Brussels choreographer Damien Jalet bewitches Suspiria

© Amazon Studios

To make the new version of the chilling classic Suspiria a success, director Luca Guadagnino brought the Brussels-based choreographer Damien Jalet on board. His dances bewitch the film. “I wanted it to look dangerous, visceral even.” 

Luca Guadagnino is not the kind of person who rests on his laurels or avoids risks. The Italian director is following up his delicious love story Call Me by Your Name with a remake of Suspiria, Dario Argento’s stylistically astounding 1977 horror classic. This has caused more than a few eyebrows to be raised. “Why on earth would you want to remake Suspiria?” was also Damien Jalet’s first reaction. The Franco-Belgian Bruxellois is a choreographer who is currently in his professional prime. Earlier this year, he and his brother in arms Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui directed Claude Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande for Opera Vlaanderen. Performance artist Marina Abramovic designed the scenography. In April next year, De Munt/La Monnaie is presenting Vessel, a spiritual dance production that Jalet created with the Japanese visual artist Kohei Nawa. He also regularly works for other leading companies such as Eastman, Paris Opera Ballet, and GöteborgsOperans Danskompani.In July 2016, Luca Guadagnino asked Jalet whether he would choreograph the dance scenes in Suspiria. Jalet hesitated for a moment. “It struck me as very difficult to remake such a unique, specific film,” Damien Jalet says. But Guadagnino was convincing. “Luca said that Dario Argento’s original film does toy with the idea of dance and witchcraft, but does not really explore it very deeply. He wanted to let dance predominate. He wanted to make dance the secret expression of the power of witches. I found that a very inspiring vision. Finally, here was somebody who was prepared to give contemporary dance a central place in his film!”

1638 suspiria cover
Dakota Johnson, ready to get bewitched

“Luca wanted to get away from all the things you normally see in film: classical dance, ballroom, or more commercial dance like hip hop. He wanted a dance language that was created especially for the film. It is rare that a director places so much trust in dance as a means of expression. The challenge was also cripplingly big, but I couldn’t pass up such an amazing opportunity. My desire won out over my fear.”

Medusa vs. Suspiria
Another important element: a strange coincidence that may not have been coincidence at all. Guadagnino found Jalet after somebody told him that the script by David Kajganich unintentionally appeared to describe a choreography by Jalet. “Les Médusés was a choreography I had made in 2013 at the invitation of the Louvre,” Jalet says. “In one of the museum wings, three dancers danced between the sculptures. Sculpture and dance at first seem to be diametrically opposed art forms: one is immobile but eternal, while the other is mobile but ephemeral. The dance attempted to liberate the restrained energy of the statues, condemned to stasis for all time. I was partly inspired by the many statues of enchanted nymphs – creations by men! – and the Medusa, the mythological figure who petrifies everyone who looks in her eyes. She is one of the three Gorgons. Suspiria presents three similar figures: Mater Suspiriorum, Mater Tenebrarum, and Mater Lachrymarum. I actually had my dancers watch Suspiria as a preparation for the choreography at the Louvre. It is one of my favourite films. I am particularly attracted by the idea of blending dance and witchcraft. There is no way Luca could have known that, and yet he found me to choreograph his film.”


1638 Damien Jalet

The new Suspiria is set in Berlin in 1977. The American Susie (Dakota Johnson) starts training at Markos, a dance academy plagued by mysterious disappearances and run by the charismatic Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton). Jalet, who became involved in the project quite late, did not have enough time to invent a completely new choreography, so he based the three crucial dance scenes in Suspiria on Les Médusés. Jalet: “There was already a link with the theme and with the original film. I brought in six or seven other dancers – many of whom are based in Brussels – to help the actresses practice the dances. Volk (the name of the dance in the film, nr) is very postural and rhythmically complex. It sometimes even looks almost like Morse code. Technically the dance is not incredibly difficult, but that doesn’t mean that the actresses, Dakota Johnson and Mia Goth, didn’t have to work very hard.”

The script suggested ballet-like dance with a lot of leg waving and jumping, but Jalet went in a completely different direction: “The first thing I asked Dakota Johnson was to take off her ballet slippers. The screenwriter referred to a number of the great female choreographers of the last century like Martha Graham and Isadora Duncan. Tilda Swinton’s Madame Blanc physically resembles Pina Bausch but is actually more similar to Mary Wigman. She was one of the first people who integrated rhythms and sounds from India in her productions. After the Second World War, her questionable relationship with the Third Reich destroyed her reputation. But her work is very powerful. I used her magnificent, extremely rhythmic and expressionistic Hexentanz as a reference. It is crucial that all these women resisted academic dance.” In terms of content, it likewise seemed sensible to pass over refined ballet. “The film evokes an atmosphere of repression. I wanted it to look dangerous, visceral even. So I opted for angular, rhythmic, cutting movements and a lot of restrained, tightly-wound energy.”



According to Jalet, Dakota Johnson had a tendency to adopt elegant, glamorous poses. He “deconstructed” them by having her work with her skeleton. “I often ask my dancers to do that. Seeing our skeleton disturbs us and reminds us of our mortality. Dakota was horrified when she saw the video recordings of her shoulder movements. But that was exactly what we needed. Eventually I was able to convince her to let go of her classical conception of dance.”
Don’t be embarrassed to think the film’s climax is grotesque. “It is quite clear to me that it is intentionally ambiguous, over the top, and too much. But I fear that some people will not understand that it is not to be taken too seriously.”

Dreams of the future
Thom Yorke wrote the soundtrack for the new Suspiria film. The Radiohead singer struggled with the dance scenes for a long time. “Thom worked hard on it for six months,” Jalet says. “He told me that when he came to Brussels for a concert at the Ancienne Belgique. I completely understand why. In Les Médusés, every movement was very closely connected to the music score by (the French-Israeli music duo) Winter Family. I developed the rhythmic structure while listening to Goblin (the Italian prog rock band that provided the legendary music for the original film, nr). The breakthrough came when Thom started thinking in terms of 3 and 5, the numbers that constantly recur in the choreography.”
Jalet also learned a lot. “It was basically a question of letting go of what we saw in the studio and thinking in function of what the dance looks like on the screen, in conjunction with the framing, the editing, the camera movements, and the music.” He has already received four offers to choreograph other films, but he is hesitant. “Cinema has always been an important source of inspiration, but I don’t have any ambition to become a choreographer of cinema.” He does think that Suspiria has opened people’s eyes. “The visceral dance contributes to the oppressive atmosphere and the tension in Suspiria. It is not merely decorative or beautiful but drives the action and reveals the characters. It would be fantastic if cinema were henceforth to be more open to dance that contributes to the narrative, energy, and imaginative force of film.”

> Suspiria. IT, US, dir.: Luca Guadagnino, act.: Tilda Swinton, Dakota Johnson, Mia Goth

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