Doubled: Lupita Nyong’o as Red and Adelaide in Jordan Peels’s Us (2019)


Dance+: Us

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Doubled: Lupita Nyong’o as the doppelgangers Red and Adelaide in Jordan Peels’s Us (2019)
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Double trouble in the climactic dance scene of Jordan Peele’s 2019 horror Us

Horror frequently draws on aesthetic disruption. The sinister undermining of the ordinary is one of its most reliable, effective and layered tropes: clowns are not the playmates of the circus, but the casing around a carnivorous child-snatcher; the Mayday parade is not a blossom-strewn celebration of spring but a floral front for human sacrifice; don’t even get started on the Catholic church. In Us (2019), director Jordan Peele takes this one step further and offers us the mundane and its uncanny reflection side by side. The scary monsters are doppelgangers of ordinary people, living abject, gruesome lives underground, tethered to their mundane counterparts by some mysterious but inexorable force. Peele toys exquisitely with aesthetic disruption in the climactic fight scene, fixing on two art forms with such recognisable and celebrated aesthetics that their fearful remix is already ominous: hip hop music and balletic dance.

In Us, Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o) and her family flee a gang of the murderous doppelgangers, who have been killing their real-world counterparts across the town. She eventually tracks her own doppelganger – named Red – to an abandoned fairground, all the while assailed by traumatic but incomplete childhood memories of this very place. Beneath the fairground is a crude double of the world above: doppelganger hell. She confronts Red in a subterranean schoolroom.

The dance/fight scene in Jordan Peele’s Us (2019)

Adelaide is exhausted and bloodied. She moves as she is: injured, partially incapacitated, panicked. By contrast, Red marches like a clockwork soldier. Not a twitch, not a shudder is wasted on the physical manifestations of human emotion. She does not even appear angry – merely efficient. When she lunges with scissors towards Adelaide, when she catches a chair against her foot, when she dispatches Adelaide with a slap or a stab, she is always perfectly, terrifyingly controlled.

They move to the sound of an orchestral remix of the mid-90s hip-hop hit ‘I Got 5 On It’ by Luniz (played in its original form earlier in the film). It is plucked out on strings and distorted by short screams of reverb. The fact that it is still recognisable is what makes it so uncanny. Whatever aesthetic the original evoked has been dragged under the ground to the same dark place Adelaide is fighting for her life. The familiar music is under unfamiliar control; it is the audio equivalent of possession by the unholy.

The fight is interspersed with flashback clips of two ballet performances. In one, the young Adelaide (Ashley McKoy), pristine in a white tutu, pirouettes with girlish grace across a stage. In the other, a girl-aged Red spins wildly across a gore-streaked corridor, halting when her hand hits the wall – like all doppelgangers, she is tethered to her counterpart and forced to mimic the broad outlines of her life. (In an interview, the scene’s choreographer, Madeline Hollander, describes it as ‘as if the dancer on top, in the theatre, was dragging around the dancer below via a magnet’.) Adelaide, unknowing, drags her back and forth across the corridor like a marionette. As the scene flickers between ballet and fight, we see that the women have had their roles reversed: now it is Adelaide who stumbles through the corridor, limbs barely under her control, while Red moves with clipped technique and certainty.

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She is forced, by some insane theory of trickle-down humanity, to ape a great art form

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Adelaide clumsily swings a poker and misses. She screams with the effort. Red ducks like a soldier, strikes a pose like a mime, pliés like a ballerina out of range of another swing. In flashback, white tutu Adelaide executes a charming developpé, and young Red drags herself along the floor on her stomach. We witness the dismantling and morbid reconstitution of an old choreography, which began when young Adelaide leapt joyously above ground, forcing her young doppelganger’s body back and forth like a marionette. Red never had the pleasure of attending ballet classes and formalising her technique; she can only grotesquely echo the body above ground, forced, by some insane theory of trickle-down humanity, to ape a great art form. In the present day, murder on her mind, Red has taken the idea of technique and of choreography and turned them into weapons. She leads the dance now, but the ballet is deadly.

This sense is echoed in the closing scenes of the fight, as the music slows to a growl. As the younger versions of the two women spin and shudder, their movements produce the sounds of blades being unsheathed and blunt instruments swinging through the air. This dance was always a fight, and these girls were always locked in battle. 

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