October 6-12th 2008
DARING TO BE DIFFERENT
An acting legend who’s never danced; an celebrated dancer who’s never acted. Juliette Binoche and Akram Khan explain to Leigh Singer what led them to their new experimental, theatrical dance project in-i.
At lunch, Juliette Binoche orders an intriguing-sounding “flowering tea”. A tall glass arrives with an unappealing, vaguely snail shell-like pellet nestling at the bottom. Boiling water is poured in. Almost imperceptibly, the shell is coaxed open, wispy tendrils pulling back to reveal a blooming, fiery orange lotus-like blossom. It’s an amazing, unexpected transformation.
Given the endearing tendency the forty-four-year old French superstar actress (known back home simply as “La Binoche”) has for abstract, flowery descriptions of her own work – she later expresses her intimate relationship with the late Anthony Minghella, who directed her to an Oscar for The English Patient, as existing “between earth and sky” – it’s a metaphor she might appreciate for her daring new project, in-i.
A dance-based theatrical collaboration with acclaimed choreographer Akram Khan, in-i debuts in London before embarking on an extensive world tour. Khan, 34, is one of the dance world’s great talents. Binoche, however, has never danced professionally in her life. Imagine Roger Federer trying out for golf’s Ryder Cup; or Maria Callas deciding to front a rock band. Binoche and Khan’s self-conceived pas de deux has sniffier critics waiting for La Binoche to, literally, fall flat on her face.
In a way this is nothing new for Binoche. Since she came to international prominence opposite Daniel Day-Lewis in the 1988 adaptation of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, her varied CV has taken in everything from European arthouse hits such as Three Colours: Blue and Hidden, to sudden diversions into more mainstream Hollywood fare like Chocolat or recent Steve Carell comedy Dan In Real Life.
“I never know what I’m going to be doing,” she says casually. “It just happens how it happens, there’s no calculation. I believe I’m taken as much as I’m willing.” Where she’s willing to go at the moment is a career retrospective at the BFI Southbank, along with an exhibition of self-portraits and portraits of her various directors. And of course in-i.
Lunch this afternoon is a brief time out, one week before the show previews. Both Binoche and Khan are amenable and courteous but weary and understandably a little preoccupied. Yet neither, least of all the actress, is apologetic about her dramatic shift in disciplines. “It’s exciting because it’s the unknown,” maintains Binoche. “Both of us are from different places, different experiences, so to come together, it’s about being daring.”
Khan concurs. But surely he, London-born and of Bangladeshi origin, whose work spans traditional Kathak to modern dance, has never worked so intensively with anyone so fundamentally inexperienced? “No, that’s why it was exciting,” he counters, “because it was working with someone without all the boring formal training…”
“I’m sure you wished I was more trained at different moments!” cuts in Binoche with her infectious, almost Sid James-like laugh. If today’s body language is anything to go by, their union should be fluid, nicely balanced and highly entertaining.
The story of how in-i came to be is already becoming legend. Binoche was in London shooting Minghella’s final feature Breaking and Entering, when her masseuse Su-Man Hsu, wife of Khan’s producer Farooq Chaudhry, ventured, out of the blue, whether the actress had ever wanted to dance. Binoche immediately, instinctively, said “Yes”.
“Su-Man had the intuition of seeing what was possible-” she marvels. “So she’s to blame if it goes wrong,” teases Khan, as Binoche bursts into another full-throated laugh. Two years on and they’re about to open at the National Theatre.
Despite being a very physical actress – for Leos Carax’s delirious 1991 Les Amants du Pont-Neuf she worked with an acrobat for her arduous Seine waterskiing scenes – preparing for in-i has clearly been arduous for Binoche. Yet she stresses the emotional commitment to the project as equally daunting. The written sections of the pieces come directly from her and her collaborator.
“This show is very, very personal, as close as possible as we can,” she confirms, “it’s how much under the skin can we get? So if you imagine a writer coming and saying ‘Hey I’m going to write about your life…’ you need to be able to give a little of yourself.” “You have to die for it,” adds Khan with a grin, aware of how dramatic he sounds. “No, but it’s true, I believe that.”
The process of coming up with the entire show has taken long months, in Paris and in London, and much trial and error. Trusted collaborators have been sought to help with refining their ideas and renowned designer Anish Kapoor provides the set. So at this late stage is it simply about perfecting what’s there or are things still evolving? “It’s got a structure,” says Khan hesitantly. Binoche smiles. “There are little changes… every day…” “The structure is firm,” Khan decides, “but we’re putting on flesh… “
All well and good but what, prospective audiences may ask, is in-i actually about? Here, the pair suddenly become much more circumspect. “It’s about the question: ‘Do we dare to love?’” assesses Binoche. “It’s probably the most challenging project I’ve ever worked on,” hedges Khan, who, when pushed will only shrug, “it’s art.” Er, we might need a little bit more to go on…
Three weeks later, finally able to see in-i, their reticence seems slightly more justified. It’s dance but also a drama / music / mime hybrid; it’s necessarily abstract yet also appears specifically autobiographical; and interestingly enough, there are whole sections where Binoche dances and Khan performs an entire monologue. If the response from tonight’s audience is an indication, the pair has pulled it off.
“It takes a lot out of you, but it has to – otherwise it’s not worth it,” Binoche declared those few weeks prior. These are still very early days for in-i but if Binoche and Khan’s bold leap in at the deep end succeeds, it will be a testament to their daring, their commitment and their flexibility; important for a dancer, invaluable for an artist. Put one, even two, in hot water and watch them slowly flourish.
in-i runs at the NationalTheatre until October 20th.