Pop Culture

Damien Jalet on Choreographing Horror Film Suspiria—and Working with Tilda Swinton and Dakota Johnson

What better way for dancers to celebrate Halloween than by seeing Luca Guadagnino's outrageous re-imagining of the 1977 horror film Suspiria? The movie, which includes extended dance sequences by Belgo-French choreographer Damien Jalet, is principally set at the fictitious Helena Markos Dance Company in West Berlin. The school's artistic director Madame Blanc (think Martha Graham meets Pina Bausch) is played by Tilda Swinton, and Dakota Johnson plays Susie Bannion, her American star pupil. But all is not what it seems at the company. In reality, it houses a coven of witches.

Recently, Dance Magazine interviewed Jalet via email about his work on Suspiria, in theaters now.


How much of a role does choreography play in the film's narrative?

In Suspiria, dancing is a way to cast spells. I felt the choreography had to be very raw and pagan and unleashing a contained, oppressed energy. The death of Olga at the beginning of the film—where the movements of Dakota in one room destroy another dancer in another mirrored room—sets the tone for the film. It is an Eros/Thanatos pas de deux. Besides prosthetics and a few sounds, there are no special effects in the scene. Walter Fasano, the film's editor, spent nearly six weeks editing those three minutes of film.

What was it like working with non-dancers like Swinton and Johnson?

It was fun for me because I really forced Tilda and Dakota out of their comfort zones. They worked very hard, sometimes at 2 in the morning, in a cold studio, surrounded by powerful professional dancers.

I tried to find in Dakota's body what would be disturbing, I tried to make her move from her skeleton. Dakota is very sculptural, and during the rehearsals she discovered many things she didn't know she was capable of doing. She really went for it, so much so that she even injured her back in the violent pas de deux with Olga.

Tilda was not supposed to dance at first, but we decided to create a solo for her that appears often in the dream sequences. Tilda would often attend rehearsals for scenes she was not even in because she wanted to learn how I spoke to the dancers. She made many changes to the script based on these observations.

Was Swinton's character, Madame Blanc, based on Pina Bausch?

In the film, she does look like Pina, but David Kajganich, the screenwriter, was very inspired by Mary Wigman and Isadora Duncan. For me, being a choreographer trained in more contemporary techniques developed in the '90s, it was a challenge to create a physical vocabulary for 1977. Even though I placed a few choreographic quotes referring to Pina, it was really important to not get stuck in trying to be historically right. Wigman and Graham were inspired by Eastern cultures and Duncan was inspired by Hellenic sculpture, but my principal inspiration for the film's choreography was a trip I made to Indonesia where I witnessed dancers getting into altered states of consciousness.

Did Luca Guadagnino, the director, have specific suggestions about the choreography?

Luca told me at our very first meeting, "I want the dancing in the film to be the secret language of the witches, the expression of their power." This was both daunting and inspiring. But it was also liberating. In Suspiria, dance is so offensive it can kill!

Ironically, in 2013 for a performance at the Louvre, I had created the female dance trio "Les Médusés." Luca saw the video on the internet; this is what inspired him to contact me. I've always found the concept [in the original film] of connecting witchcraft and dance brilliant, and working on Suspiria gave me the chance to deepen this idea.

Broadway

We knew that Ivo van Hove and Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker's production of West Side Story would challenge our preconceived notions about the show.

But a recent Vogue story gives us a taste of just how nontraditional the Broadway revival will be. Most notably, van Hove is cutting "I Feel Pretty" and the "Somewhere" ballet, condensing the show into one act to better reflect the urgency of the 48-hour plot. (The choice has been approved by the West Side Story estate, including Sondheim, who has "long been uncomfortable" with some of the "I Feel Pretty" lyrics.)

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by NYCDA
Ailey II artistic director Troy Powell teaching an Ailey Workshop at NYCDA. Courtesy NYCDA

Back in 2011 when Joe Lanteri first approached Katie Langan, chair of Marymount Manhattan College's dance department, about getting involved with New York City Dance Alliance, she was skeptical about the convention/competition world.

"But I was pleasantly surprised by the enormity of talent that was there," she says. "His goal was to start scholarship opportunities, and I said okay, I'm in."

Today, it's fair to say that Lanteri has far surpassed his goal of creating scholarship opportunities. But NYCDA has done so much more, bridging the gap between the convention world and the professional world by forging a wealth of partnerships with dance institutions from Marymount to The Ailey School to Complexions Contemporary Ballet and many more. There's a reason these companies and schools—some of whom otherwise may not see themselves as aligned with the convention/competition world—keep deepening their relationships with NYCDA.

Now, college scholarships are just one of many ways NYCDA has gone beyond the typical weekend-long convention experience and created life-changing opportunities for students. We rounded up some of the most notable ones:

Keep reading... Show less
Cover Story
Jayme Thornton

It's a much-repeated part of Francesca Hayward's origin story that she discovered ballet at age 3, when her grandparents bought a video of The Nutcracker to keep her occupied and she immediately started dancing around the room. What's less well-known is that there was another video lined up next to The Nutcracker that Hayward liked to dance along to: Cats. "I really just did the White Cat bit and fast-forwarded the rest," she remembers. "I'd make my friends who came around be the other cats."

Twenty-four years later, she's not only become a Royal Ballet principal, but has been cast as Victoria the White Cat in Tom Hooper's new movie adaptation of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, out in theaters on December 20. "I remember the director telling me I'd got the part: 'Just to let you know you're the lead in a Hollywood film,' he said." Hayward laughs. "This is crazy!"

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Harlequin Floors
Left: Hurricane Harvey damage in Houston Ballet's Dance Lab; Courtesy Harlequin. Right: The Dance Lab pre-Harvey; Nic Lehoux, Courtesy Houston Ballet.

"The show must go on" may be a platitude we use to get through everything from costume malfunctions to stormy moods. But when it came to overcoming a literal hurricane, Houston Ballet was buoyed by this mantra to go from devastated to dancing in a matter of weeks—with the help of Harlequin Floors, Houston Ballet's longstanding partner who sprang into action to build new floors in record time.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get Dance Magazine in your inbox