Battles in the mind: Lai Hung-chung’s Boundless

National Experimental Theater, Taipei
January 12, 2019

David Mead

Set on five dancers, including choreographer Lai Hung-chung (賴翃中) himself, the 75-minute Boundless (無盡天空) is a rich and dark exploration of the struggle and conflict between what Freud described as the id, ego and superego in his model of the psyche. It certainly delivers as we see plenty of evidence of the sexual and aggressive drives of the first, with hints at the moral conscience of the last and the realism that mediates the two.

Helped along enormously by gorgeously gloomy lighting by Liu Chia-ming (劉家明), Boundless is shadowy in just about every sense possible. Meaning is obscure but it feels like we are watching a series of thoughts inside the huge black hole that is someone’s mind. Given endless space these, to us, incomprehensible events bounce around with little structure. Paradoxically, it’s that very fluidity and Lai’s largely sticking to a single mood that holds everything together.

It opens with figures appearing like hazy memories. Some, such as the person with a lantern for a head are decidedly surreal with meaning hazy. As in Birdy, Lai also makes use of ling zi (翎子), the long pheasant tail headpiece often worn on warriors’ helmets in Chinese opera. They quiver and trace graceful arcs as they slice through the air, but can also be seen as daggers and swords, slicing in a very different way. Top marks too for the grey and black costumes by Cutting Huang (黃稚揚).

Restlessness and turmoil permeate the work. The dance often has an inherent tension, like someone having a very real nightmare experience. Conflict, internal and external, is to the fore. Pointed fingers, clenched fists, flying legs that look like kicks aimed, pushing and shoving are all easily spotted. The dance is also full of images of people restricted. Barriers imposed by their minds are physicalised most notably when a set of poles become prison bars.

Lai Hung-chung's BoundlessPhoto Hung Dance
Lai Hung-chung’s Boundless
Photo Hung Dance

Among the other super images. Liu’s lighting frequently seems to pick out hands including, strikingly, as they gather around a dancer’s face, fluttering fingers appearing like a shoal of small fish that scatter as if startled only to quickly reform.

To begin with, scenes and images come and go quite quickly. Despite their almost random nature, Lai succeeds in making them flow smoothly. The shift from one to the next is never uncomfortable.

Best are the longer sequences, though. In one long section, Huang Siang (黃翔) is constantly lifted and manipulated by the others. Particularly impressive is the way she falls and rebounds as if on the bounciest of trampolines. It’s all done incredibly smoothly. Sometimes it seems like she is floating on a bed of air.

There’s a taut solo for Lee Hang-cheng (李杭澄), who struggles almost insect-like. That’s followed by a long and powerful duet between Cheng I-han (鄭伊涵) and Chien Lin-Yi (簡麟懿). Meant or not, it has hints of unwanted sexual advances as he constantly tries to dominate her. It ends dramatically with her seeming to kill him before slowly shifting into the upstage blackness. It’s Boundless at its very darkest.

The end of that duet truly grabs you. But then, for some unfathomable reason, Lai goes and spoils things. Christina Liang’s (梁啟慧) to date atmospheric music shifts to a heavy dance beat, the lights come up and we get a gesture-driven unison dance that has a tad too much of a shade of Hofesh Shechter about it, although without his usual tension and darkness. I’m all for contrast but it feels and looks like a different piece. It’s totally out of kilter with the rest of the work. Lai does attempt to pull it back with an intense solo and a brief return to the opening images, but it’s too late. The spell has been broken.

While it could certainly do with some editing, Boundless is an impressive first whole-evening work from Lai; excellently danced and staged too. Like many young Taiwanese dance-makers, he’s been having success on the choreography competition circuit (it registers highly in Taiwan but the reality is that dance is littered with contest winners rarely heard of again; indeed, most of the contests don’t make much of a mark in the first place), but it’s evenings like this, and making work with and for established companies that really counts. On the evidence of Boundless, Lai may well be more than ‘one to watch’. Let’s just hope his development and that of his young company, Hung Dance (翃舞製作), continues on an upwards trajectory.