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her loud laugh­ter: if you ever thought of her as a del­i­cate flower or a ner­vous diva, that earthy, strong laugh will set you straight about what a vi­tal force she is.)

The masseuse turned out to be the wife of Khan’s pro­ducer: they took Binoche along to a per­for­mance and at the end of the show in­vited her to spend three days in the stu­dio with Khan, to see if any­thing de­vel­oped.

‘‘ I said ‘ Why not?’ I’m open, it’s great to see some­thing new, where I could learn some­thing.’’

Af­ter three in­ten­sive days, Binoche says, she and Khan felt there was a pos­si­ble con­nec­tion, and they worked on ideas and met a few times over the next year. Re­hearsals be­gan in earnest last Fe­bru­ary in Paris at the The­atre Jean Vilar and In-I pre­miered at the Na­tional The­atre in Lon­don last Septem­ber.

Binoche says danc­ing with Khan took her so far out of her com­fort zone she was al­most in space.

‘‘ That was my will, that was my wish, to go some­where I’d never been,’’ she says, sound­ing quite de­lighted at the idea.

‘‘ It’s very en­light­en­ing at the end of the day, but dur­ing the jour­ney I had doubts, mo­ments when I wanted to give up. And it’s true that I dis­cov­ered loads of sur­prises, be­cause fac­ing your­self in a dif­fer­ent kind of ex­pres­sion, you meet your demons, your lim­its, your pos­si­bil­i­ties, you meet the trans­for­ma­tions and the fears.’’

In­juries, too, are an in­evitable part of pro­fes­sional danc­ing. Binoche, while fit and a fine fig­ure of a woman, had no for­mal train­ing, not even child­hood bal­let lessons. She found it de­mand­ing to keep up with Khan, who is 10 years her ju­nior, has been danc­ing since the age of seven, and has ex­traor­di­nary phys­i­cal prow­ess. As one Bri­tish critic de­scribed Khan’s solo near the beginning of In-I: ‘‘ He twirled and spun on the spot with such ve­loc­ity that he re­called the blurred, tor­tured fig­ure of a Fran­cis Ba­con paint­ing.’’

But, af­ter 20 years and about 40 films, Binoche is a trouper, and cer­tainly no diva.

‘‘ I had some in­juries, yes, but then I learned to live with that, and to be more cau­tious, to learn to be with my body rather than tak­ing it out of my­self,’’ she says.

‘‘ So the in­juries were ac­tu­ally a won­der­ful re­minder that you can’t go without your body.’’

Khan also faced chal­lenges. This is his first col­lab­o­ra­tion with a non-dancer, but he wasn’t the one do­ing all the teach­ing. Af­ter years of highly phys­i­cal dance, he had to learn the equiv­a­lent of how to talk and walk at the same time. He learned the tango, too.

‘‘ At first we didn’t know what we were go­ing to do, so it was not about go­ing to Akram’s world, it was about find­ing a world be­tween us,’’ Binoche says.

‘‘ It was as much about go­ing to my­self as go­ing to him and he went to him­self, and he came into my world. It was try­ing to find a bridge be­tween us. When we started the cre­ation I had no idea who Akram was; see­ing a show or two shows doesn’t tell you about the per­son, but spending four months re­hears­ing, at the end you have more of the re­al­ity of who the other per­son is.’’

In June last year, Khan told Binoche: ‘‘ Right from the first day when I shared some of my ma­te­rial with you, I re­alised I had to aban­don my body . . . in or­der to learn again.’’

Per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ences of re­la­tion­ships, love and loss, and hap­pi­ness too, were the cou­ple’s raw ma­te­rial, and they searched for how best to trans­late emo­tion into move­ment — but like most men and women they came at it from com­pletely dif­fer­ent an­gles, Binoche says. (‘‘ It’s not a theme I would have thought of my­self,’’ Khan had told her.)

‘‘ I’m start­ing from the emo­tion, from the in­side, and the ac­tual con­se­quence is the act­ing, or the move­ment, that’s my process,’’ Binoche says. ‘‘ He would start with the move­ment and add emo­tion af­ter­wards. So we had to adapt our­selves. And as a chore­og­ra­pher he was used to work­ing with a mir­ror, and I’ve never worked with a mir­ror. I felt so blessed when we started re­hears­ing in a stu­dio and there was no mir­ror. I was saved.’’ Binoche gives an­other hearty laugh.

‘‘ The whole thing, I think it was a bet as well as a wish and hopes. But we went through a jour­ney to­gether, that’s for sure.’’

Binoche was born in Paris on March 9, 1964 to a sculp­tor fa­ther and an ac­tor mother: ‘‘ I was in­ter­ested in danc­ing but not go­ing to any class. I re­mem­ber my mother would put on some mu­sic and my sis­ter and I would just im­pro­vise, mov­ing around. I love paint­ing, any ex­pres­sion re­ally, but not as a duty or pur­pose­ful ca­reer thing, it was just the joy of ex­press­ing my­self.’’

She was five when her par­ents di­vorced, and she was sent to a strict Catholic board­ing school, which she hated; she says that as a child she had such a strong will it was al­most em­bar­rass­ing. Clever and multi-tal­ented, she at­tended the Na­tional Con­ser­va­tory of Dra­matic Arts of Paris. She worked at a depart­ment store and as a painter’s model to sup­port her­self.

At 17, she didn’t care what she did, as long as it was in a the­atre troupe. ‘‘ That was my first de­sire. It was just about be­ing with the oth­ers and choos­ing your own fam­ily,’’ she says. ‘‘ I think the need [ to act] was prob­a­bly my way to save my­self from school and ra­tio­nal­ity. I was more into the imagination, feel­ings, in­vent­ing worlds. Since I was four or five I was play­ing all the time.’’

At 18, she joined a the­atre troupe and started go­ing to au­di­tions. ‘‘ I was not into the movie dream at all, so when I was taken by movies — and in a way, I was cho­sen, as much as I de­cided to do it — I was sur­prised,’’ she says.

One of the few French ac­tors to en­joy in­ter­na­tional recog­ni­tion, she won an Os­car for An­thony Minghella’s The English Pa­tient ( 1996) and was nom­i­nated for Lasse Hall­strom’s Choco­lat ( 2000). Long be­fore that, she was a dar­ling of Cannes with a swag of won­der­ful roles beginning in 1985 with An­dre Te­chine’s Ren­dezvous . Binoche was 24 when she won the role of Tereza in Philip Kauf­man’s adap­ta­tion of Mi­lan Kun­dera’s novel, The Un­bear­able Light­ness of Be­ing . Since then she has made about three films a year, and in 2000 she made an ac­claimed Broad­way de­but in Harold Pin­ter’s Be­trayal .

Her sched­ule is for­mi­da­ble and her work ethic is too. She could de­mand star billing but is ap­par­ently not con­cerned with such sta­tus sym­bols. Binoche is in­ter­ested in the in­tegrity of her work, and this has caused some dif­fi­cul­ties in her re­la­tion­ship with direc­tors. In 1996 she quit ( or was fired) from the drama Lu­cie Aubrac , about the French World War II heroine of the same name, af­ter fa­mously clash­ing with di­rec­tor Claude Berri. She has worked with many of the lu­mi­nar­ies of Euro­pean cin­ema, in­clud­ing JeanLuc Go­dard and Louis Malle, and while she may be used to ac­co­lades for her film work, the crit­ics have not been to­tally en­am­oured of In-I .

‘‘ The re­ac­tion has been very in­ter­est­ing,’’ she says thought­fully. ‘‘ In Lon­don it was kind of mixed feel­ings. Be­cause you couldn’t clas­sify it as to­tally dance or to­tally the­atre, they [ crit­ics] didn’t know what to think of it, and they didn’t want to re­ceive a new way, some­how.

‘‘ It’s in­ter­est­ing but hurt­ful too. But I have to say that mostly the audiences who came to the show were com­pletely in love with it — be­cause they wish that some­time they had the courage to let go of what they know and go for some­thing truly new. So that was very pos­i­tive for us.’’

The dancers ar­rive in Syd­ney to­wards the end of a 12-city in­ter­na­tional tour, af­ter Abu Dhabi and be­fore South­east Asia.

‘‘ Lux­em­bourg and Bel­gium were great. In Italy they had mixed feel­ings, France was to­tally pos­i­tive, Montreal was over the moon, that was a stand­ing ova­tion ev­ery night,’’ she says with a laugh. ‘‘ The more we went around tour­ing, the more we worked on the piece. We learn each time and try to im­prove it.’’

Af­ter about 60 per­for­mances, she and Khan have the show in their bones, in their bodies: ‘‘ But that doesn’t mean it’s stuck, it’s very alive, be­cause it’s very emo­tional any­way, be­cause the emo­tion you can’t catch; you have to let it hap­pen. Some­times it’s very in­tense, other times it’s lighter.’’

Binoche misses her chil­dren, Raphael, 16, and Hana, 9: ‘‘ I do en­joy per­form­ing, but at the same time I’m find­ing it a very hard tour be­cause I’m away from my home. I un­der­stand the ex­cite­ment when you’re a young dancer and you don’t have a set life, I un­der­stand that, but for me it’s dif­fi­cult to be away.’’

In Sum­mer Hours Binoche wears a blonde wig to play a low-key part as a fash­ion­able home­wares de­signer. And while her on-stage role is light years away from that, all her creative work — whether it be act­ing, dance or paint­ing — comes from the same well, she says.

‘‘ I say that act­ing is also about move­ment, it comes from a very in­ti­mate and pri­vate place, tak­ing all those hid­den places to ex­po­sure, whether it’s a film, dance, paint­ing, singing. It doesn’t mat­ter — it’s tak­ing the risk of ex­pos­ing it­self to the world, to oth­ers, so I’d say that there’s the same kind of jour­ney from in­side to out­side.’’

Binoche has painted since she was a child. In the 1991 film Les Amants du Pont-Neuf , in which she plays an artist, the paint­ings used were her own, and she de­signed the film’s posters. In July 2007 she made seven por­traits of direc­tors for Cahiers du cin­ema , the French film crit­i­cism mag­a­zine, and she fol­lowed those with an ex­hi­bi­tion and book. She also wrote a poem to ac­com­pany each por­trait.

‘‘ I started that be­cause I didn’t want to be pas­sive, just a past story some­how, but as a way to give some­thing back to the direc­tors I worked with and the char­ac­ters I played,’’ she says.

‘‘ As they put the cam­era on me, it was a way of putting my brush on them. It was also out of cu­rios­ity to know what was go­ing to come up out of my brush; I had no idea.’’

Over the next year, Binoche is sched­uled to work with film­mak­ers Hou Hsiao-hsien, Amos Gi­tai, Ab­bas Kiarostami and As­sayas. Th­ese are bold choices: each of those direc­tors and projects are dif­fer­ent. I won­der how Binoche feels about re­turn­ing to act­ing.

‘‘ I’m happy, of course, oth­er­wise I wouldn’t do it,’’ she says with a loud laugh, as if only a crazy per­son would ques­tion her ded­i­ca­tion.

‘‘ Each time there is a new chal­lenge with new films I wish I could say no more, no more cam­eras, just take it easy, lie down. But I’m too much of a fire, too much of a pas­sion­ate girl.’’ In-I is at the Syd­ney Opera House, Fe­bru­ary 18-28. Juli­ette Binoche launches her book Por­traits In-Eyes at the State Li­brary of NSW on Mon­day.

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