Sermsah Suri Bin Saad’s Liyan begins strongly but feels a little rushed, says First Nations Emerging Critic Carissa Lee
“Liyan” is a Yawuru term from the Kimberley, which tells of “spiritual connection to country and oneself, the ability to be in tune with the knowledge passed down from ancestral lineage and songlines”. Liyan is also about “your sense of belonging, which is the calling that tells you when it’s the right time to do what is necessary in that moment in time”.
This is something our mob understand because we’re so in tune with the country we walk on. For those of us have been displaced through colonisation and the resulting intergenerational traumas, our spiritual connection to country and ourselves is all we have to get through this life.
Although Liyan is only briefly mentioned in Sermsah Suri Bin Saad’s performance at the Melba Spiegeltent, it’s a constant thread through his story. The audience hears a little about performer Bin Saad’s life: the youngest of nine growing up in Port Hedland, how dance takes him to bigger cities, the ways in which he is able to find himself.
The show begins strongly, describing his life as a young one “in a land of five rivers, rock formations, blue sky, spinifex, and machinery”. There are moments in the text when Bin Saad’s love of his country bleeds into the way he describes it, and we’re right there with him. He tells us of red sand, rain and muddy water, of hunting for tadpoles using the flyscreen from his window. In these moments, we are transported to those muddy waters, crouching beside him, feeling the mud between our toes as we stare into tadpole-swum shallows beside his mischievous companions.
At other times, the text falls flat. The scenes feel generalised, as if they have been written in a rush, losing the sense of immersion at the beginning of the performance. As the show goes on, it begins to feel like this is an early draft: there’s a lack of depth at potentially pivotal moments, and a weird jumping back and forth in the time line. For example, at one minute he’s a kid looking at tadpoles, the next he’s a teenager getting his first kiss, then he’s a kid at the movies, then he’s a grown man at Mardi Gras.
Although it is a generous sharing, it’s lacking in structure. Had it been presented in a more linear way, or if he had found subtle links through the different stories, it would helped the flow. This lack of flow is almost compensated for by Bin Saad’s dance: the movement brings an emotional vulnerability that is articulated so much better than in his words.
The performance takes place within a half-circle, with cave-like grey sheets in the back topped by green foliage. The audience lines the edge of the stage, some on seats, some sitting on the floor. This intimate setting allows for moments where Bin Saad involves the audience, such as when he sits on an audience member’s lap to to describe the face of a tadpole to person beside her, or when audience members screech a line of dialogue when he recollects his first Mardi Gras. It’s a wonderful feeling in the room, with mob taking photos and a young girl laughing alongside the adults in the room.
Mark Coles Smith’s music reflects the feel of a cultural story and suits Bin Saad’s narrative. Darius Kedros’ sound design needs a little tweaking, as the volume was a little overpowering, and Bin Saad lacked the vocal range to compete. There are recorded voices with which Bin Saad engages – one of them is meant to be his mother – but I think the actor sounds too young for the depth the role requires.
There are important themes that mob can definitely relate to, such as lateral violence, growing up with potential role models taking their anger out on one another, or finding the tricky balance between sensitivity and culture, as in a moment when he’s afraid of killing animals while hunting. Bin Saad recalls when he had to choose between sport or dance. Watching him move, I’m glad he chose dance. He tells us about his mother seeing him on TV as part of the Indigenous float at Mardi Gras. She’s not happy about it, because she is a religious woman. Not long after this, he tells us of her death:
Sometimes we have to lose ourselves to find ourselves,
sometimes we lose others along the way.
He paints himself in white ochre and allows himself to be lost in his dance. You see the struggle, of his search for identity, to just find some kind of place in the world that isn’t determined by someone else, and he fights against it so as not to betray culture, but eventually gives in to whatever the future is meant to be for him, and whatever that means.
It is no longer me that is following the road that is there,
It is me, making that road.
It’s an important reminder: although we need to be receptive to country and to what our old people tell us, sometimes we need to be firm and choose our own dreaming for ourselves. He ends with a solo dance, sweating off the ochre, his body and spirit finally free.
I’ve been learning in my research that sometimes stories need to go through a journey before they are ready to be told. Performances work like this too. There are times where a story needs to be a kind of ceremony for the performer before it is fully present for an audience, or risk feeling rushed and a little unfinished. This performance, I feel, was an important step for Sermsah Suri Bin Saad: it wasn’t necessarily for us. We just happened to be there for this part of his journey.
Liyan, written, directed and choreographed by Sermsah (Suri) Bin Saad, choreography and stage direction by Jade Blair, dramaturgy by Dagmara Gieysztor, music by Mark Coles Smith, sound design by Darius Kedros, design and production Nathalie McLean. In association with Theatre Research Institute, Ilbijerri Theatre Company and Melbourne Fringe. The Melba – Spiegeltent until September 17. Bookings
The Melba Spiegeltent is Wheelchair Accessible