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.
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It's a cycle familiar to many: First, a striking image of a lithe, impossibly fit dancer executing a gravity-defying développé catches your eye on Instagram. You pause your scrolling to marvel, over and over again, at her textbook physique.
Inevitably, you take a moment to consider your own body, in comparison. Doubt and negative self-talk first creep, and then flood, in. "I'll never look like that," the voice inside your head whispers. You continue scrolling, but the image has done its dirty work—a gnawing sensation has taken hold, continually reminding you that your own body is inferior, less-than, unworthy.
It's no stretch to say that social media has a huge effect on body image. For dancers—most of whom already have a laser-focus on their appearance—the images they see on Instagram can seem to exacerbate ever-present issues. "Social media is just another trigger," says Nadine Kaslow, a psychologist who works with the dancers of Atlanta Ballet. "And dancers don't need another trigger." In the age of Photoshop and filters, how can dancers keep body dysmorphia at bay?
If "Fosse/Verdon" whet your appetite for the impeccable Gwen Verdon, then Merely Marvelous: The Dancing Genius of Gwen Verdon is the three-course meal you've been craving. The new documentary—available now on Amazon for rental or purchase—dives into the life of the Tony-winning performer and silver-screen star lauded for her charismatic dancing.
Though she's perhaps most well-known today as Bob Fosse's wife and muse, that's not even half of her story. For starters, she'd already won four Tonys before they wed, making her far more famous in the public eye than he was at that point in his career. That's just one of many surprising details we learned during last night's U.S. premiere of Merely Marvelous. Believe us: You're gonna love her even more once you get to know her. Here are eight lesser-known tidbits to get you started.
Every dancer knows that how you fuel your body affects how you feel in the studio. Of course, while breakfast is no more magical than any other meal (despite the enduring myth that it's the most important one of the day), showing up to class hangry is a recipe for unproductive studio time.
So what do your favorite dancers eat in the morning to set themselves up for a busy rehearsal or performance day?
When it comes to dance in the U.S., companies in the South often find themselves overlooked—sometimes even by the presenters in their own backyard. That's where South Arts comes in. This year, the regional nonprofit launched Momentum, an initiative that will provide professional development, mentorship, touring grants and residencies to five Southern dance companies.