Akram Khan and Juliette Binoche
by David Mead
March 4, 2009 -- Lyric Theatre, Hong Kong Academy for the Performing Arts
For his latest big-name collaboration, Akram Khan has teamed up with French Oscar-winning actress Juliette Binoche to create “In-I”. The sole performers, Binoche and Khan show us scenes from a relationship, or from a number of different relationships. Each is personal to them, from her first spotting a potential lover in a cinema queue, through their first passionate nights, to arguments, falling out and reconciliation.
This boy meets girl, falls in love, falls out, and makes up storyline is hardly anything new. Given the programme lists 14 Greek words for love, one might expect more. But that is to miss the point of the exercise. The programme tells us that “In-I” is something of an experiment for both performers as they take risks and go into uncharted territory. Binoche is challenged to dance, direct and write for the first time, while Khan has to act and sing on stage. The action all takes place in front of Anish Kapoor’s large wall, lit in a series of vivid colours, and which moves forwards and backwards.
The opening scenes are promising and well told. Binoche is completely in character as her 14-year old self as she fantasises about a man she sees at the cinema. That man is danced by Khan who dances an eye-catching solo in response to the story. Fast-forwarding, we see them wake up in a ‘bed’ created by the simple but hugely effective projection of a square of light onto the wall.
From here on, things go downhill. As the couple starts to bicker, there is lots of mime. There are disagreements about whether a window should be open or closed, and she objects to his habit of neither lifting nor wiping the toilet seat. This latter section in particular is dreadfully overstretched, not the only time the pair are guilty of this; and the humour in the situation, weak to begin with, soon loses its effect.
This is not to say “In-I” is bereft of dramatic highlights. Best of all is when Khan tells us in a monologue how, aged 10, he told a mullah that he had fallen in love with a white girl, “an unbeliever”, and how the mullah’s anger was so great that he not only threatened him but drew blood with a knife. Binoche’s monologue is much less effective. Having been lifted onto the wall by Khan, she hangs there, we are left to guess how, and tells of a lover’s jealousy, how he kicked in her apartment door and tried to strangle her, which not surprisingly led to a personal crisis. But unlike Khan’s quiet power and believability, she resorts to histrionics, which only lessens the impact. A classic case of more being less.
“In-I” is at its best when the couple resort to dance to recount their experiences. Khan shows just what a superb solo dancer he is, moving around the stage as only he can, with amazing speed, spinning and rebounding from the floor, his arms rising and falling in a blur of movement.
Not surprisingly, Binoche’s dancing is hit and miss. Given her lack of training until very recently, some of her work is surprisingly good, especially one early section on the floor and when she and Khan dance in unison, but elsewhere she struggles to come to terms with partnering, the choreography and especially his movement vocabulary. Unlike Khan, her movement rarely conveys any sense of meaning or emotion.
Despite the problems, it is difficult to dislike “In-I”, and the Hong Kong audience certainly enjoyed it. The work does have its moments, and experimenting with performance outside one’s on-stage comfort zone is an interesting idea. But some of Binoche’s dance would barely be acceptable on Strictly Come Dancing, or one of its international equivalents. Just like Khan’s overall lack of voice projection, it is not good enough for what is advertised as a major dance work. If the dance and acting in “In-I” was performed to this standard by two unknowns, would it receive such attention? I suspect not. Maybe it is all just a reflection of society’s present obsession with celebrity.