When the French film actor and arthouse icon Juliette Binoche announced last year that she was going to be in a contemporary dance piece, questions abounded. What was she thinking? Would she actually dance? Who with?
The answers are: she wasn’t, she would, and Akram Khan. Three years ago Binoche’s masseuse had idly asked her if she wanted to dance, and without thinking, she said yes. It turned out the masseuse’s husband was the manager of a dance company. And thus Binoche was introduced to Akram Khan, as hot a ticket in the small world of contemporary dance as Binoche was in the big wide world of cinema.
The first Binoche saw of Khan’s work was his superb Zero Degrees (2005), a collaboration with Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. It was the first of a trilogy of duets, the second of which was Sacred Monsters (2006), with French ballerina Sylvie Guillem. This followed a similar format – an encounter between two strikingly contrasting performers, who mine their memories for material and express them through a collage of dancing and acting – but the results were much more uneven. This year’s in-i is the final part, now with Binoche as Khan’s partner; and it’s more uneven still.
The opening, though, brims with promise. Binoche and Khan emerge unobtrusively from either side of Anish Kapoor’s giant screen, which dominates the stage. Binoche’s voiceover recounts a story of falling obsessively in love with a man glimpsed at a movie theatre. Khan appears as the object of desire, cinematically silhouetted in the flickering light. As the voice grows more abandoned, Binoche gives chase, recklessly circling and colliding with him like a moth around a light.
The audience, too, must yield to this improbable, excessive story – and we do, for two reasons. The first is the visuals. The couple appear to be haunted by their shadows, flickering on the screen behind them like phantom alter egos, and the overall effect is tantalisingly suggestive of the Cinema Paradiso view of love – as the screen on to which we project our romantic fantasies. Meanwhile, Kapoor’s screen, masterfully lit by Michael Hulls, flushes pink, then purple, then orange, as if coloured by the heated emotions of this amour fou.
The other reason is double-edged. The knowledge that Binoche, 44, is not a trained dancer places her into a familiar narrative. Celebrity learns to perform with dance professional for public performance – yes, it’s the same story as Strictly Come Dancing, and it immediately gets the public, if not the judges, on her side. Yet what Binoche has achieved really is remarkable. Her spins and tumbles are fearless. When she briefly mirrors Khan performing his characteristically mercurial falls and rolls, she may not be able to match him, but her timing and agility are pretty impressive.
Still, the remainder of the piece, which charts love in its various guises, begins to flag. From extravagant romance we switch genre to domestic comedy, with Binoche and Khan replaying their daily routine: running to the bathroom, leaving the toilet seat in the wrong position, giving each other passing pecks.
Following a brief tango, the bickering (who gets to lead?) escalates into aggression and the tone darkens. In separate soliloquys, the couple reveal hidden wounds that have shaped their ideas of love. For British-Bangladeshi Khan, it’s crossed by race and religion; for Binoche, it’s a jealous boyfriend. There are danced solos too: Khan’s arms flurry around his head, tormenting him like nagging thoughts; Binoche doubles over, her shuddering frame messing up the hair that she tries to smooth.
Binoche is a visceral performer, but she doesn’t yet have the physical eloquence of a dancer. More problematically, in-i‘s spoken stories veer towards the banal, and the whole piece could do with some time in the editing suite. We lose our bearings in the jumpy cuts between romance and routine, or from hurt to comfort. Still, if in-i is disappointing, it’s partly because it holds the promise of such depths and pleasures – like love, I suppose.