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Brief Encounter With … Juliette Binoche & Akram Khan

French actress Juliette Binoche and British Bangladeshi dancer and choreographer Akram Khan are co-creating, performing and directing in-i, the new contemporary dance theatre piece which premieres this month at the National Theatre. Binoche, who makes her dance debut in the piece, has been in training for two years in preparation. The piece also marks a first for Khan, who acts, sings and plays guitar on stage for the first time, in addition to dancing. Michael Coveney went to meet the pair during a weekend break in their hectic rehearsal schedule.

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It was hot last Saturday, and there were crowds thronging the foyers of the National Theatre and the public space on the imitation greensward outside. Inside, there were just a few days to go until the first public preview of in-i, the curiously titled dance drama on the Lyttelton stage at the National Theatre, a duet of movement starring French film star Juliette Binoche and acclaimed British Bangladeshi choreographer Akram Khan.

Before going to meet the pair, I bumped into a crowd of actors gathering for the last performance of Michael Frayn’s Afterlife. Some of them were in it, some of them were going to see it. I told them I was meeting Binoche. “She’ll eat you alive,” said the rebarbative Roger Allam. “No she won’t,” I said, “she’s got an assistant; haven’t you?” “The rest of the cast are my assistants,” said Allam, swanning off in the nicest possible way; “and, incidentally, she really has radiated a tremendous presence through the building in the past few weeks... very exciting for all of us.”

This brand new “shot in the dark” show – set up with huge sponsorship and the collaboration of theatres from Paris and Luxembourg to Sydney, via Beijing and New York — is designed by Turner prize-winner Anish Kapoor and set to music by cellist Philip Sheppard. Both performers were keen to talk to Whatsonstage.com, but not all that sure of what exactly they wanted to say. They had been rehearsing hard for eight hours, and it showed. We sat down in the backstage cafe with coffee and water.

What on earth does this title, in-i, mean? Who would book for a show called this?
Juliette Binoche: It’s about some questions. Do we dare, loving? What is love? And is emotion really love? I don’t make a difference in my relationship with Akram as a person or an artist. We discover things about each other as we do it.

Akram Khan: Now I think we know each other really well. The people who book to see the show are really brave. They are the kind of people who take chances, and they go on a kind of journey with us.

JB: To start with, this was about going to a new place. Which was the dance. A friend of my masseur said I should meet Akram. We spent three days in a studio together and then I knew we had a connection. I am aware of all the hard work after we’ve done it: I’m covered in bruises! I had never danced before, but I had done Pilates and, as an actor, you have to be aware of your body. So we started improvising with emotion, and what does emotion do to the body, and how that brings some movement.

So if the inside of you is what’s coming out, does that mean you have to know each other’s intimate secrets?
AK: Sure, this is a very intimate show, it has to be, and we have to be intimate with each other. I know what you’re thinking, but my wife is a very understanding woman, and this is serious work! The perception of each other has grown inordinately in this process. There is a baby we have created together and it’s pulling us...

JB: I don’t see art as being an expression of something outside of myself, anyway. So whether I’m acting or painting, it’s another way of seeing things. The common denominator is the movement. I don’t dance but I paint in the air; or, I don’t paint, but I dance on paper. You see what I mean?

Yes, I think so. Is the exhibition of your ink drawings of directors next door in the BFI part of this same process, or even project, Juliette? There is also a retrospective season of films, and a collection of poetry just published. Is this a stock-taking of your career so far?
JB: It’s not about a career. It’s about life. A career is a consequence of your life, so my need to go into new perspectives is like – why do you want to be born? You have to take another breath and find another layer of yourself. You can’t hang on to your past. I don’t want to be an actress, necessarily. Why would I? It’s a search for Akram and I when we work together, a search for what clicks in you. It’s invisible but it’s there. It’s very vague, but that’s the reality of it.

AK: I agree with her. It’s all about instinct. It’s not as if I and my producer sat down ten years ago and worked out where I wanted to go. For me, things happen by accident. I got into dance because my mother needed a boy of three to play in a performance. Then I “did” Michael Jackson and won a competition. And then I went to university and from there to contemporary dance because I needed a piece of paper, and so it went...

Are you saying that all self-expression is art and that we can all create public performances if we find the way to do so? Shouldn’t some of us – most of us – stay in the audience?
AK: Look, every human being is a dancer, every human being has their own way of expressing himself. I’m not a dancer: my teacher at university said I could never be a ballet dancer. But that came to my advantage. My disadvantage became my blessing in disguise.

JB: I try not to repeat myself as an actress, or as a person, really. So I have always been looking for stories that have to do with souls and loss and having faith. The most important thing to do is always ask some questions, and that is what we are doing here. We should all do that in our lives, and if that means we are all artists, then so we are. We should not let ourselves be stuck inside old ideas or habits. We must grow. That is what living means.

in-i receives its world premiere on 18 September 2008 (previews from 6 September) at the National Theatre (See News, 2 Oct 2007), where it runs in rep in the NT Lyttelton until 9 October ahead of an international tour, which sees it return to the UK in 2009 for three days only (5 to 7 February) at the new Leicester Curve. The theatre season at the National coincides with Jubilations, a retrospective of Binoche\'s 25-year film career and an exhibition of her paintings at the neighbouring BFI Southbank, which runs from 1 September to 5 October 2008.


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