tea fields and jubilation at the moon lantern festival; the fear of typhoons, the bustle of the waterside villages and soundscapes inspired by the landscapes of China’s abundant south.
Image © Zhejiang Song & Dance Theatre Co Ltd
The meaning of each song was supported by videos, which were necessary and welcome... While they conveyed information however, they also distracted from the enchantment on stage. Thankfully, it only took a few plucks of the guzheng to again be transported back into a mystical world of vibrant colour.
Towards the end of the set, the band played an ode to perfect conjugal bliss, which may have been a fitting climax but there was a special treat arranged for the Australian audiences; a sung version of ‘Waltzing Matilda’ and an instrumental rendering of ‘Click Go the Shears’.
This was both a thoughtful tribute and a timely reminder of how a society’s survival upon their piece of geography shapes the songs they write; their tea fields are our shearing sheds; there is a universality to our human experience. In our modern and globalised world, art serves an important function in reminding us all that more unites us than divides us.
The Butterfly Ladies Band were a joyous reminder of home for Adelaide’s Chinese community and a mesmerising education for all others.