The office of Sydney Dance Company artistic director Rafael Bonachela is not what you might expect.
For a choreographer who expresses himself so poetically through movement he is surprisingly driven by words. His walls are a mosaic of sticky notes and a large handwritten timeline highlighting significant dates, including an upcoming interstate election, to fellow contemporary dance company Bangarra’s 30th anniversary in 2019, and SDC’s own 50th birthday milestone that same year.
Bonachela’s new work, ab [intra] also began with words, which Bonachela obligingly shares with me, kneeling on the ground to sift through countless yellow Post It notes.
It is a fascinating insight into a deliberately non-narrative work. More on that later.
It has been a busy start to 2018 for the Sydney-based touring company. Following a January tour to Chile and Colombia, Bonachela and his 17 dancers recently returned from Europe, including their debut at the prestigious, invitation-only Theatre National de Chaillot in Paris alongside Townsville-based dance company Dancenorth.
Before they left for Europe, Bonachela had a few days with his dancers doing what he calls ‘research and development’ for ab [intra], his first full-length production in six years. It was a precious and informative time.
Bonachela organised his dancers into groups and asked each to improvise in response to music he’d specifically chosen to provoke a range of emotions. Each improvisation was around 45 minutes long, after which the dancers were asked to anonymously write words, poems or illustrations to describe what they felt while they were dancing.
“It was an experiment,” Bonachela says. “I asked them to be open to themselves and their instincts. It was about their interactions with each other but in a very instinctive, visceral way. I was just seeing where that journey would take us and it ended up being an incredible source of inspiration.”
The words are revealing, gentle, sometimes violent: ‘tender, loving, choke, hold’ notes one; ‘you’ve put me in a position I don’t want to be in,’ writes another; a third says ‘all I have is me’. Each has somehow made its way into his new work.
Collaboration is a hallmark of Bonachela’s style although his works are conceptually driven. His 2015 Frame of Mind was triggered by his mother falling ill and being hospitalised in Spain while his partner moved to New York for a year – events that left him feeling impotent, isolated and struck by the way events outside our control impact our mindset.
Anima (2016) explored the idea of the soul and the diverse ways that concept impacted people, while 2012’s Project Rameau celebrated Baroque music, specifically that of Jean-Philippe Rameau, in a collaboration with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, who performed live on stage.
Bonachela’s ab [intra] distils the learning of the past few years’ shorter works – Lux Tenebris and Anima for example – into his first full-length work since 2 One Another, which recently hit its milestone 100th performance.
“I needed to make a work that wasn’t so much about outside ideas coming in but that came from within,” he says (hence ab intra, Latin for ‘from within’).
“These people I work with every day and am getting to know so well as humans and artists, we invest so much in each other in terms of what we do – dance – so it’s really about them, and this moment in time,” he explains.
“I took the notes that connected with me and made a piece that’s true to who we are, the dancers’ relationships with each other and what I draw from them.”
As always, music is a major inspiration, and for ab [intra] Bonachela was keen to return to classical music. He is working with the 2017 creative team from Ocho: designer David Fleischer, lighting Damien Cooper and regular collaborator, composer Nick Wales, knowing the latter’s background in classical music made him the perfect partner-in-crime.
The score begins with a recorded cello solo, excerpts from Klatbutne/Presence, by 2 One Another’s Latvian composer Peteris Vask, before morphing into an electronic score by Wales incorporating strings and samples.
Bonachela is aware of the demands he has put on himself, and Wales, in choosing such a powerful piece of music but is characteristically optimistic.
“It’s full of passion and delicacy, it’s huge. At first I wondered, oh my god, can I do this? Because it’s huge. And I had to get Nick behind it, too, and he’s made a very sophisticated, intricate but beautiful piece. I’m never shy to challenge myself as a choreographer, because that’s why I’m here. Otherwise what’s the point?”
ab [intra] plays at the Roslyn Packer Theatre Walsh Bay (May 14-26) and the Arts Centre Melbourne (May 30-June 2) before touring regionally.