When celebrities venture outside their areas of expertise, the results aren’t always pretty. Just try to get through one of Madonna’s children’s books or Scarlett Johansson’s album of Tom Waits covers. And so, when French actress Juliette Binoche announced last year that she would be performing alongside top-notch British choreographer Akram Khan in a dance work called In-I, we were admittedly un peu sceptique.
“La Binoche,” as she is known by her countrymen, is something of a Renaissance woman—not only is she an Oscar-winning actress, but an accomplished painter and poet as well. To prepare for her foray into dance, Binoche, who had no previous training, began working with a dance coach just a year before In-I premiered in London last September. An international tour followed, and New York audiences finally got their chance to see her in action last month in Brooklyn, where In-I opened the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival.
The good news is that, while no one would mistake Binoche for a professional dancer, the 45-year-old actress manages to hold her own onstage with Khan, 34, who is to dance what Binoche is to film—a true virtuoso (albeit one we see too little of here in the States). She brings to the stage the elegance and naked emotion that make her so thrilling to watch onscreen. Unfortunately, once the novelty of seeing Binoche in this new context dissipates there is little left to sink our teeth into.
Running about 70 minutes, In-I is a dance theater piece composed of a series of vignettes about love in all its forms, from infatuation and lust to banality and cruelty. Co-directed by Binoche and Khan, it blends movement and spoken word, thereby offering both performers a chance to shine in their comfort zones while pushing them into unfamiliar territory. The work was billed as an experiment of sorts, inviting us to “see what happens when an actor dances and a dancer acts.”
In this respect, Khan is the more successful of the pair. One of the highlights of the show is his monologue about a mullah who responds violently when Khan, as a 10-year-old boy, professes his love for a non-Muslim girl. In a more lighthearted section, Binoche and Khan are a cranky couple bickering their way through a ballroom dance. In between phrases of Gershwin’s “The Man I Love,” Binoche admits that even though she already has a partner, she is still waiting for Mr. Right to come along.
Less engaging is a segment that riffs on Mars-Venus differences, with a repeated gag about men’s inconsiderate toilet seat habits. As our heroine gamely mimes falling into the toilet over and over, it is difficult to keep from shouting, “La Binoche! You’re better than that!”
The sections of pure movement are primarily partner work, though Khan does have a few, all-too-brief solos in which we get hints of what his body can really do. In one anguished moment, he whips his bent arms around his head as if trying to fend off a swarm of corrosive thoughts or the stinging words of a lover. Most often, though, we see Binoche and Khan entangled in positions of ardor or antagonism or some combination of the two. She lies on the floor and arches toward him; she hurls herself into a clinging hold and he shrugs her off.
The set, designed by Anish Kapoor, is a freestanding wall saturated in shifting hues of violet, rose, and orangey red. Thanks to Michael Hulls’ lighting, it transforms from a screen in a movie theater to a bed in which two lovers toss and turn in a shaft of early-morning sunlight. Later, after a particularly nasty row, Khan pins Binoche against the wall and leaves her hanging, literally. The image of Binoche stuck to the wall, feet dangling, is powerful—and far more eloquent than the monologue she delivers while pinned there.
The pitfall for artistic experiments of this sort is their potential to be more meaningful for the participants than for the observers. We can admire Binoche’s daring and applaud her for what really is an impressive achievement for someone with so little training. But if it were someone else, we probably wouldn’t care that much. The material on its own fails to transport us beyond intellectual curiosity to a place where we forget about who we’re looking at and get swept up in the passion the work is trying to convey. For that, fans of Binoche were perhaps better off sticking to the retrospective of her films that coincided with the performance at BAM.
In the meantime, let’s hope that In-I sparks more interest in Khan on this side of the pond, and that it’s not too long before he comes back to show us what else he can do.
Michelle Vellucci is a Manhattan-based dance writer and book critic.