Olivia Ancona has collected plenty of passport stamps in her journey from Portland stages to the silver screen. A student and performer with The Portland Ballet, Jefferson Dancers, and Northwest Dance Project in the mid-2000s, Ancona plays the dancer Marketa in Suspiria, Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 remake of the 1977 horror movie, which is set in a dance school and company run by (spoiler alert!) witches. Besides performing in the film, Ancona served as a dance coach for stars Dakota Johnson and Mia Goth.
We caught up with Ancona while she was settling into her new digs in Berlin, and got her take on her early career, her time performing internationally with companies including Batsheva and Tanztheater Wuppertal, the Suspiria experience, and the real horrors that professional dancers can face.
Oregon Arts Watch: Where are you now? What are you doing currently?
Olivia Ancona: I’m in Berlin where I’m based, although just came from Wuppertal, in the north of Germany, having spent the past month guest-dancing for Tanztheater Wuppertal | Pina Bausch.
I’m putting my suitcases down for a couple of months after several years of nomadic living and freelancing. I will teach a workshop in the city alongside my partner, Scott Jennings, a member of the Pina Bausch company, and in January will prepare to set the work of Israeli choreographer/L-E-V artistic director Sharon Eyal at Konzert Theater Bern, a contemporary company in Switzerland.
Describe your trajectory from Portland to present.
I returned to Portland in eighth grade after living abroad with my family in London; my experience with The London Children’s Ballet solidified my desire to be a part of new creations and to perform. Upon our return, I continued my classical training at The Portland Ballet for three years. However, pointe work became too painful and I was told I had pre-arthritis in my feet and should probably stop dancing. I had no plans to listen to doctors’ recommendations and sought out other platforms for movement and training, auditioning for the Jefferson Dancers. This pre-professional program gave me the opportunity to rehearse in a variety of styles and to perform numerous times a year.
I saw the Batsheva Dance Company for the first time in Portland through White Bird and I fell in love with the company. The dancers were like no others I’d seen before—individualistic and unique but with the skills of superheroes. Their agility and passion really spoke to me. I decide to pursue dancing with the company; I applied to the Juilliard School with an essay about Batsheva! I was able to work with Batsheva’s artistic director, Ohad Naharin [at] Juilliard, and I attended summer courses with him in Tel Aviv.
At the end of my junior year, Ohad invited me to join the Batsheva Ensemble, the junior company which most dancers [join] before entering the main company. After two years, I left as a founding dancer of L-E-V with Israeli/Batsheva choreographer Sharon Eyal … [I did a] half-year tour in Europe for Belgian creator Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and his troupe, Eastman.
Despite feeling artistically fulfilled with these freelance projects, I craved some stability, and after two years with L-E-V, took a soloist position at the Royal Swedish Ballet as one of the contemporary members. But before long, I returned to Batsheva’s main company, where I had the opportunity to create with Ohad Naharin and Roy Assaf.
After almost three years working full time for institutions, I was hungry for freelance opportunities and a creative world beyond Israel. Although I had never worked with [choreographer] Damien Jalet prior to Suspiria, he had spent years collaborating with Sidi Larbi, and had seen me perform, which was my link to participating in the film. Beginning in the fall of ’16, hours after my last show with Batsheva, I caught a flight to Milan and was immersed in preparation, research, coaching Dakota, acting, and dancing in Suspiria for about four months. After this intense experience, I returned briefly to the States. I spent six months teaching Gaga workshops in the U.S. and Europe and returned to Juilliard as one of the choreographers in their summer intensive.
I quickly realized that Berlin was a common hub for international freelance dancers, and while pursuing my visa there, was offered a guest contract with the Tanztheater Wuppertal | Pina Bausch for their tour of Sacre du Printemps/Cafe Muller. Pina passed in 2009, so unfortunately, I did not get to work with her directly, although half the company is over 40, still performing and sharing their experiences. Madame Blanc, Tilda Swinton’s character in Suspiria, is aesthetically and historically based on Pina’s infamous look.
During the past year or so, while being based here, I’ve worked with Wim Vandekeybus, Johan Inger, Pina Bausch’s company, and schools, companies, and intensives throughout Europe.
How did the training you received in Portland get you to where you are today?
I had an eclectic training, from classical to hip-hop to contemporary … which I felt very lucky to have access to. In London it was clear that if you wanted to pursue a professional track as a young person, you needed to attend a conservatory or specialized school, giving up your academics, and Portland allowed me to do it all. I feel like I was able to tap into much of what Portland had to offer.
I had great classical training from The Portland Ballet. When I was only 10, I went to an intense contemporary adult class taught by Robert Guitron and was encouraged to stay in the class and ultimately was offered performing opportunities with his company. The Jefferson Dancers gave me continued experience in a multitude of styles and so many performing opportunities here and in Europe. Dancing in the summers with the Northwest Dance Project also gave me many opportunities to create and perform with established and emerging choreographers from across the world, some of whom I continued to work with. And White Bird gave me incredible exposure to many kinds of dance. Piecing all this together gave me a great foundation for the professional life I’ve been living for the last nine years.
Had you done dance for film before Suspiria? How does it differ from live stage performance?
I’d never done a feature film before although I’ve participated in short films and a music video. It is wildly different than I imagined. So much effort, time, and support go into capturing fragmented seconds at a time. I could spend 12 hours in makeup and costume for a matter of minutes shooting and seconds of footage. I believe when they first cut this film it was four hours long!
We spent three weeks learning an existing piece by Damien and then helped to duplicate it for the 11 dancers in Volk, the performance scene. At the same time, we were in the studio with Mia and Dakota, so as fast as we knew the material, we were transmitting it onto them. With such an abbreviated time frame, we tried to teach them only what they needed to know. It was an intricate 12-minute dance based on a musical score, with numbers and movement corresponding to sounds. It was a difficult task for professionals [and] certainly complex for non-trained movers. Although we were product-oriented, I had special moments with both Mia and Dakota, giving them just a taste of Gaga-inspired prompts, where they got to move with more freedom.
After those three weeks, we had a short break and then went into shooting, which was really a shock for me. I was pressured to cut my hair short for my character’s David Bowie-inspired look. We initially compromised on a permed bob and bangs. Dissatisfied, they kept at it: I went from a Flashdance to a ’40s ’do, dyed from brown to blonde to an entirely bleached mullet in the first 72 hours. I was called “petite poussin” (“little chick”) by the French sound team for what became the ultimate hair transformation on set.
The shooting period was pretty consistent over the next two months. On the daily, we spent many hours waiting in costume and makeup, sometimes culminating in 15-hour days. The location was a hotel, abandoned since the 1960s, 45 minutes north of Milan. We had lots of puffy coats and pounds of makeup, and found ways to entertain each other during the waiting game. However, we shot many more scenes that didn’t make the final cut, including more featured acting moments and longer dance sequences.
It was magical to be a part of such a huge production with the film. Witnessing the best equipment, detailed sets and styling, unreal prosthetics, and amount of people invested in making this two-and-a-half-hour film was like nothing I’ve seen in dance before. I also had an appreciation for the intensity of performing with so many immediate eyes and cameras on you. It was interesting to gauge what is amplified on film versus stage, which seems to require a totally different volume of expression.
What was coaching Dakota Johnson like?
I was Dakota’s last coach in a line of other trainers. It was convenient for her to have someone who would be there the entire time and knew all the material. We had such jam-packed shooting days, so sometimes our training would [last] until 2 a.m. It was interesting to work with actors, whose approach to the movement is much more narrative. We had a friendly connection, so that helped the stressful moments we did get to rehearse.
Have you had experiences in the dance that would lend themselves to the horror genre?
I think dance is a perfect element to use within a horror genre for many reasons—most prominently, the physicality of the body. Its strength, violence, and subtler moments of weakness and fear … can sometimes become louder than words. It feels like dance in horror can house a sense of mortality.
[Filming] was a unique experience at every turn. I often felt out of my element but enjoyed—for the most part—rising to each challenge, and there were many! The initial group of dancers spent way too much energy negotiating our terms and contracts, spanning almost the entire process. There was a week of nude shoots, which was a particularly sensitive topic for everyone individually. It was sometimes hard to have a collective voice among the dancers without having any representation. We did our best and learned a lot.
More generally, I feel that directors/choreographers often justify a means to an end, allowing themselves to treat dancers or staff poorly in the pursuit of their vision. Dancers are used to being disciplined, flexible in many ways, and keeping their voices low or nonexistent. I get the sense it’s a shock for creators to receive feedback … [it] can cost you a job, your reputation, or simply sour the experience. I have, however, also had good experiences where the person at the front of the room deals with their stress better, supports with positivity, and uplifts and motivates people to work harder. Most of them have been women.
Dance and dancers aren’t recognized as they should be, and I feel it is up to us to either create positive opportunities for others or stop working for those who abuse their position. Even when the disrespect is not directed exactly at us, our participation perpetrates it and affects everyone. Easier said than done, but I do feel now is our time and it’s starting to look better.
What’s next for you?
After getting settled, I’ll be off again to create with ex-Pina dancer Cristiana Morganti, and in another with ex-Kidd Pivot member Bryan Arias throughout Europe. While I find it geographically and logistically easier to base myself in Europe, I constantly think of the U.S. and Portland, and have plans in the works to bring my experiences home!
Suspiria is playing the Hollywood Theater and Regal Fox Tower Stadium 10. Check local listings for showtimes.