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House Choreographer and Artistic Director of Sydney Dance Company, Rafael Bonachela, employs a profoundly physical movement style as a tool to connect audiences with consequential human themes. His infectious energy and passion for contemporary culture brought Australian dance into focus on the international stage. ICONS spoke with Rafael, about his creative process and the company's 50th anniversary this season.
ICONS: You began your career as a dancer with Rambert in London. How did you transition to choreographer and eventually Artistic Director of Sydney Dance Company in Australia?
Rafael Bonachela: I first began expressing my interest in choreography through Rambert’s workshop platform while I was a dancer in the company. The first piece I created was taken into the company repertoire and after that experience, I jumped at every single chance to choreograph I was given. In my final years as a dancer, I was appointed as Associate Choreographer at Rambert.
Eventually, I decided to take the leap and dedicate myself fully to choreography. I applied for and won the London Place Prize competition for new choreography. With the cash prize I was awarded I was able to employ a part-time producer and secure additional funding to start my own company – Bonachela Dance Company. Suddenly I went from having been a dancer in a very protected company environment to running a company!
At this time, things came the way that I never dreamt I would do. I began choreographing for pop stars like Kyle Minogue and Tina Turner on the side. It was as if I had a double life, but all these different projects were helping me support my dream of having my own company. In 2008, Sydney Dance Company invited me to create a piece for the company. Four months later I was offered the job of Artistic Director and moved to Australia.
ICONS: How would you describe your style of choreography? Do you prefer to work with a specific type of dancer?
RB: I would describe my style as intensely physical and abstract, combined with great emotional sensitivity. As a choreographer, my interest lies in the power of movement and the physicality of the body as the ultimate tool to connect and to communicate. I have never shied away from the virtuosity of the highly trained dancer, nor the finesse of line and technique. In my work, I focus on the mechanics of movement through time and space and the body’s capacity to convey emotional and psychological states. I’m interested in how the body can shift form as a self-sufficient and intelligent action and what that can bring to the audience and to the work.
In Sydney Dance Company, I choose to work with a group of dancers who are physically very different from each other - that is a choice. They come from different backgrounds and have different styles of moving. The fact that it is a diverse group brings so much into the mix, and because of that, I feel my aesthetic and style is always evolving.
ICONS: Who or what do you consider to be the biggest influences on your current style?
RB: As an artist, I try to stay as open and as curious as I can be. I don’t want to ever stop learning or being influenced. Anything in this world can become an influence and inspire me. I have such an amazing opportunity to have a company and work with a team of dancers (some of whom I’ve worked closely with for 10 years now). Therefore, I would say that my biggest influences at the moment are each and every one of those dancers and artists that I have the privilege to work with, collaborate with, and create with day after day. We are a team and there is something very beautiful about the exchange that happens between human beings.
ICONS: Are there any elements or ideas that reoccur in every new piece you make? What is at the core of your work?
RB: The power of the movement and the intelligence of the body remains. That is always the primary force behind each new creation. Every piece I make is inspired by a different idea or concept, but the drive behind a work will always be there -- the body, the power of movement, the dancers, and how those elements respond to the ideas and concepts.
My artistic collaborators can change, depending on the vision for the work. I admire different artists and think it’s productive to work with people multiple times to build an understanding and relationship, but I also like to throw new people into the mix and find new paths.
I try never to tell people what to think or feel. My work is never narrative in a straightforward way. I think about the audience and want to connect with the audience. It’s not about being liked, because I can’t control what the audience feels, but I do want them to feel something, whatever that may be.
ICONS: Could you discuss your process in the studio and with the dancers?
RB: From day one I share with the dancers what I know and also what I don’t know. This is the path to discovery. It is a collaborative process, and the dancers are involved in generating movement that will shape the language and the world of the piece.
I don’t have one set way of doing things, but the process always involves a commitment from the dancers to want to explore ideas and translate them into movement. We do a lot of task-based processes devised specifically for each work that I guide the dancers through. Sometimes we do improvisations and other times I love the good old-fashioned approach of making steps on the spot. It’s really satisfying to respond to what is directly in front of me - provoking the dancers to find new paths and creating the structure and architecture of the piece there and then.
In my work, the dancers never go on stage to be someone else; they go on stage to be themselves. So, I want them to find themselves in the work. They are incredible creators themselves and the process brings out a lot in them also.
ICONS: As Artistic Director of Sydney Dance Company, how do you see the company and your work within the Australian dance scene?
RB: Sydney Dance Company is one of a kind in Australia. As the only creation-based contemporary dance company with 16 full-time dancers that tours nationally and internationally, we play an important role in showcasing the best of contemporary dance to Australian audiences across the entire country.
As Artistic Director and resident choreographer, I approach this in different ways. As the resident choreographer, I’m passionate about creating new works to give our company its signature by developing an identity and aesthetic that is uniquely ours. As the Artistic Director and curator, my focus has been on introducing international choreographers to Australia for the first time. In the past years, I’ve begun commissioning and supporting more homegrown talent, because I feel that it’s important to also showcase great Australian choreographers when we go abroad. That is what makes us unique.
ICONS: This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Sydney Dance Company. Do you have any new works planned for the season?
RB: In the 50 years that Sydney Dance Company has existed, the company has done a lot to invest in the cultural landscape of Australia. I wanted to celebrate this important milestone for the company by featuring Australian voices. The program will feature two world premieres from Gabrielle Nankivell and Gideon Obarzanek and we are bringing back Melanie Lane’s 2017 Smash hit WOOF.
As this year also marks my 10 years anniversary as Artistic Director, I am creating a new work called Cinco. It’s for 5 dancers and set to a powerful string quartet in 5 movements by Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera. For the costumes, I’m collaborating with a wonderful Australian fashion designer, Bianca Spender. I’m really excited about it, because in the past I’ve focused on larger ensemble pieces that involve everyone in the company. But with this work, I’m enjoying having a smaller group to work with, dig deeper and be able to focus on the intimacy and virtuosity of individual dancers.
For this program, we thought about how the history of the company lies in the body of the dancers and the memory of the audience. Gideon Obarzanek is very experienced and interested in audience participation, so the work he is making will involve audience members as well as current and former dancers. Twenty-five audience members will wear earpieces during the show and receive instructions. We’ve also invited former dancers to come to Sydney for a month to work with us on creating the piece together with our current dancers. It should be a fun and celebratory work with 50 people on stage together each night. It’s a way to create something new that pays homage to the past.
ICONS: You mentioned nurturing young talent. How do you encourage choreographers to develop?
RB: I believe it’s important to invest in the choreographers of the future. Each year I commissioned two independent choreographers and two company dancers to make new works for our program called New Breed. It’s a mix of company dancers experimenting with choreography and giving the opportunity to independent choreographers living in Australia who might struggle to get space, time and money to make works. The independent choreographers are not necessarily emerging but are making works that are in some ways so cutting edge that it gives our audiences the opportunity to get used to these other languages. It’s become a very interesting and popular program.
On a personal level, I’m always open to sharing what I know. Often young choreographers will ask me to come to observe their work and have a discussion afterward. I always say to my dancers, “If you need me I’m here, but if you don’t - you don’t.” Some people need or want to mentor, but not everyone does and that is fine.
ICONS: What Artistic trends are flourishing in Australia right now? What excites people about your company?
RB: We are lucky in Australia because we have access to a wide range of dance styles. Lately I’ve seen much more site-specific and durational work happening here and there has also been a focus on work created specifically for children. It can be a challenge for schools and especially underprivileged schools to get to the big venues. So recently, we commissioned a work that can be performed in any space called Crazy Times by Antony Hamilton. It premiered at Sydney Opera House and then went on tour to schools around the country.
At the moment there is a lot of discourse about diversity and inclusiveness in dance. Cultural managers from around Australia have come together to discuss the topics, especially regarding First Nation dancers and dance makers. People, abilities, and gender - it is a topic all over the world, but it is especially present here and now. It’s interesting because when we are on tour, people always mention how diverse Sydney Dance Company is. I think we are such a beautiful mix of people in the company and it makes me feel proud and happy because we all come together as a group and it’s coherent.
ICONS: What advice would you give to aspiring choreographers?
RB: I would say to trust that your path in dance will be unique and different from anyone else’s. Create your own opportunities and make them happen. Any opportunity to create or choreograph is a wonderful one. When you do find your path, it feels great.
Also remember that you cannot be liked by everyone, and that will always be true. If you are honest to yourself and you do what you believe in, your people will find you. You cannot take things personally; if you do, then you will dig yourself into a hole. There will always be other opportunities and wonderful opportunities. I have a rule that whenever something gets to me I only allow it to bring me down for 24 hours – never longer than 24 hours, otherwise you waste your time. Be brave and bold; you only live once.
Video excerpt from 2 One Another:
More About Rafael:
Rafael Bonachela began his early dance training in Barcelona, Spain and was a member of the legendary Rambert Dance Company, both as a dancer and Associate Choreographer. He established the Bonachela Dance Company (BDC) in 2006. As a choreographer, he has been commissioned to make works for Candoco, George Piper Dances, ITDANSA, Danza Contemporanea de Cuba, Transitions Dance Company and Dance Works Rotterdam, among others.
Rafael has been the Artistic Director for Sydney Dance Company since 2009. He has created several pieces for the company, including Frame of Mind, which won the 2015 Helpmann Awards for ‘Best Choreography’ and ‘Best Dance Work’. 2 One Another won the ‘Best Ensemble’ Award in the 2012 Green Room Awards and the 2013 Australian Dance Award for ‘Outstanding Achievement in Choreography’ and ‘Outstanding Performance by a Company’.
In 2013, Kaldor Public Art Projects brought Rafael on board to develop the choreography for artists Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla’s work Revolving Door, which was part of the acclaimed live performance art exhibition 13 Rooms. For Sydney Festival 2015, Rafael collaborated with artist Mira Calix to choreograph for the Inside There Falls installation at Carriageworks.
His internationally recognized talent has seen him work not only with contemporary dance at the highest level but also with artists from popular cultures, such as Kylie Minogue, Tina Turner, Sarah Blasko, and Katie Noonan, as well as leading fashion designers Dion Lee and Toni Maticevski. Rafael’s collaborations reflect the inspiration he utilizes from culture today.
Photography: Pedro Greig
Interviewer: Jessica Teague
Editor: Camilla Acquista
All Rights Reserved: November 2018 © Dance ICONS, Inc.