Rafael Bonachela is the revered Artistic Director of The Sydney Dance Company (this is his 10 year anniversary). We have long admired his work and have a total crush on him as a human being. You'll be inspired by his story (Thriller and Fame feature strongly) and his delicate, creative choreography process.
Alexandra: Thank you for chatting with us today. This feels very special sitting in your studio (great view of the harbour!). Tell me, at what point did you think of becoming a dancer, becoming a choreographer. Was there a moment in your childhood… or something that happened for you that began this journey?
Rafael: It’s really an amazing story because I didn’t have an older sister who went to ballet. I was, in fact, the eldest of four brothers in 1970’s Spain, when Franco was still alive and running… I was born in the dictatorship. It sounds surreal. Dance really wasn’t meant to be a part of my life, dance was just something I loved. There was no reason for me to be drawn to dance; there was no sister. I just loved dancing.
My favourite game in the playground was, ‘Let’s Make a Dance’. It was usually with the girls, because there weren’t many boys who wanted to make a dance, and it was literally pop songs. The music was on the cassettes. I would do, like, Madonna songs or Michael Jackson. I’d just make steps, I used to call it ‘Make Steps’. I didn’t know that it was called choreography.
Then at some point in the 80’s Fame came. The series Fame on the TV. Remember, I never saw Swan Lake, my family never took me to a theatre. A contemporary dance theatre didn’t even exist in my world. And I was like, 'Oh my god, you can go to a school and learn how to dance and sing with all these people'. I bought the book and I bought the tape, and I had this sort of fantasy that maybe one day I can become a dancer.
When I went to high school, I met this girl, and she was gorgeous and she was a ballet dancer. She had trained as a ballet dancer all her life. Her name was Cassandra and she said to me, ‘Look this is called plie’, and I was like, ‘Oh my god’. And I was like fascinated by her.
So, when I was 15 I took my first proper dance class. They had steps, there was a structure, there was a teacher. Then the teacher told my parents, 'This boy has talent’.
You know, I have always loved it with all of my passion, no matter what people would say. (Because it wasn’t easy. It was pre-Billie Elliot. Now for boys it’s easier thank god, many many things are easier). I’ve always had this innate, instinctive desire to move, and to dance. And I was always that kid who did all of the artistic things and also did a lot of sports, so there was something about the body and the physicality of the body. I remember the day my Mum had to go to the priest and tell him, 'Rafael doesn’t want to come anymore to singing lessons, he now wants to dance'. And then every Friday I went dance class and that was the beginning of realising that maybe I could make it. And then I got a job, and then I got a scholarship to go to London, and then I understood a little more what the possibilities were.
Alexandra: So, what was that moment as a small kid, that took you into the world of dance?
Rafael: Well, actually in the beginning it was pop videos. When I was eight or nine I remember Thriller the video coming on TV. It was a 10-minute video. It was around Christmas and there were dancers singing, dancing behind singers. You know, very much pop culture. My inspiration, it didn’t come from the sophisticated world of ballet!!
Alexandra: I reckon Thriller came out in the early 80s.
Rafael: Well there you go, I was born in 1972, Maybe I was ten. I still remember that movie with Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta, Grease. And also, now you’re making me remember, the black & white movies: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers. It would be a Sunday 3pm afternoon lunch watching TV. Now we can control how we access everything, but at the time it was just luck that something came on the screen…
Alexandra: Isn’t that amazing, that so much creative energy came into your world at that moment and sparked your interest.
Rafael: I mean, there was always this desire to dance and to make a dance, which was choreography. But I didn’t know it was called choreography. I used to go earlier to school, in the break because you would have a break from 12:30pm to 3:00pm and then go home and eat. And then we would meet before under a tree, with my tape recorder. I would just tell people what to do.
Alexandra: Was it the sense of creating the dance, or the performance, that you loved?
Rafael: It was that sense of learning something. And doing something and in a group. And the sense of preforming I guess.
Alexandra: Was there somebody along the way in those early days, before you went to London, who inspired you, who mentored you into this. Or were you guiding yourself through this?
Rafael: Cassandra told me I should go to Barcelona. So I did. And I went to this dance school and I started taking dance class every Friday, a Jazz class. Although I ended up in a very formal world of contemporary dance, at the time it was just fun, like class here on a Friday night at Sydney Dance Company. A Jazz open class.
The teacher would always ask me to stay for the next class without paying, you know, I came for the 6pm class but then I would stay for the 8pm and then I met a group of people there. It was like being in Fame in a way. You know all of these people from different backgrounds, some of them had office jobs, some of them where going to university and they were in Barcelona in the big city. And I then started to hang out with them and realised that there was a community of people that loved dance.
Alexandra: You found your tribe and like minded people. Did that just keep pushing you in the right direction?
Rafael: Absolutely, I kind of forget that I was the only one of two boy in class. There was a room full of women wanting to dance and then two men. Two random men who built the courage to go into a class.
Alexandra: How did that feel? How did that feel to be so under-represented? Where you conscious of that, or were you just doing your thing?
Rafael: Yeah, well look it was… um it was inspiring. It was hard to not have role models; you know like someone to aspire to. I wanted to actually learn more and to do that it’s always good to see other people that can really do it. But there was that thing about being the only guy in the class sort of thing.
Alexandra: Did you have a self-consciousness around that?
Rafael: I kept pushing through. Yeah there was a determination, you know I was bullied for it, and I still did not let it get to me in a way that I was not going to do it. You know, in my home town… there was this whole thing about dance being only for girls. But I didn’t care. My mum still lives there, so do my brothers, and still everyone knows that I’m that boy that used to dance. But it wasn’t easy and I have a memory of it… but you move on from things. I have never let it get to me.
(I had to make it work, you know, because I had the scholarship. My mum had to go to the town hall in my town and they paid for my flight to London. The mayor, she was the first ever female mayor in Spain, (my town was so very progressive) came to Barcelona in 2011 to see the Sydney Dance Company, and my Mum told her, ‘That flight that you paid for in 1990, that ticket on a charter flight to London, you started his career’...)
Alexandra: That’s one of the keys to creativity isn’t it, you just can’t let all those obstacles along the way get in front of the ultimate passion. So, when you left and went to London how old where you then?
Rafael: I was 18, just. After two years of training in Barcelona, my teacher said to me, ‘There is a dance company in Barcelona, a contemporary dance company that are looking for a man and there’s an audition’. I had never seen a contemporary dance company in my life. So I go to this audition, and I get this job. And I’m suddenly performing in the Opera in Paris. But what was interesting is that, I get this job with this contemporary dance company, I learn this really weird dance, you know with weird music and weird costumes and everything. And that’s when I saw other dance companies like Netherlands Dance Theatre and I said, ‘Oh I want to be like them’.
But I knew I had more training to do.
I was like, I’m here because I’m good enough for this, but I think there is a lot more to learn. I mean look, you know, I had some innate talent, I had some talent there that was almost natural, but not trained.
Alexandra: And what was the school you went to in London?
Rafael: The Studio Centre it’s called, it still exists. And it was really mostly a musical theatre school, so it was Fame. Fame like I had always dreamed. I was there. It was a huge five story building with people of all colours. (In Spain it wasn’t so multi-cultural then in the 70’s/ 80’s). So, in London there was people from everywhere, it was really people singing, people doing tap, jazz.
So, from 8:30am until 6pm hour after hour after hour, I would take like four ballet classes a day with two people in the class. I put myself through agony. Don’t ask me why I knew that’s what I had to do to get to the level that I wanted to get. I did a full year, and half way through my teacher says to me, ‘There’s this company called Rambert Dance Company. There’s an audition I think you should go to.’ So I said OK. So, I went to the audition and I got the job. Rambert is now London’s most prestigious dance company. But I didn’t have a clue, it was a job.
I put so much hard work into it, I was obsessive almost. It was hell, living in London in the 90’s. I bought coffee and some bread only so I could make it to the end of the month. I pretended to my parents that everything was OK. But, I didn’t care, I was doing what I always loved to do.
There were plenty of boys, you know, there was even boy’s classes, so I was finally in a place where I could in a healthy way compete and be the best dancer I could be.
Alexandra: I’m imagining, when you were talking about the passion that you had to be a dancer, that that’s what you’re looking for when your auditioning dancers for the company. Is that the kind of level of commitment/creativity/talent and passion, that has to match yours?
Rafael: Absolutely, your very right. I work with 16/17 dancers… I’m not a dictator. But, I expect as much as I give and I’m not here to motivate. I need to work around people that really have the reason within themselves to be doing this, because it’s too hard otherwise.
Everybody is very different at Sydney Dance Company. That’s something I’ve only been thinking of lately, because it’s been mentioned so much, as a very positive thing, the diversity of the company. When they are all in a line, nobody looks the same, there is individuality within each person.
So, it’s made me think about the sort of people I am attracted to as dancers. Definitely, I can’t stand laziness, when people take things for granted. It’s very precious that we are able to come here everyday and do what we do, and I don’t take it for granted, ever. If I do I should move on in a way. I give everything and I except discipline and rigour and openness from the individuals that I’m working with.
It doesn’t always work, people come and stay, people come and go, sometimes they go because it’s their time to go and that’s important to know. Sometimes they go because it hasn’t worked because we don’t match, and that’s also ok too because it’s all apart of the process. But you know, I thrive on working with people that really want to push themselves and find new things within themselves, and deep within themselves. My process, when we get to that, it’s partly like that.
Alexandra: I’d like to get to that, but I’ve read you describe yourself as a collaborator with your dancers. Which relates to what you’ve spoken about, because if they are matching you in your passion and energy and motivation, then you’ve got the ability to work creatively with them.
Rafael: Yeah look, when I was a dancer myself I really enjoyed when I warmed with choreographers that drew from me. So its both sides. With the SDC 16 dancers, I always say I’m looking for dancers with intelligent bodies and open minds. I know they are really highly trained, they are disciplined, I know their training comes from different backgrounds sometimes, I know everyone has a strong classical contemporary technique, and that there is an openness about that.
But in terms of their heads and their creativity… when I walk into the studio I want them to be able to translate ideas into movement, you know, ask who they are for themselves. I want them to be able to suggest a dialogue. I want to have a dialogue with them, because with that there is a space for growth, and a space for change, and for finding new things.
We all have habits, we all have patterns, we all have these things, and for me I’m always trying to find ways to break them down. Sometimes it’s about breaking any rule that you’ve ever had, and it's important to have people there who are up for that, you know… to be pushed and challenged and know that it is ok with getting it totally wrong. Not everyone that comes here comes with that already.
There is a constant dialogue, it’s a very collaborative process I go through, it changes through each work but the dancers need to be open to it, and to bring as much of themselves as possible, as much as they want to give.
Alexandra: That’s the art of collaboration isn’t it. Genevieve and I work like that because our views are often different but its the ideas that come from the two of us together that are greater than the parts. In other words, if we collaborate with, not just each other, but other people as well, two or three or five minds are better than one. The outcome is greater than the sum of the parts.
Rafael: And to me collaboration is always a way of staying connected to an ongoing source of stimulation. You know, because different people will bring different things into the mix. Sometimes when you collaborate with someone for the first time it can be a little bit scary actually. Right now for next year I’m about to collaborate with a singer, a Spanish singer. I mean she’s in Spain. I’m here. We’ve never worked together. I have moments where it’s so clearly going to be amazing, and other moments are like oh my god how am I going to pull this off. I’m not sure if it’s fear but challenge, you know, how am I going to make this work.
Alexandra: If it was easy everyone would do it, and if the process that you where going through wasn’t challenging, you wouldn’t override that challenge and push the creativity to a new edge.
Rafael: It’s always worth it. But it’s funny after years and years of doing it there’s still that moment of… ‘Oh my god is that worth it?’.
Alexandra: What are the things that you need in your studio space or your life to help foster your creativity?
Rafael: I never know really where my next idea is going to come from. It’s always from poetry or it’s from science, or it’s always from some visual source. I really shift. For me it’s important to stay curious, to stay open. I have always said that life is inspired by people. I interact with people I meet, with people, I go to concerts, I go to fashion shows, I go to the galleries. I really enjoy it and I know that it’s always fuelling me. I’m lucky because I travel for work.
I’m going to use Ab Intra as an example of my process. I didn’t really know what was going to happen, all I knew was I was making a full-length piece. So I had a week to come up with an idea. I knew that I wanted to work with Nick Wells (musical collaborator). And I also knew I wanted to choose a piece of music, but I didn’t know what that would be. So, I spent weeks listening to music, weeks, obsessively until I found it… but to get there was a lot of hard work. I call it the vortex of Spotify… I spent hours, bingeing on music... I always walk, if it’s a beautiful day, and I’ll listen to music. Anyway, so, I found this piece of music and I said to Nick, 'Really my instinct is that you will like this. And I need you to like it because if you don’t like it then we have a problem, I have to keep looking. But if you like it then we can start composing around it'. But I still didn’t have an idea for the work.
Alexandra: So, the choreography hadn’t started, you started with the music?
Rafael: We started with the music, yes and I always do it months before. So, like now I’m listening to this music for work that possibly will premier next year, but at least I’ve got something because I cannot have the dancers at the moment (they are touring). So, I thought OK, what am I going to do because I need an idea that sustains an hour. For me, sometimes it doesn’t always have to come from the outside, sometimes the idea comes from within, Intra, from within. So, we did some improvs with the dancers and I prepared these music tracks that would trigger emotion and sensations. And I said to the dancers… ‘OK you got to be in the moment, respond to each other, listen to each other, feel each other, follow your instinct, just whatever happens, happens’.
So, this is a space where 17 dancers have to dance and improvise. Sometimes they went for 15-20 mins and we’d film them. I also said… ‘I want you to go there in this process and write everything you feel and you can think of, whatever comes into your head’. And we did this for four days. I collected all their musings and comments. It became a collection of writings of feelings, sensations, emotions. It’s really all from the sub conscious of the dancers. I’ve built this place of trust, but they’re in the moment, they’re honest, they’re here. Some people were going through personal stuff and that’s about the collaboration and supporting them.
I’ve learnt a lot from every single choreographer that I’ve worked with, but I had never done anything like this. It could have ended up as nothing, you know, and I could have been sort of insecure about giving it a go and trying it. But it’s also about knowing what you bring into the creative process. And having the dancers trust me when I don’t know what I’m doing really.
Alexandra: Sounds a little scary!
Rafael: Not knowing what you’re doing is a special place because that’s where you find things. My work is intensely physical but abstract, there’s no narrative, but there is so much narrative. When Charmaine and Danny did the 11-minute duet in Ab Intra, their instruction was to purposefully create awkward encounters. Purposefully creating awkward encounters came from one of the dancers musings. One of them wrote that, I don’t know who, but I loved it, I didn’t have to think about it. When Nelson does his solo it’s 25 instructions. Everybody read the solo, everybody in the company, but only one prevailed, it was Nelson. Why? It was chance.
Alexandra: What I’m hearing, as you’re describing all of this, is that what goes to the essence of your choreography is emotion.
Rafael: For me my emotions are always my starting point, and from there I move outwards creatively and with my instinct. There is something about emotions and instinct. And I cannot not be, you know because that’s who I am. That’s also one of the learnings as an artist. Once you are true to who you are, you find the audience, you find your people, your drive.
Alexandra: Tell me, how do you sustain this creativity? Do you have a regime or… what keeps your heart beating and your emotions accessible enough to be able to do this?
Rafael: When I first arrived here in Sydney I realised this was another level. I had to find a way to stay super calm with such a high-pressure job. So I started doing Transcendental Meditation. I really think he has a huge impact on me. The practice is 20 minutes for myself where I really focus.
Alexandra: So, do you do it once a day or twice?
Rafael: Twice. I mean, look, this job is a full-time job. The making, the actual creating and the study of a work happens, only twice a year. You know that’s like an 8 weeks or a 5 weeks depending. And when I am doing that, it’s all about the work. You know, I can’t live the same life that I do otherwise. I cannot see people as much as I would. My partner knows that I get home and have dinner and then I will go to the office and have a couple of hours’ work. And then I get up early and I don’t drink. I want to be really alert. In this job there is a lot to ask from me that is beyond going into the studio and being creative. There’s a business to run. Sometimes I’ll finish on a full day in the studio and have a fundraising dinner that night, where I have 80 wonderful people that support this company. I want to be the best, you know, most open and alert.
Alexandra: That must take a lot of energy and enthusiasm… being the talking head as well…
Rafael: It does and I know you’ve said the word energy and I often think how long can I do this for, what does this take. But I’m lucky after an opening night all it takes is sitting at home watching a TV series or reading a book that recharges me. I recognise when I’ve reached my limit on my giving. And if I do just literally nothing on a weekend then I’m fine again on Monday.
Alexandra: That means that you’re thankfully so tapped into your limitations. So many creative people aren’t, they just keep going until they are a heap on the floor because they lack that ability to find that switch that goes… no I just need to watch Netflix on the weekend and then I’ll be fine.
Rafael: And look you know I have an incredible team also, that supports me and the company. When I’m making the work I know that until 11am I can do interviews, I can do my emails. And then between 11am-6pm I have my hours in the studio. I never have a lunch break where I’m not having a meeting, but I don’t mind it, you know it’s what I have always wanted. If I go back to that boy, you know, I have always wanted this, and I still want it and I enjoy it and I feel so lucky that I have this opportunity.
Alexandra: And I’m imagining you eat super healthy, as much as you’re active.
Rafael: I’m very lucky that Joe my partner is a great cook, because I’m not. I could enjoy it… but cooking is taking time away from what I have to do. I’m not unhealthy but I’m not rigid. I’m happy to go eat deep fried. I think it’s about balance.
Alexandra: 10 years from now, where are you? Where is your creativity in 10 years?
Rafael: I don’t think about it. I’ve always been very much in the moment, I don’t think about the past either. So, I’m sort of not very much a person that’s in the future. But I have been very very lucky to have landed in this place in Sydney, in Australia at this point with this company. At the point where the company is about to be 50 next year. That’s a big achievement for a contemporary dance company. But, what I have here, I can make work as an artist and I hope I’m motivated to do so forever until I’m 90 and I can’t do it anymore.
But that’s just one aspect of it. What I’m really, really enjoying is growing the audience of people who can dance and also be in the audience. There is such a big job still to be done in this country which I’m really enjoying being apart of it. We are always touring nationally or internationally and taking the dance to the audience. I do have this sense of how good dance is for people and the culture and the arts, and I think I’m in a place where there is still a lot of work to be done for that, and I’m really enjoying how much Sydney Dance Company can do.
I don’t know how much more life is going to bring me but whatever it brings me I’ll take it. I’m someone who's never been scared of taking chances. You know, since 2002 until three years ago, I did all of Kylies' concerts and pop videos. Even though I was a serious contemporary choreographer. So whenever opportunities come up that are a little bit different, I embrace them.
So, what else will my journey bring me that I don’t know yet. I’m excited to see because I’m always open to try new things.
Alexandra: Beautiful, thank you Raf...