“When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,” wondered T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock, “Then how should I begin/To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?” One of the most startling images in the collaboration between British-Bangladeshi choreographer Akram Khan and French film actress Juliette Binoche climaxes in a quarrel—one of many in the hour-long In-I. Khan lifts Binoche and slams her against the immense wall that serves as a backdrop. She remains there, hanging several feet off the floor (the black coat she has suddenly appeared in must be backed with industrial-strength Velcro). If the anguished Binoche has trouble spitting out the dregs of her life, it’s because a lover is strangling her, and Michael Hulls’s brilliant lighting on Anish Kapoor’s glowing wall pins her to what could be a bed seen from above. (Is she dreaming? Remembering?)
This isn’t the first time Khan has collaborated with artists from different cultural and artistic backgrounds, and, as in this joint venture, he melds their differences with their similarities. Forget speculating about whether Binoche can dance and how Khan manages the acting. He often speaks in his pieces. For In-I (“I” as personal pronoun), he delivers, wonderfully, a monologue about the mullah who held a knife to his 10-year-old throat to scare his confessed love for a white, non-Muslim girl named Sarah right out of him. Binoche may not have had extensive dance training, but, looking endearingly youthful and agile, she dances several killer sequences side by side with Khan. In perfect unison, they thrash and stamp and whirl and fall to the floor and get up and fall some more. Khan’s movement, rooted in both contemporary dance and Kathak, is about power and assertiveness. It leaves both of them equally sweaty and out of breath.
Their relationship treads familiar make-love/make-war territory. Woman sees man in movie theater and instantly craves him (we learn this through a voiceover). She pursues him; he is reluctant (at first); they fall into bed, discover differences, and fight. Their passion is as raging as their quarrels—the sudden mood changes emphasized by Philip Sheppard’s score, which is sometimes delicate, and at other times, overbearing and very loud. There are many variations on thwarted desire. Binoche starts by rushing after Khan, dogging his steps, grabbing at him, stroking him, crawling between his legs; he wards her off fiercely. At other times, he’s beseeching, she rejecting.
The waxing and waning of love is tracked mostly through these wordless movement passages. Even the pair’s embraces are dodgy, clumsy, never fully trusting. They seem to be trying to glue together shards of themselves that they’re not sure really fit. Their disagreements also surface in an attempted ballroom dance, during which she sings “The Man I Love” teasingly and somewhat ironically, and he impugns her dancing (“That’s the wrong fucking step”). They attempt to draw the first row of spectators into one escalating dispute about a fortune-teller’s prophecy. Their smaller differences are revealed in a morning-after pantomime: She’s fastidious in the bathroom; he’s careless about where droplets fall. She’s cold and wants the window closed; he prefers it open (sound familiar?). This is the part that gets the audience laughing.
The deeper issues under their troubles are hinted at only fleetingly, leaving us to connect the dots. The sight of Binoche’s white skin against Khan’s darker color seems to awaken his memories of the mullah and unnerve him. In his sleep, he calls out for long-ago Sarah, and, in one amazing solo, he seems to be trying to claw his skin off. But what lies behind Binoche’s hungry pursuit of him? What past abuse gives her such a hair-trigger temper? Does it have anything to do with the near strangulation (or the fear of it)? Although the two directed In-I themselves, they were aided in their creative process by a dramaturge, Guy Cools. Still, consulting a playwright might have been a good idea, despite the paucity of words. Perhaps they wished to retain a certain ambiguity to balance some of their more detailed indications of character. Maybe they thought it was enough for us to know that these lovers bring baggage to their relationship—no need to spill everything out of the suitcases.
However, although it’s impossible not to be gripped by the two beautiful performers—her luminous wildness, his big-cat power, their fury, their attempts at tenderness—you don’t come to know their characters well enough, either through their movements or their words, to pierce the clichés and feel wrenched by sympathy. As the piece mires in unremitting push-pull, you want to go up onstage, yank them apart, and sit them down with two glasses of good red wine.