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‘Don’t touch the art, unless the art touches you.’

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Feature by Interview: Michael Canning; Words: Justin Drape

Rafael Bonachela is a world-renowned choreographer and the Artistic Director of Sydney Dance Company. His internationally recognised talent has also seen him work with Kylie Minogue, Tina Turner, Sarah Blasko and Katie Noonan, as well as fashion designers Dion Lee and Toni Maticevski.

His journey began in La Garriga, a small town about 40km north of Barcelona. Along the way he has created award-winning works with some of the most celebrated artists and institutions of our time, and joined the legendary Rambert Dance Company in Britain as a dancer and choreographer. We spoke to Rafael about the universal language of dance, the significance of new cultures, and creative life from La Garriga to Sydney.


On your introduction to dance

I grew up in a small town north of Barcelona called La Garriga, which was the first place in Spain to have a female mayor — her name is Núria Albó and she was a writer. As a kid, I was always able to enjoy music and theatre. So, although my parents never took me to the theatre in Barcelona because they couldn’t, the community of the town really celebrated the arts. She came to see Sydney Dance Company in 2019 and she’s 90 or something. I really believe that if I had been born in a town 20 minutes away, or even just five minutes away, my life would have been a very different thing. 

On fueling your childhood imagination

I have these memories of being a kid in La Garriga. In July, the town would have a two-week festival and they would bring bands to play music; there was a lot of street theatre and they would really support culture that everyone could access. I never went to a dance lesson until I was 15, when my parents let me go to Barcelona, but I used to dance with my friends. I used to call it ‘make a dance’. We made a little group in the town and built a little theatre in front of the town hall and the church. They built us a stage where we could perform as kids for the whole town, so I was already choreographing and I didn’t even know that it was called choreography. I really believe that I was very lucky.

On what inspired you to dance

Eventually I realised what I was doing was called choreography and you could make it a job. But at the time for me in Spain, it was literally post Franco’s dictatorship — late 70s and early 80s. The first thing that I saw, and remember thinking, ‘Oh my god, people dancing,’ was Fame (the TV series about New York’s fictional famous High School for the Performing Arts). I was watching that in 1982 in La Garriga, and I bought the book and cassette. I still have them. I was totally, totally obsessed that one day maybe I could do that. And another inspiration was Thriller, the music video by Michael Jackson. Those were my first references of people dancing. I never went to see Swan Lake or anything like that.

Portrait top of page by Pedro Greig. Above: 'Frame of Mind' from Sydney Dance Company. Artistic Director Rafael Bonachela. Below: Rafael behind the scenes in rehearsal of E2 7SD. Photography by Pedro Grieg.

On leaving home and family to pursue your passion

By the time I was 15 years of age, I had been dancing all of my life. When I went to high school, I met a girl who was a ballerina. She lived in another town and was going to the Conservatori in Barcelona, and I was totally fascinated by her incredible physique. I asked my Dad if he would take me to Barcelona, because I wanted to learn how to dance, and I remember very clearly how he drove me to a school in Barcelona once a week, every Friday. The teacher said to my parents, ‘This boy has talent,’ and while my parents supported me and never made me feel bad, I’m the oldest of four brothers who all grew up loving football. While there were many beautiful things about my father, he was also really macho. I was this boy that danced and he still really supported me, which I will always be so grateful for, because it wasn’t easy to be a dancer. It wasn’t typical or easy, me being the only boy. So when I went to Barcelona, I was like, ‘Oh my god. I’m not the only one.’ There were two more boys, and the school gave me a scholarship, so I moved to Barcelona for two years to learn to dance. Then I started travelling the world and got to see a few other companies in Paris and other places, and I realised there is so much more that I can learn.

‘If I think about where I was born, and the environment that it was in, to what I have been able to do — even the fact that I became a dancer — sometimes I can't believe that I've done it.’

On your next chapter of life in London

When I was 18, after two years of living in Barcelona, I decided to move to London. It was 1990 and I lived there until I was 38. So really I grew up in London. I think about Barcelona as the place where I was born and where my family are, but I really became an adult and an artist in London. When I arrived, I had so little money but everything I had always wanted was happening. I was in a school, which was like the TV show Fame — people from everywhere in the world with different nationalities. I had 10 classes a day in Kings Cross, which was rough at the time, and there were people from Sweden and Norway, and we were all living together and following the dream of one day becoming a dancer. Those moments and times are very, very special. And you know, it’s true, dreams do become true. I went to school there for two years then became a professional dancer and then a choreographer.

On becoming a professional dancer

If I think about where I was born, and the environment that it was in, to what I have been able to do — even the fact that I became a dancer — sometimes I can’t believe that I’ve done it.

My parents never understood that I could live off dancing and have a wage, and their only condition was that I finish high school, so that if the whole dancing thing never happened, I was able to come back and become whatever else I would have chosen to be, which probably would have been something creative.

Above: Cinco from Sydney Dance Company. Artistic Director Rafael Bonachela. Photography by Don Arnold. Below: Rafael behind the scenes of [ab] intra rehearsal. Photography by Pedro Greig.

On your first impression of Sydney

Sydney was love at first sight. I had been in London for 20 years and people asked, ‘Oh, do you miss London?’, and I never missed London, not even for one millisecond. And I love London! But then this opportunity on the other side of the world came up and I was like, I have to give this a go. I cannot not go for this job.

On your relationship with Sydney and dance

Everyone made me feel incredibly welcome. The lucky thing about the arts, one of the good things, is that people tend to be welcoming and curious and open-minded. I started running a company with 16 dancers, and I had been to Sydney before a few times, when I used to work with Kylie (Minogue). Every time she had a concert here, they would fly me over for the concert. So I knew how beautiful it was, but it’s so special in such a different way. There’s no point comparing it to other cities. It now feels like my home. And I really love it.

‘There are incredible artists here. There is incredible theatre here, and incredible concerts. I wanted to learn. I think it was important to not come here thinking I knew everything, because I didn't.’

On learning about new places and cultures

The rules in a new city are not so set, in many ways. Australia has an ancient culture, but it’s also very multicultural and people are very international. When I first moved here, people were like, ‘Oh my god, are you crazy? Sydney? Dance?’ And I was like, ‘What are you talking about? There are incredible artists here. There is incredible theatre here, and incredible concerts.’ I wanted to learn. I think it was important to not come here thinking I knew everything, because I didn’t. I made an effort to understand as much as possible what the scene was here. And the best way to learn it was from the people that live here.

[ab] intra from Sydney Dance Company. Artistic Director Rafael Bonachela. Photography by Pedro Grieg.

On the power of collaboration

In dance, we work collaboratively. You bring music together. You bring scenery, lighting, poetry, there are so many art forms that you can bring into dance. And for me, the exchange of ideas that you have with other collaborators is a very big part of the way that I work. I don’t just like to tell people what to do — as much as that’s part of it sometimes — but I also like to listen to what people have to bring. I always approach collaboration from that point of view.

On the impact of new cultures on creativity

For me, living in a new culture, like when I moved to London, and then when I came to Sydney… Just being surrounded by the light that’s coming through the window right now, you don’t get this in London, or the colors. And the talent that is here, that’s always going to bring new things to the way that I think, the way that I feel and the way that I create.

‘We all have a body, so we all understand the body. We may or may not speak the same language, and that can be a barrier, but we can all see someone move and feel something and connect in some way.’

On finding inspiration for your creativity

I always say that life inspires all my work. The life that I lead, the people that I need, the people that I interact with, it’s always feeding into the person that I am. It’s feeding into my inspiration. And it triggers my creativity.

On a career-defining moment

Working with Kylie (Minogue) was one of those moments where I thought, ‘Is this really happening to me?’ because I was a dancer in Rambert, the oldest dance company in England, that predates the Royal Ballet. Dame Marie Rambert founded it but it’s a contemporary dance company, and while I was working there William Baker came to see the show. He talked to Kylie about me and the next thing I know I’m doing the BRIT Awards, and then a world tour. I remember meeting her and saying, ‘Look, I haven’t really done that much in pop music, I’m from the world of contemporary dance, ’ and she said to me, ‘We are looking for something very different.’ That was for the Fever World Tour. At the time, I was a dancer with dreams of being a choreographer, and no one in London was doing contemporary dance on top like this. You didn’t mix. You were either a classical musician or a jazz player, but you didn’t do both. So there was a moment of, ‘What should I do?’ And my friends were like, ‘You have to do it, right? She’s huge.’ So I said,  ‘Okay, I’m gonna go for it.’ This was one of those moments of realising that my journey as an artist, and as a choreographer was going to be my own.

Above: The view of Bondi beach at the start of the Bondi to Bronte coastal walk. Photo by Ethan Ou. Below: Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge from Lady Macquarie's Chair. Photo by Adrian Pereira.

On commerce and creativity

Coming from formal dance, I did think maybe you’re polluting yourself if you do something that’s more commercial, or more accessible, but in fact, it was the opposite. Kylie and her team gave me the opportunity to grow as an artist, to grow my confidence. Then, when I went back to my day job with Rambert, I was commissioned to make a work for the company, and I had so much more confidence in myself as an artist. London was one of the few places in the world — maybe New York — where I could be doing commercials or music videos and fashion shows as well as contemporary dance. With Kylie, we did tours and live performances on TV, and went to a festival in Norway where Tina Turner was performing. Tina saw what I did with Kylie, and then, a month later, Tina Turner asked me to do a concert with her. I was in La Garriga on holidays, visiting my family, and I remembered walking in my town as a boy dreaming of dancing one day. And then I’m here, now, talking to Tina Turner. That’s the wonderful thing about being open and realising that your journey is yours and yours alone. My instinct told me to do it, see what happens. And I think back to it now and it was one of the best things that I could have ever done.

‘I gave a speech, saying, ‘don’t touch the art, unless the art touches you.’ Then we all took off our clothes. Me first. people were smiling. There were couples, groups of friends and there was a sense of all being equal.’

On the universal language of dance

We all have a body, so we all understand the body. We may or may not speak the same language, and that can be a barrier, but we can all see someone move and feel something and connect in some way. Dance brings people together. We (Sydney Dance Company) can go anywhere in the world from Australia, and one of the great things about dance is that, whether we’re in Russia or Peru or Colombia or Barcelona, everyone will be able to connect with it and understand. Dance brings people together.

On your famous nude show at Art Gallery of NSW

Three or four years ago, there was an exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW that showed all nude works from the Tate Gallery in London. They had paintings, photography, sculpture, visual arts, with a theme being The Nude. The Art Gallery of NSW and Sydney Dance Company had always been talking about a collaboration, and the theme of the body felt like the perfect one. So I created an installation performance, where there were eight dancers in the nude performing through the gallery in connection to the artworks with music. Then there were six or seven performances, where the audience were also nude. We had all ages, all backgrounds, and it was really liberating. We were a little bit worried at the beginning about how this was going to go, but we announced one performance and it sold out in a minute.

Above: Scene from Quatro 3 from Sydney Dance Company. Below: Rafael photographed at Nude Live by Pedro Greig.

On how you convinced people to participate

Everyone met downstairs and I gave a speech, saying, ‘Don’t touch the art, unless the art touches you.’ Then we all took off our clothes. Me first. People were smiling. There were couples, groups of friends and there was a sense of all being equal and the same, and this was just thrilling for the dancers. They absolutely loved the experience. I’d never heard of anything like this happening before, and it was because of the courage of the curators in the gallery, and the dancers and the audience. It was a career highlight. 

On the importance of connecting with your audience

I believe in the power of movement and the power of the body, and I believe that it’s transformative, moving and an exciting experience that people can have. Contemporary dance is about the now and we must reflect our times. So with that in mind, my focus is always to create works that enable audiences to share in that experience. I believe in the audience. I think the audience is the most important collaboration that we have, as performers. I care about them. I want to inspire them. But I also want to challenge their expectations of what dance might be.

On connecting with the community through dance

We are called Sydney Dance Company but we see ourselves as a national company, and go to every corner of the country. We are meant to be performing in Kalgoorlie at the moment (the show was cancelled because of COVID). Whatever we do regionally is what we do in London and New York. Coming from a small town, I know what a difference it can make to the life of anyone that experiences creativity, whatever it is. It doesn’t have to be dance. It just shows people the possibilities of what your life could be.

On advice you’d offer people during this pandemic

I think this is the first time in living history the whole world is going through something like this at the same time, so right now my advice would be carpe diem, seize the moment. My brother in Barcelona was in intensive care with COVID-19 but fortunately he has survived. For me, COVID-19 really magnifies the importance of the now, of staying open, staying in the moment and that nothing is permanent.

On what you find inspiring in Sydney

If I want to think about how I am going to choreograph or deal with a piece of music, I will listen to that piece of music and go walking anywhere by the water in Sydney. It’s always inspiring for me to just be looking into the ocean, feeling the breeze and the space around me. We’re so lucky here that, wherever you live, you can very quickly access the water. I’m not far from Woolloomooloo, Mrs Macquarie’s Chair and the Botanical Gardens. Or if it’s later, I go down to Rushcutters Bay, all the way to the end, where you can see the sunset, which is amazing. I remember very clearly that I found the music of Bryce Dessner when I was walking at Rushcutters Bay. I heard this piece of music and I was like, ‘Oh my god, I’m gonna make this work with this piece of music.’ And that has now become a collaboration because he’s made a new piece for me.

I also like to visit Art Space in Woolloomooloo, the Art Gallery of NSW and The Red Rattler. It’s queer-run by the community and there’s all of these incredibly inspiring, thought-provoking voices in the community.

It’s always inspiring to see young people being themselves and finding new ways, and you can also go to a club night or you can go to a concert or you can go watch a film that is already alternative.

On one recommendation to a friend visiting Sydney

If anyone comes to Sydney and they’ve not been before, you have to do the Bondi to Bronte beach walk. It’s great. There is the sea, people watching, exercise, fresh air, nature, great coffee, it’s got it all. I always have a shot of double espresso and then do the walk and forget about everything. I’ve never made it past Bronte, but I know that you can do that, so maybe I should.

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