Juliette Binoche hesitates and then breaks into a shy smile when she's asked how she enjoyed dancing in the production of "In-I," which opens in Montreal on Tuesday.

"I don't know if I can call it dance but I can definitely call it exploration through movement," she says amid the machine-gun-like clicking of photographers' camera shutters during a news conference Monday.

"In-I," the modern-dance story of how two lovers discover each other, is a step outside usual comfort zones for Binoche and her co-creator, renowned British choreographer-dancer Akram Khan.

Binoche, who won a supporting actress Oscar for 1997's "The English Patient," doesn't usually dance. "In-I," which premiered in London last year, is the first time she's done it on stage. Khan doesn't normally act but branches out into theatre for the production.

Despite what Binoche says, it sure looks like dance as the duo fling themselves energetically around the stage, with some reviewers describing the dancing as the star of the show, which will run until Jan. 17.

Binoche, who has appeared in such films as "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" and "Chocolat," likes the challenge.

"I've been working on the emotional world and I was interested to expand it into movement - how far would it go, how do I express some hidden part of myself through movement," the 44-year-old French actress said.

"I'm not a trained dancer at all and there was no way I could recuperate 20 years of missing dance," she noted, so the pair had to find a way to work with their "common passion for art" and develop a way to communicate on stage.

"Akram had to let go of some of his tools as a choreographer and dancer. As well, I had to let go of some of my fears of, like, bending - as simple as that."

Binoche said she knew about some dance exercises but little about how dancers move in a set space, a challenge she acknowledged was daunting when she thought about sharing a stage with a dancer of Khan's calibre, which she described as "amazing."

"The only way I could carry on was trust and faith and hard work too because otherwise it doesn't work," she said. "You can imagine a lot of movement, you can imagine a lot of scenes but if you don't have the ability to do it physically, it's all in the air."

Months of training followed as she and Khan found a common language - "this bridge between us."

"I have to say it's been so enlightening, so frightening. It got me into mountains of anger, frustration, love, need - everything you can go through."

Khan noted that some dancers train for decades to achieve an expertise in a certain form. He said, for him, the form is merely the beginning stage while he is most interested by the emotion underneath.

"When Juliette is dancing, it's very much a human being who is performing," he said. "She has acquired so much of the skills over the period of rehearsal and creation. There is form there but there's something beneath that and that is the emotional content, the human content.

Besides the stage production, there will also be an exhibit of paintings by Binoche and a retrospective of her films.

Binoche, whose father was a sculptor, says she started painting as a child, copying pictures from books brought home by her mother. She gave it up for a while because her acting kept her busy, getting back into it when she did "Lovers on the Bridge" in 1991.

She even does self-portraits but the woman who has been called one of the world's most beautiful doesn't dwell on her looks when she's painting them.

"I don't see myself," she said, explaining it's more about the sensation she feels at the time of the creation. "It's not about seeing myself, it's about what comes through myself. . . .

"I don't know how I'm going to look. It's just the sensation of going back to the memory of the sensation and what comes out of it. I'm the first one to be astonished."

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