By JENN ADAMS
Luca Guadagnino’s remake of Dario Argento’s classic film Suspiria was one of the most hotly anticipated remakes in recent memory. SUSPIRIA (2018) stars Dakota Johnson as Susie Bannion, a young American who joins the prestigious Markos Dance Company in Berlin 1977. The moody remake is divisive among fans with some preferring the original and others preferring Guadagnino’s more grounded take, but there’s no doubt Guadagnino’s bleak “cover version” is an achievement in visual storytelling and an ambitious reimagining of a horror classic. The bones of the story are the same, but where Argento’s version is bright, Guadagnino’s is dark with muted grays, maroons, blacks, and dull pinks; an inverse of the primary colors that make the original feel like a twisted Disney nightmare. The soundtrack from Thom York is methodical and subdued, a far cry from the synth spectacular of Goblin’s original accompaniment.
SUSPIRIA (2018) is also known for its stunning dance sequences. Guadagnino tapped the acclaimed choreographer Damien Jalet to design the performances based on his trio piece les medusées. Inspired by the original Suspiria, Jalet adapted this 2013 work into the ensemble dance “Volk” which serves as the centerpiece of the film. But these dances are much more than beautiful expressions of movement, they are the magick of the story and the backbone of the coven’s power. In describing the role of dance in SUSPIRIA, Guadagnino said, “the magic is conveyed by the dance, choreography as a way to expel spells with lethal powers.” For the members of the Markos Dance Company are a coven of witches and each dance is a powerful spell cast to perpetuate Madame Markos’s dark control.
When most people imagine a spell, they picture an old hag stirring a bubbling cauldron after throwing in the eye of a newt or moss from a local graveyard. While this is certainly a possibility (the reality of witchcraft is as varied as the witches who practice it), most spellwork is much more grounded. In her foundational book, Spiral Dance, renowned witch Starhawk defines a spell as, “a symbolic act done in an altered state of consciousness in order to cause a desired change.” Some are performed with large covens while others are individual, occurring under cover of darkness or the light of a full moon. Some spells include ingredients that will appeal to a particular goddess while others simply focus on the magick a witch carries within herself. Each spell is specific to the witch who casts it and designed to produce this altered consciousness that will allow her to tap into her internal power. The spellwork in Suspira is a similar channeling of energy. The company’s choreographer Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) describes movement as, “a series of energetic shapes written in the air like words forming sentences. Like poems. Like prayers.” Some are solos and some are ensemble pieces, but each dance is a ritualized attempt to alter the consciousness of its participants and exert power over their surroundings for better or worse.
In order for a spell to be successful, a witch must focus her energy and intention, aligning both with the spell’s purpose. To achieve this elevated state of focus, many witches prepare their consciousness with ritual. Some choose to cast a circle around themselves, their altar, or their coven in order to cast out anything that might hinder the spell. Others prefer to add ingredients calling up the patron goddesses or their own ancestors. SUSPIRIA (2018) includes four instances of spells in which dance is used to channel this intention, each involving a ritual to charge the invocation.
The first spell occurs when Susie auditions for the company. She walks into the small mirrored studio and prepares to perform though Madame Blanc cannot be bothered to watch her dance. Susie has come prepared with her own music, but the instructors ask her to dance in silence. Rather than connect to an external source, she dances to the music in her head, channeling her intention along with her own internal energy. Before she begins, Susie performs a ritual of her own. She strides into the center of the dance floor and removes first one sock then the other, adding her presence to the space in which she will perform her magick. Susie’s spell is successful. Her energy alters the consciousness of everyone in the building and Madame Blanc appears in her audition after all, granting her admittance shortly after.
The second spell also involves Susie’s solo, this time with deadly consequences. Veteran dancer Olga (Elena Fokina) has been cast as the lead in the company’s signature piece, Volk, but her distrust of the instructors causes her to lash out in anger. She flees the room intent on leaving the company and Susie volunteers to take Olga’s place. She will “dance the protagonist,” assuming the central position of power in a role named to cast her intentions as righteous. Susie begins with the same ritual, removing her socks and adding her own bare skin to the spell’s location, but her solitary energy is not strong enough for the invocation she is about to perform. To bolster her power, Madame Blanc approaches and transmits energy of her own into Susie’s hands and feet, giving her body the tools to perform the ritualistic spell. Meanwhile Olga finds herself trapped in the smaller studio where Susie first auditioned. Though they are in different places, they dance together as energy from Susie’s movements changes Olga’s body. A twisting motion of Susie’s hands translates to a bending and twisting of Olga’s limbs until the poor girl is bent into a painful shape. Once again, the spell is successful, installing Susie as the company’s new soloist and removing Olga as its primary threat.
The third spell occurs in a performance for invited guests. What the audience and dancers don’t know is that Volk is a spell intended to transfer the spirit of the company’s older matriarch Helena Markos (Swinton) into the young body of its lead dancer, now Susie. Dressed in red macramé outfits that resemble blood, the dancers recreate sharp and percussive movements, twirling around each other on top of an elaborate symbol etched across the floor. Susie dances at the formation’s heart, the movements meant to prepare her body as a vessel. Though they dance to music, even louder is the sound of their collective breath which unites the girls as a single body.
In order to prepare, the girls complete a ritual shortly before the performance. As the matriarchs come to lead them into the hall, they circle around each other whispering and raising their hands. It’s a chanelling of their collective energy and a way to solidify the many dancers into one aligned purpose. The spell will not work without every member of the company and the matriarchs must cast an additional spell over Sara (Mia Goth) that will allow her to perform even though her leg has been badly broken. In order to successfully achieve the spiritual transfer, Volk requires an audience, a chosen soul to who will contribute the energy of a witness. This role is unwittingly filled by a psychiatrist who has grown close to Sara. Midway through the dance, Susie notices Sara’s strange demeanor and loses her concentration, breaking the state of altered consciousness the dance has created. The collective energy has been dispersed and the spell is ultimately unsuccessful.
The final spell occurs in a secret chamber deep within the building’s heart. Susie descends to find the coven awaiting her arrival along with Madame Markos who is prepared to abandon her decrepit body and enter Susie’s. The ingredients of the spell are all present. Some witches wear shirts made of hair, surrounding themselves with the DNA of their coven to add power to their movements. In addition to Susie, three additional dancers will be sacrificed. To prepare for the ritual, the witches cut open their stomachs, pulling out their intestines in a grotesque representation of the costumes the girls wore earlier. The rest of the dancers are naked, or skyclad, and spread the blood of the three sacrifices over their own bodies and hands. They begin a ritualized dance to harness the combined strength of the spell’s ingredients and create a powerful concentration of energy.
This spell is also unsuccessful as it turns out that Madame Markos is an imposter and Susie is the reincarnation of Mother Suspiriorum, one of the three powerful witches. She has returned to lead her daughters away from this false goddess and reverse the effects of the coven’s powerful spells. Each witch who would have harmed an unwilling victim or worshiped a false mother is killed by a representation of death Susie draws from the depths of the building in a powerful indictment of their malevolent spellwork. Many witches refuse to cast harmful spells known as hexes on others believing that whatever harm they send out will ultimately return to them. This is precisely what happens as Susie revisits each member of the coven to reverse their participation in the harmful magick.
Susie’s own final spell as the awakened Mother Suspiriorum is one of liberation. She releases the souls of the three sacrificed dancers and gives them the rest of death as the other coven members dance around her. They are finally free of Madame Markos’s control. No longer choreographed, they dance in celebration, casting off the dark curse of their false mother and welcoming the freedom to practice their own magick. The music swells and the scene fades away as Susie commands her daughters to dance, embracing the beautiful energy of their independent movement.