A joint production of dancer Akram Khan and actor Juliette Binoche, “In-I” delved into the many layers of love.

As one moves towards the Harvey Theatre of the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), one senses its presence in the somewhat run down area as a magnet. Inside the old theatre is a remnant of times past with scar tissues of earlier frescoes, pillars and decorative plaster. All has been left as is. The stage, large and cavernous is a Mecca for many dancers and theatre practitioners. Tonight the famed British dancer and choreographer Akram Khan is dancing with well known French actor Juliette Binoche (“Chocolate”, “Cache”, “Blue”) in a piece they jointly developed called “In-I”. The evening is rife with expectation as both the stars are in a constellation of their own but are adding roles — a dancer acts and an actor dances.

All about love

The set is a large luminous square that is a screen designed by the internationally famous artist Anish Kapoor and it is on this that the colours of light change as the piece progresses. The piece is simple on the surface. It is about love. You have the two elements of man/woman, yin-yang, purusha/prakriti. Primary elements but when their alchemy is set off in motion by the two performers we are witness to love in its many layers. Starting from seduction, to lust, to the fruition of a relationship, the routine of domesticity, then the gradual fissures coming through of doubt and jealousy, leading to a deep abyss of pain, anger, desolation which in turn leads to desperation, vulnerability and a complete emotional meltdown into isolation but picking up towards the end with an effort for hope, for in the end that is all that sustains the human spirit.

Danced by the two in covering large swathes of the stage, the two work in tandem and then come to individual narratives that are real and intimate. Binoche talks about the falling in love of a young 14-year-old for an older man, the animal attraction involved and the discovery of that primal lust. Later Akram talks about being in a Madrasa and confessing loving a white girl and the diabolic consequence it sets off. Later there are words of separation, pain and anger and finally hope. The dancers act, put on their abhinaya faces; but mostly the dance is focussed by Akram’s energy on stage. Intense and taut like a corkscrew that unwinds its steely interior Khan links his moves in a double helix of erotic moves with Binoche. The image is reminiscent of a tantric visual of two snakes linked in a mating dance. Hand gestures, the throwing of bodies at and away from each other and moments of lyrical intimacy take the audience into a space of shared experience.

The imaginary fourth wall is not only permeated but we are almost able to reach palpably the inner resources each person is bringing to the other and by default to the witnessing audience. This kind of a cultural intersection of dance and acting creates a new energy, a provocation that borders on the violent but also on the poetic as it aims to reach that inviolate zone of truth.

Fond memories

Backstage post-performance, I chat shortly with Akram. He remembers with great humour how he had performed at The Other Festival in Chennai which I had co-curated and we talk about the post-performance discussion where the audience was polarised between the conservative traditionalists and the liberal modernists with the discussion veering to that instead of his performance. He also remembers a leaking roof of the Museum Theatre and somebody putting a bucket on the stage as he rehearsed. He is keen to perform again in India and it is a real yearning but somehow it seems to have been jinxed so far. Later in the evening he reminisces about the theatre in Brooklyn where, as a 14-year-old, he played a role in Peter Brook’s “Mahabharata”, often playing hide and seek and causing other members to hunt for him in the back rooms of the maze-like theatre. To him the space has a special memory and he likens it to a sacred space, a temple.

Making connections

Juliette Binoche too has a Peter Brook story. Having seen his work in Paris at the young age of 11, she decided that all she wanted to do was to make people happy, to be able to connect, to have the joy she experienced from that first performance. It became the leitmotif of her career as an actor. As a dancer on this project, she encountered Akram’s work because her massage therapist is married to Akram’s producer.

After seeing a performance of Akram’s, they instantly connected and decided to work on this piece. Both learned from each other but one senses that Binoche had to work that much harder. She succeeds to some degree with the dance but one can sense the huge effort being made. The challenge is tougher as she is not a trained dancer and also much older.

However, as she says, she learned to love the moment of difficulty when she was out of breath and Akram explained to her that she had to trust herself to go there until she entered the zone of being there in sync with the movement, the body and her inner energy. The fact that he is not a trained actor and she is not a trained dancer is evident but it brings to the performance certain honesty, a sense of authenticity. As Akram says, “Art goes beyond cultural differences, beyond religion, it transcends all these barriers. For me it’s the moment of truth. Art is a way of putting life into a more heightened space. When it’s contained in a theatre it somehow becomes poetic”.

Having met him nine years ago when he had just established his company Akram was a rising star who had a deep sense of humility but a razor sharp clarity on the direction of his work. Nine years later he is a star internationally and his vision and humility are still in place. I tell him about that. He is touched, so am I.

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Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012