Rafael Bonachela – Artistic Director, Sydney Dance Company

Rafael Bonachela in the studio at Sydney Dance Company.<br />© Peter Grieg. (Click image for larger version)
Rafael Bonachela in the studio at Sydney Dance Company.
© Peter Grieg. (Click image for larger version)

Rafael Bonachela has just started his sixth year as artistic director of Sydney Dance Company, widely regarded as the premier contemporary dance company in Australia. This year is the company’s 45th anniversary and Bonachela is, as ever, full of plans, excited about them all and brimming over with enthusiasm for his role with Sydney Dance. His studios and offices sit on prime real estate at Walsh Bay, on a reinvented Edwardian finger wharf, Pier 4, originally built in 1922 to service cargo vessels. It juts out into Sydney Harbour and is within a stone’s throw of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The early morning light on the water is spectacularly beautiful. The harbour hums with activity and the large white yachts moored in marinas at the pier next door bob up and down expectantly. Across the road sits the Sydney Theatre at Walsh Bay ready for Sydney Dance Company’s next show.

Rafael Bonachela.<br />© Justin Ridler. (Click image for larger version
Rafael Bonachela.
© Justin Ridler. (Click image for larger version

When I spoke to Bonachela he was just nine days into the creative process for a new work that will premiere in Sydney in March as part of a triple bill called Interplay. Bonachela’s work, 2 in D Minor, will be danced by the full company, currently sixteen dancers, to J. S Bach’s Violin Partita No. 2 in D Minor. Violinist Veronique Serret, from the Australian Chamber Orchestra, will play live onstage. Bonachela says he fell in love with the texture and flavour of the partita and everything it drew out of him in terms of movement. ‘I became slightly obsessed’, he admits. ‘The music talks to me. It is inspiring in every way’. Music is almost always his inspiration and he launches into every new work, every new discovery, with emotion and passion.

But for 2 in D Minor Bonachela is also commissioning Nick Wales, an Australian composer whose hybrid style falls between classical forms and electronic and popular music, to compose bridging sections between the five movements of the partita. The score Wales has been developing derives from sampling Serret’s playing from a recording made for the purpose.

Rafael Bonachela and dancers in the studio at Sydney Dance Company.© Peter Grieg. (Click image for larger version)
Rafael Bonachela and dancers in the studio at Sydney Dance Company.
© Peter Grieg. (Click image for larger version)

‘I am very excited about this work’, says Bonachela. ‘I saw this really pure world of Bach and I am trying to work with it and against it at the same time. Not that I am throwing bricks at it but I want to find a different way of looking at it. Nick’s bridging music will bring the work into the present’.

The approach fits snugly with the pathway Bonachela has been following with his work for Sydney Dance since he arrived in 2009. He has commissioned a diverse range of artists, composers, designers, choreographers, popular singers, instrumental musicians. And for his recent work, Project Rameau, he worked side-by-side with the Australian Chamber Orchestra. What he has been able to do in these collaborative exercises is quite a feat. Each collaborator has contributed elements that have been gems in their own right, but no-one, not even the full Australian Chamber Orchestra playing onstage, has lessened the power and authority of the dancers. But then his dancers are fabulous technicians, exciting to watch and totally committed to the choreography. Bonachela has come up with a breathtaking new vision of what contemporary dance can be.

Dancers Charmene Yap and Cass Mortimer Eipper rehearsing for [i]Interplay[/i].© Peter Grieg. (Click image for larger version)
Dancers Charmene Yap and Cass Mortimer Eipper rehearsing for [i]Interplay[/i].
© Peter Grieg. (Click image for larger version)

Interplay will also see the restaging of Jacopo Godani’s Raw Models, first seen in Sydney in 2011, and in addition will feature a new work, as yet unnamed, by Gideon Obarzanek. Bonachela loves the idea of working with Obarzanek, formerly a dancer with Sydney Dance Company during Graeme Murphy’s directorship. At the time Obarzanek was also an emerging choreographer and went on to direct his own company, Chunky Move, in Melbourne. Commissioning Obarzanek, who now works freelance and has moved into making theatre pieces, sets up a particular kind of narrative, a series of links with the company’s history. Bonachela is very happy too that Obarzanek will use the full company for his new work. ‘I have sixteen great dancers and I took the responsibility as a director to show off the company as an ensemble’. He loves the idea too that Obarzanek will bring new experiences for his dancers.

‘Every time a choreographer comes to Sydney Dance Company to work for us I am left with a better group of dancers. They are enriched in every way. We are here to commission new work. This is our role. To create. To give audiences the experience of dance. To give choreographers the experience of making work. To give artists the experience of learning’.

Rafael Bonachela.© Ben Symons. (Click image for larger version)
Rafael Bonachela.
© Ben Symons. (Click image for larger version)

Bonachela lives in Rushcutters Bay—‘twenty minutes away on my scooter’, he says. Rushcutter’s Bay is also harbourside but not far from Bondi Beach where Bonachela occasionally goes for an early morning swim. Will the Sydney lifestyle, and the city’s full blown admiration for Bonachela, keep him in Australia for another term or two? Bonachela and the company are considering the next contract although nothing is definite yet (but see Stop Press below). However, he muses (partly to himself) that in another five years someone will be marking the 50th anniversary of Sydney Dance Company.  In the meantime there is a big Australian country tour coming up later in 2014 and, of course, the first year of Sydney Dance Company’s pre-professional training course due to start very soon. Bonachela’s energy and passion for the new in dance are boundless.

Stop Press: Anne Dunn, Executive Director of Sydney Dance Company, has just announced that Rafael Bonachela’s contract has been extended. This appointment will see him program Sydney Dance Company’s 50th anniversary celebrations.

About the author

Michelle Potter

Dr Michelle Potter is a freelance dance writer and curator based in Canberra, Australia. She was inaugural curator of dance at the National Library of Australia, 2002-2006, and curator of the Jerome Robbins Dance Division, New York Public Library, 2006- 2008. Her most recent book, a biography of Dame Margaret Scott, founding director of the Australian Ballet School, was published in 2014 as 'Dame Maggie Scott. A Life in Dance.' Her website is at

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