Passionate Amateurs and Flailing Limbs: A Review of BAM’s “In-I”

by Alyse Walsh

To be fair, I am not a theater critic. Juliette Binoche, then again, isn’t really a dancer. Part of BAM’s Next Wave Festival, In-I is about a relationship. Conceived, directed, and performed by Binoche and British choreographer Akram Khan, In-I is not really a love story, but a story of love and passion and all their accompanying feelings, many of which fall into an altogether opposite category: hatred, frustration, anger, jealousy.

The show opens before a fiery red backdrop–a giant wall designed by sculptor Anish Kapoor–that serves as setting for the entire play. It is both a surface against which the actors frequently pound their bodies and, through shifts in hue and intensity, an illuminated display of the characters’ changing moods. What makes the piece different from other stories of love that withers just as quickly as it blossomed only to bloom once again, is that the emotions making up the entirety of such a thin plot are expressed are expressed through the contortion and entanglement of two bodies. Words are used sparsely, and sometimes without adding much to the narrative. Motion, synchronization, and violent gyration tell this story.

Juliette Binoche isn’t really a dancer, yet she pushes herself to the edge. She twirls and swivels, at times thornily, in step with Khan. It is obvious that out of the two players, Binoche is undoubtedly the inferior dancer, but her character’s free spirit makes her amateur footwork feel appropriate. Watching her dance, it’s easy to forget she is the same woman who played the weeping mother of a lost son in Paris, je t’aime or the frazzled French woman balancing work and parenthood in Le voyage du ballon rouge. In most–Hell, in all of her other roles–Binoche possesses an understated sex appeal. In In-I Binoche drips with sexuality, loud and clear. With long, black-stockinged legs, she tumbles across the floor in unison with Khan. She thrusts her pelvis against his and leaves streaks of sweat where her back presses against the floor. Binoche is a raw and sexual being.

Akram Khan is on the other hand a dizzying wonder. A whirling dervish spinning relentlessly, his controlled, rapid arm motions force around his body and morph him into a music-box centerpiece; (One that I almost wanted to close the lid upon in order to put the character out of his misery.) Khan’s own hand becomes a foreign entity to him, portraying his character’s struggle with commitment, which attacks and antagonizes him, forcing his body to spring to the floor and back up again in awe-inspiring jolts. Khan’s moves are precise, controlled yet spastic, and seemingly unanticipated.

Adorned in a flowing, red frock with a loose black sash bisecting her tall, feminine figure, she’s hot and burning within. Khan, in blue and black, is often cold and never comfortable with the spontaneity she exhibits. The symbolism of the color-coding is in an ironic sense more than transparent. When the couple is united in love-making, the great wall behind them glows—you guessed it—deep purple. But the steaming physical intimacy the audience witnesses is not what makes In-I an impressive performance. Any film or play can feed voyeuristic pleasures or create a peep-hole into the quotidian tedium of a relationship (we’re shown fights over putting the toilet seat down, one of the work’s few light-hearted moments.) Instead, it is the tangible emotions shared in short Brechtian nods to the audience that make the characters relatable and the performance striking.

New York Times reviewer, Roslyn Sulcas calls the work “an almost continuous exhibition of the banal.” But while the storyline of the show surely takes a backseat, the storytelling brazenly takes the wheel. Each familiar emotion is utterly palpable, and one hundred percent physical. You know the painful rejection of advances un-returned? It’s a violent push planted firmly on your chest that forces your body backwards, tripping and stumbling over itself. No words need to be spoken to tell us what is being felt. Expressing such deep emotion with so few words, through such universal themes as In-I does, should seem a great feat to any viewer, theater critic or not.