Interview by Delphine Roche, portrait by Stéphane Gallois In Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria, dance plays a central role, with
choreography written and directed by the Franco- Belgian Damien Jalet, whose illustrious career has spanned everything from stage, to a fashion film with Nick Knight and Bernhard Willhelm, to countless collaborations with ar t ists, including Antony Gormley. From the outset, Jalet has explored both intimate forms that are close to performance art, such as the trio Les Médusés, which he showed in 2013 at the Louvre, and ambitious stagings such as the Boléro he worked on at the Opéra de Paris or the 2018 production of Pelléas et Mélisande at the Antwerp Opera – both of which were co- produced with the choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and featured stage sets by Marina Abramovic. Jalet talked to Numéro about the challenges involved with respect to the making of Suspiria.
NUMÉRO: How were you chosen to take par t in Suspiria? DAMIEN JALET:
Luca was looking for a choreographer, and somebody showed him Les Médusés, the trio that I had created in 2013 at the Louvre. In the museum’s Mar ly Court, my dancers per formed among the dif ferent sculptures, some of which represented nymphs. They progressed from one position to another like sculptures that had come to life. I’d asked my dancers to watch the film Suspiria by Dario Argento, because I was very interested in the link between dance and witchcraft which is developed in the movie. When Luca got in touch with me, he explained that he wanted dance, which i s secondary in Argento’s film, to be central and omnipresent in his version of Suspiria. He trusted me and allowed me to develop my ideas without too much compromise.
Does dance play a role in the narrative structure of the film?
Yes, it’s what moves the story along. That was precisely the challenge: finding a way to avoid the choreography’s being merely decorative and instead giving i t a rol e in the dramaturgy.
How did you work with Luca and the actresses starring in the film?
In the movie, the dance company is led by Madame Blanche, a character played by Tilda Swinton and inspired by Pina Bausch, Mary Wigman and Isadora Duncan. We spent a fair amount of time trying to work out what this company’s style would have been, because in the story the company has been going since the 1940s, but the action is set in the 1970s. So the company is still practising a dance that was created 30 years earlier. My personal dance style was influenced by the 1990s and 2000s. The original film took place in a ballet school, whereas here it was a question of a company that has developed its own unique language that is close to contemporary dance. A dance that is visceral – at once primal and sophisticated. Contrary to the academic codes of ballet, it has nothing of the ethereal about it and expresses enormous violence, because in this film dance has the power to kill. So it was a huge responsibility to make sure the dance was convincing from that point of view. I decided to build on the trio I’d created for the Louvre, because in it there was already this idea of casting a spell or of being spellbound. I developed a piece for 12 dancers, plus a 13th who joins the central performance.
You mentioned Pina Bausch and the idea of witchcraft and magic. Does the film allude to the fact that cer t a in choreographers, such as Bausch, were almost like gurus to their dancers?
Madame Blanche is a highly magnetic character. Luca was also thinking of women artists such as Gina Pane. Like Mary Wigman, Isadora Duncan or Pina Bausch, these very power ful women, with their strong sense of intuition, exercised a sort of magnetism, half way between art and a form of magic. It was very inspiring because I knew Pina – I was lucky enough to be invited to her festival, and got to see her rehearsing Le Sacre du printemps with her company. To play Madame Blanche, Tilda Swinton watched lots of videos of choreographers at work. The magnetism her character exerts on her dancers is so strong that they can no longer leave her. Rather than a school lost in the middle of the forest, as in Argento’s version, Luca wanted the company to be located in Berlin, a stone’s throw from the Wall. So there’s also a political link with Ulrike Meinhof of the Red Army Faction, another powerful woman. The film weaves a subtle connection between these inspirations and the idea of a secret society, a form of resistance which was created artistical ly before straying into the supernatural.
You regularly work with ar tists, and with another choreographer, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. Is dance’s propensi ty to create links and connections important to you?
Yes, it’s primordial. I see dance as a medium capable of conversing with other mediums, and the last 15 years of my career have only been about that. I worked with Hussein Chalayan and with artists. This is the first time I’ve worked in cinema. Working on such an ambitious, intense and difficult-to- do film has been fabulous. I like the way Luca has developed a language which unites different influences. I’m very excited about this movie, which follows no formula and which pushes even further the theme initially developed by Dario Argento.
“This is the first time I’ve worked in cinema. Working on such an ambitious, intense and
difficult-to-do film has been fabulous.”