The '70s horror classic Suspiria takes place in a (fictional) famous German dance academy, but what with all the secrets and gruesome deaths, dance as an art never makes a real appearance. Luca Guadagnino's 2018 Suspiria remake stars Dakota Johnson as Susie, who escapes Ohio and her strict Mennonite family to become star pupil of West Germany' mysterious Helena Markos Dance Company, headed by Tilda Swinton's Madam Blanc. But there's a deeper and darker meaning behind the dance exercises, with witchcraft tied to the movements. Considering how vital Guadagnino made dance in this reboot, the entire film hinges on us believing Johnson's performance, so does Dakota Johnson really dance in Suspiria? Spoilers ahead.
A Dance Magazine interview with film choreographer Damien Jalet highlights just how important the art of movement is to the plot. "Luca told me at our very first meeting, 'I want the dancing in the film to be the secret language of the witches, the expression of their power,'" he said. Johnson's admitted in several interviews that she's not by any means a professional dancer, but she's a top-tier actor for a reason — she puts the work in.
The driven and determined actor told Variety that she began training for Suspiria way ahead of schedule. “It started about two years before we starting filming, when Luca asked me if I would do the film with him. Then a year before we started filming, I started training with different trainers and coaches to shape my body and teach my muscles how to move in the way of a dancer," she said.
To make up for the fact she didn't have any kind of formal dance training, Johnson doubled her efforts to master her own body convincingly as filming drew closer. She told Reuters at the Venice Film Festival that, when she was on set for the third Fifty Shades film, she "would go after work or before to train with the trainer." She added, "It was amazing to discover that I could do that with my body, but it was a lot of work, it was a lot of training." She told film blogger Emanuel Levy that a dancer named Tanya doubled her for any moves she couldn't accomplish herself.
Jalet told Dance, "During the rehearsals [Johnson] discovered many things she didn't know she was capable of doing. She really went for it, so much so that she even injured her back in the violent pas de deux with Olga." (A particularly gruesome part of the movie.)
In addition to preparing herself with the arduous full-body training that allows dancers complete mastery over their physical form, Johnson layered on her own ability as an actor to project a character's interiority out to an audience. Johnson explained her research to The Observer, and how she thought about how her character Susie would move and why. Describing Susie's dancing as "a mashup of all these different styles, a minestrone soup," Johnson ssaid performing as her character "was like this weird dance between me and Susie. She was expressing herself, but I’m not a dancer, I don’t express myself that way. So it was a matter of having these free moments be actually very choreographed and perfect."
Outside of watching plenty of dance choreography, especially German choreographers Mary Wigman and Pina Bausch, Johnson also watched the films of German auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder and read Freud's The Uncanny to get inside Susie's skin and mind. If you're unfamiliar with those names not to worry;Vanity Fair has an excellent primer on all the choreographers and pieces that influenced Suspiria.
Johnson may not have been a dancer when she began working on this film, but with her drive and desire she's as much an artist in the medium as her raw star in-the-making character Susie.