JULIETTE BINOCHE AND AKRAM KHAN BRING IN-I TO BAM

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Last night In-I, the collaboration between French actress Juliette Binoche and British dancer / choreographer Akram Khan, opened at BAM, and of course I was there. She’s one of my favorite actresses and I’d been wanting to see this since it premiered at Sadlers Wells in London a year ago. New York is the last stop on their tour.

I loved it, despite its imperfections (and I largely agree with Judith Mackrell’s early review). But I loved it, partly because I just love her period, and partly because, for me, it ended up creating a new respect for both interpretive art forms, dance and acting.

This collaboration (Binoche has virtually no dance training and Khan no acting) made me remember back when, what seems like light years ago now, Baryshnikov and Mark Morris founded their company, White Oak Dance Project. For opening night they were collaborating with Yo-Yo Ma and I really wanted to go. I tried to use this as a selling point in convincing my friend, who loved classical music, to go with me. I’ve always had this stupid habit of stating the over-obvious and, in elaborating, I said to her, “Baryshnikov will be dancing and Yo-Yo Ma will be playing the cello.” She burst out laughing. “Well I hope it’s not the other way around!” she said. Then we got to joking around about how entertaining it would be if Yo-Yo Ma danced and Baryshnikov played the cello. I said I’d actually really like to see that. She said she wouldn’t — it may be a fun experiment for them to do in a garage or something, but to put before an audience?…

I still wonder how that would come off — Baryshnikov bending over a cello and Ma jumping around a stage.

Anyway, I thought this collaboration (hard to know what to call it; it was mostly dance with some spoken word –the two talk to each other onstage and address the audience in monologues, so maybe it’s “dance-theater”) was more than an experiment in two artists from different worlds trying on each others’ shoes. It had a storyline; it was about the life of a relationship — from youthful fantasizing evolving into mature passion, getting sick of each others’ bad habits (there’s a very funny scene where he keeps leaving the toilet seat down and getting it all wet when he pees and she wants to kill him over it), fighting, misunderstanding, eventually accepting and even learning to delight in the difficulty of it all, as part of life. I have to say I understood the through-line of the drama through her. She gave the piece its emotional core.

He is a brilliant dancer and I loved watching him move. It was apparent she has very little dance training — she doesn’t have the expansiveness and breadth in her movement or the precision and sharpness of a lifelong professional dancer — but I love her for trying, because I think it shows how blasted hard dance is no matter how hard you work at it (and you can tell she worked very very hard). And I love that she was not a very skilled dancer, the piece was mainly dance, and still so much of what I understood and got out of it was due to her performance.

The best parts I thought were where each performer was in his / her own element. Judith Mackrell (link above) likes the beginning, where Binoche’s character is sitting in a movie theater and sees Khan, he dances about and she becomes infatuated with him. That scene works well because she’s sitting and watching him, while telling the audience how she feels about him, and he’s moving. There’s another scene later on – -my favorite in the whole thing — where they’ve just gotten into a vicious fight. She stomps off behind the back screen and he begins this really riveting solo where he writhes on the ground, gets up and contorts his body, flings arms, head and torso every which way in utter emotional agony, then does a deep back arch, literally bending over backward to please her. About halfway through the solo she walks back out onstage and sees him. As she approaches him, her expression changes; she slowly realizes how much their fight has tormented him and she feels remorse. You can see all that on her face alone. His movement and her facial expression compellingly conveyed each character’s inner turmoil.

There’s another part where he delivers a monologue to the audience. He just stands at the edge of the stage and talks to us, telling us about a youthful romance he had in which he fell in love with a girl who was not the same religion as he. He tells his priest and the priest withdraws a huge knife and holds it against his throat, telling him having the girl means his soul will die and asking him if that’s what he wants. Khan spoke too fast and sometimes jumbled his lines but at one point he started punching the air with his right fist when he spoke in the voice of the priest, and he started pointing shakily toward the audience with his other hand when he talked in what I felt was the inner voice of his boyhood self. Sometimes these motions were back to back — the fist violently but with a dancer’s control punching the air, then the trembling index finger. Once he kind of got into a groove with it, it was really mesmerizing — especially when combined with his extreme sideways leans when confronted with the imaginary knife at the neck. He was expressing himself far better with his arms and neck than with his words and I kind of wished at that point, he would just have had a voice-over do all of his spoken word so that he could focus on using his body to express himself.

Conversely, I kind of wished for her that she didn’t have so much movement so she could have focused on her words and her facial expressions and wordless gestures (actors obviously do use their bodies as instruments of expression, but it’s to create subtext — little ticks that a normal person would do that show that person’s character; totally different from dance). You can tell how hard she worked if you’ve tried to learn dance as an adult. She had several very difficult things — a couple of high lifts, fast travelling chaine turns. You can see how she worked to get those turns right — her spotting was very good and she held her body steady and balanced with her footing while still trying to get sufficient speed. The fact that she was still able to chaine toward him, into him, with meaning, with intention (she often laughed, sometimes playfully, sometimes tauntingly) while focusing on getting difficult movement right was really amazing. But if she didn’t have those crazy spins to contend with in the first place, how much more depth she could have conveyed. And ditto for a lift, where he sits her atop his shoulder and walks along the back screen. She stretches out her arms and closes her eyes and traces the screen with her shoulders and hands, a look of ecstasy crossing her lips. But she has to worry about maintaining position atop his small shoulder, of tightening her muscles so she can hold herself up there, limiting, I felt, how far she could go emotionally.

Anyway, I could think of more things to say but I think I should stop, at least for now — particularly since it’s now evening and my allotted time for me to work on my novel. Suffice it to say, this collaboration really made me think how, similarities aside, fundamentally different the two art forms are, and made me respect each more. I do think dancers could highly benefit from more acting classes because I think for many theater-goers, that’s ultimately what moves them — body movement alone doesn’t always make complete sense. But more on this later…

In-I continues at BAM through September 20th.

Photos above by Jack Vartoogian.

3 Comments

  1. How interesting, thanks for the great write up. I thought it was interesting how your favorite part was when the dancer was dancing, and the actor was acting – “His movement and her facial expression compellingly conveyed each character’s inner turmoil.” In theory, maybe it'd be fun to see crossovers of experts switching fields into a field completely unlike their own, but it wouldn't be as satisfying to see as we'd think. I wonder if we'd like it for a reason other than for its bottom-line performance value, but a more “relatable” one to the undancerly audience member, or the endearing quality of seeing an expert earnestly try a hand at something that they're obviously not very good at. It might make them more human to us, especially in the case of a celebrity such as Binoche.

    I'm skeptical in general of pairings like this one since it reeks of star stunt casting for the sake of selling tickets, which is a common practice on Broadway, but it sounds like some good things came out of this collaboration.

  2. Thanks Jolene! Yeah, it did make her endearing to me that she tried and so obviously hard, and I think it made it all the more clear how hard it is to dance, and to act while dancing. I imagine all of her fans probably had similar thoughts. So I'm glad they did this for those reasons.

    I don't know that much about Broadway, but I imagine they pair celebrities and miscast all the time in order to sell tickets. I can't remember the exact story, but here Binoche's masseuse I think it was knew his sister or something like that. They met through some kind of connection, and Binoche became intrigued by his work and then interested in collaborating with him. So here the two actually planned the whole thing, co-directed and co-produced from the get-go.

  3. Thanks Jolene! Yeah, it did make her endearing to me that she tried and so obviously hard, and I think it made it all the more clear how hard it is to dance, and to act while dancing. I imagine all of her fans probably had similar thoughts. So I'm glad they did this for those reasons.

    I don't know that much about Broadway, but I imagine they pair celebrities and miscast all the time in order to sell tickets. I can't remember the exact story, but here Binoche's masseuse I think it was knew his sister or something like that. They met through some kind of connection, and Binoche became intrigued by his work and then interested in collaborating with him. So here the two actually planned the whole thing, co-directed and co-produced from the get-go.

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