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.