Luca Guadagnino Unleashes the Witchy Power of Modern Dance

Luca Guadagnino Unleashes the Witchy Power of Modern Dance

The language in Luca Guadagnino’s remake of the horror film “Suspiria” goes beyond words. His witches speak in movement.

In one scene, a dancer — Susie (Dakota Johnson) — performs in a studio, expelling sharp, sudden breaths as she rises and falls, her arms shooting out like daggers. Another dancer, older and worn down, finds herself locked in a mirrored room; she twitches and contorts as she slams into walls and onto the floor to the sound of her own snapping bones. They protrude through her flesh like splitting seams.

What’s stunning about the scene isn’t just the violence (though that is shocking), but how Susie’s movements control the other dancer, and how the energy sweeping through Susie’s body is palpably wild and free.

The scene also serves as a sly metaphor for what happens when an aging dancer is confronted with a younger, fresher version of herself. There may not be broken bones, but the result can feel just as violent. “In one room, you see the force of life,” the film’s choreographer, Damien Jalet, said in an interview. “And in the other it is the force of destruction.”

“Suspiria” — as over-the-top as it is — is different. Most dance films, like “Center Stage” and “Black Swan,” are riddled with stereotypes. Finally, here is a film that gets dance right.

In the original “Suspiria,” Dario Argento’s 1977 cult classic, a ballet academy is home to a coven of witches. But in Mr. Guadagnino’s version, set that same year in divided Cold War Berlin, the dancers gracing the screen aren’t ballerinas; they’re neither wispy nor ethereal. In Mr. Guadagnino’s view, that witchy power is better unleashed through modern dance.

“Dario making it classical ballet was a big mistake, a misstep,” Mr. Guadagnino said. “If you are a witch, you are on the fringe. You are not at the center. These are women that don’t go for the establishment — they go for what is on the border of the establishment. I thought it was more important that they were going to be radical artists.”

Martha Graham is one of the dance artists haunting this film, along with two German choreographers: the expressionist Mary Wigman (1886-1973) — aptly, one her most famous works is “Witch Dance” — and Pina Bausch, who created dense, extravagant works of dance-theater. Tilda Swinton, as Madame Blanc, the artistic director of the fictional Helena Markos Dance Company, draws on all three.

Slim as a feather, with hair cascading down her back and a cigarette perpetually wedged between her slender fingers, Madame Blanc snaps at dancers but is somehow — and this is one of many realistic touches in the film — both sharp and maternal. “You don’t look better,” she tells Susie at one point. “Or are you this pale all the time?”

She can also echo Graham, without being a parody of her, when she talks about the power of movement: “It’s a series of energetic shapes written in the air like words forming sentences. Like poems. Like prayers.”

How did Mr. Guadagnino, the director responsible for the coming-of-age film “Call Me by Your Name,” become so enamored of dance? When he was 15, a couple of years after first he saw “Suspiria,” he attended a performance of “Palermo Palermo,” by Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal.

He loved it so much he saw it twice: “I felt, Why is it that I am watching something that is nonverbal and I’m understanding everything?” He realized then, he said, that narrative could be transmitted without words.

In “Suspiria,” dance is used as a tool to express the power of the witches. “It’s not this kind of marketing idea of the Amazonian world of women who have power,” Mr. Guadagnino said. “It’s more about, what is at the center of a world of sacrifice, discipline and the bending of bodies?”

To capture the world as authentically as possible, David Kajganich immersed himself in dance history while writing the screenplay. As part of his research, he even shadowed the German choreographer Sasha Waltz. “It was instrumental in understanding how one talks about dance on a casual level,” he said.

In the film, Madame Blanc says: “There are two things that dance can never be again. Beautiful and cheerful. Today we need to break the nose of every beautiful thing.”

Mr. Kajganich wrote that line in response to a quotation by Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi minister of propaganda, who in 1937 said, “Dance must be cheerful and show beautiful female bodies and have nothing to do with philosophy.”

“Suspiria” also has ties to this period. The Markos Company’s signature dance, “Volk,” was created in the ’40s. A strident work with Ms. Johnson as its centerpiece, “Volk” relies on the power of the collective — hinting at the rise of fascism — as the dancers play off one another’s breath like a pulsating organism. The idea of gravity is there, too; they surrender themselves and their bodies to a certain fate: It’s as if there were a gravitational pull that they can’t resist.

The movement language of the witches dates to 2013 when, at the Louvre, Mr. Jalet, a French-Belgian contemporary choreographer, staged the trio “Les Médusées,” inspired by the original “Suspiria.” In the new version, “Volk” is an expanded version of “Les Médusées.”

“‘Volk’ is so omnipresent in the film, because they keep on rehearsing it, and they talk a lot about it,” Mr. Jalet said. “It was created in the ’40s, but still is performed in the ’70s. That’s a tricky one.”

In other words, Mr. Jalet didn’t want to get stuck in trying to recreate a historical piece. “It couldn’t be too flowy,” he said. “At the same time, I wanted to keep a kind of freedom with it.”

The structure of “Volk” is based on a pentagram or two opposing stars. “It also looked a little bit like a spider’s web on which the dancers are moving through kind of a hidden network,” Mr. Jalet said. “So they can’t really escape.”

He made a discovery with Ms. Johnson, who trained for a year before shooting began with Mary Helen Bowers, who worked with Natalie Portman on “Black Swan.” Her shoulder blades are naturally loose. Very loose.

“Somehow it’s disturbing to watch when she’s doing it,” Mr. Jalet said. “She really transforms — it’s beautiful because it really came from her. It is really showing her.”

Ms. Johnson, who was on a dance team in her early teens — “I was not very good,” she stressed — had no idea that her shoulder blades were so flexible. “I would do a lot of warm-ups to get my back really loose and warm so that we could exaggerate it even more,” she said, “and make it look like an animal.”

And not unlike her character, Ms. Johnson discovered, through dance, a power she didn’t have before. “I feel far more connected to my body,” she said. “I learned that from the dancers.“

“The life of a dancer now is not easy,” she added. “It’s not luxurious. It’s long hours. It’s painful. But moving is their life. It was such an extraordinary thing for me, as a young woman, to see: women living so comfortably and confidently and gratefully in their bodies. I wish that that were something I could impart onto every young woman in the world.”

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