Susie (Dakota Johnson) in the first dance scene from Luca Guadgnino’s Suspiria (2018)


Dance+: Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria

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Susie (Dakota Johnson) in the first dance scene from Luca Guadgnino’s Suspiria (2018)
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Toil and trouble brews in a cavernous, covenous dance company

Susie (Dakota Johnson) spins and twists in a bewitching audition

Popular dance movies seem to be following a pattern. There’s always a young dancer, on a mission, trying to succeed against all odds. Usually it’s a woman and a goody-goody, and the dance itself is there merely as a decoration to fill out the script. A typical example, and the pioneer dance movie in the form we are now familiar with, is Flashdance (1983), where dance is incorporated as MTV-style scenes, with no real connection to the ideas in the movie.

Suspiria (2018) might initially seem similar, as it is about a young dancer rising to the top of a dance company, but it has two important twists. The first Suspiria, directed by Dario Argento in 1977, was set in a classical ballet school and did not have much actual dancing, while the remake’s director Luca Guadagnino gives an important role to contemporary dance, here choreographed by Damien Jalet. Not only is the dance not pretty, let alone flashy, but the main female roles are far from your typical dance movie goody-goodies: they are witches.

It’s the 70s in Berlin, terrorised by the radical leftist Red Army Faction. Susie (Dakota Johnson), raised an American Mennonite, arrives to join a prestigious dance company led by a coven of witches. Their intentions – to choose and sacrifice a young dancer – are announced during Susie’s audition.

The audition takes place in a claustrophobic room with no windows, its walls plastered with vertical mirror that distort her body. She dances as if the two sides of the room have grabbed her and are tearing her apart, possessed, animalistic, breathing heavily. The arm swings cut through the air, and fists punch the chest. She falls down to bounce her head back decisively. She crawls to the dark, squirming, then spins to the front light again. Her arms and torso pulsate, she rapidly kicks her leg as if pushing something away. She finishes in a long dizzying spin.

By the nods and looks of the teachers we can sense they’re up to no good, but through Susie’s dancing we can clearly see she’s a much stronger character than suggested up until that moment. She seems to also have something up her sleeve, but we still don’t know what it is (no spoilers if you were expecting one). By the end of the movie these individual elements intensify to the point that speech can no longer communicate what’s happening and dance almost takes over completely.

Besides Mary Wigman and her deliberately ugly and wild dances (Witch Dance), another German dance icon, Pina Bausch, seems to have influenced the movie, specifically in the character of Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton). She is the company’s charismatic choreographer, wearing long dresses, always holding a cigarette in her hand. The piece they are rehearsing is reminiscent of Bausch’s version of The Rite of Spring, with its frenetic rhythm and orgiastic climax, but without all the dirt. The group sequences form ritualistic geometrical shapes and repetitive trance-like actions. The movement in the entire movie is energetic and harsh, contrasting the gravity-pulled floorwork with jumps; fierce turns with the details of swirly wrists. It provokes primal emotions and embodies feminine power. In contrast to most popular dance movies, Guadagnino’s Suspiria gives space to the expressive power of dance. 

Theme: Dance+
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