Thursday 19 February 2009

On Akram Khan and Juliette Binoche

Akram Khan demands attention when he steps onto any stage.  His art, an ever innovative meeting of the kathak dance tradition and modern kineticism, is often beautiful and almost always compelling.  He has made collaboration the heart of his creation, just as he blends traditions he has found partners like Anthony Gormley, Nitin Sawnhey, Hanif Kureshi, Anish Kapoor and Sylvie Guillem who have been foils for the speed and tension of his choreography.

In-I is his show with Juliette Binoche and it arrives with all the fanfare of an 'important' cultural event, but little of the substance.  It is, at times reminiscent of a drama school warm up, a celebrity reality TV show and an idea fumbled with gimmicks.

It's best to start with the narrative, as this gives an sense of the show and explains why so much of it is so thuddingly literal.  It begins with two chairs and the flickering back projection that reminds us of a movie theatre.  Binoche is a girl in a cinema, in case we needed reminding where we knew her from, and she is watching Fellini's Cassanova (which is a feat of endurance in itself), she notices a man, chases him down, they fuck, set up home, break up and fight.  The problem with this is that the thoroughly predictable amour fou requires a pantomime of voice-over and mime that is often comically leaden. 

The intial consumation with its hints of sex in various positions sees a switch in the plane of the action, the pair are vertical but light projected onto the back wall give the illusion of us having a God's eye view.  As they wake on a sunlit bed the trouble starts.

The next phase is an extended mine of domestic scenes, smoking, fucking, pissing, wiping.  The language is important, you sense a students (or conceptual artist's) excitement at low level shock as the pair mime their way through all the ciphers and clichés of an unravelling relationship.  It really, really looks like a drama class.  The piece finally breaks into a brief solo by Khan, recognisable in its speed and grace as his arms create frightening orbits around his body, the moment of abstraction and the relief from the narrative is welcome.

It is of course Juliette Binoche who is supposed to be the crowd-puller, and deny it as we might much of that appeal is the 'can she, can't she' spectacle of an actor dancing.  That celebrity dance show voyeurism is hugely distracting and whilst Binoche proves to be able one can't quite shake off the sense that the dancing isn't the thing, and that's why we have so much cloth eared narration and clownish mime.  There's a vast chasm between Binoche and the tensile dynamism of Khan's normal dancers, and that void is sadly apparent.

To say that there is nothing here to delight us in the work is churlish, the final duet approaches on the lyrical and there are moments of charm at the beginning.  However the heavy seriosity, the self-consciousness and the bad prose are hard to forgive.  This is disappointing as my tickets were bought months ago, months spent on tenterhooks.  Works like Kaash, zero degrees and Sacred Monsters have been among my favourite experiences in a theatre, but we ought not to judge a work on accumulated kudos.

It is a shame.

Some cultural collaborations are, like Ronald Biggs and The Sex Pistols or anyone with Bono are so  squirmingly pointless that they often transgress common decency.  Of course there are two clear causes why otherwise credible (and I exclude Bono from that description) artists.  The first is greed, the way the imagined spoils of a potential 'crossover' audience robs the artistic institutions that put these collaborations on robs them of their critical faculties.  The second is ego.  Just as George Bernard Shaw is reputed to have said, during a Hollywood meeting, "The trouble is, Mr Goldwyn, that you are only interested in art and I am only interested in money", 'popular' artists seek the patina of critical credibility of 'high culture' artists who, at the same time, seek the opiate of the others' fame.  

It isn't enough for Sydney to be grateful when graced by global names, in the interest of standards we have to be honest when we see the shark being jumped, even when it's by feet as starry as these.

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