MOVEMENT IS THE AIM FOR 'SCATTERED RHYMES'
By Kate Iselin - Photography by Toni Veziris
Rafael Bonachela's office at the Sydney Dance Company looks out on to the wharves jutting in to the blue waters of Sydney Harbour; and beyond them, the Harbour Bridge. The famous chalkboard wall – a wall on which Bonachela plots and sketches notes and choreography, in white chalk – is unusually empty, but the wall opposite that is packed full of pinned photographs, drawings, and quotes. Everything from abstract flashes of colour to high-definition prints of tall, lithe models has been put on display here, and in the centre of it all, a quote from the poet Rumi: “Dance, when you're broken open. Dance, if you've torn the bandage off. Dance in the middle of the fighting. Dance in your blood. Dance when you're perfectly free.”
Bonachela came to Sydney five years ago from his native Europe, to take on the role of Artistic Director with the Sydney Dance Company. Although he had only worked with the company once before – six months prior to taking the job – his work in contemporary dance as both a dancer and a choreographer is extensive. He set up the Bonachela Dance Company in London, and worked with everyone from Tina Turner to the Candoco Dance Company to Kylie Minogue (he choreographed her Fever tour). Bonachela speaks about all things with passion and enthusiasm, but leaps in to discussing his current work with the company: Scattered Rhymes, which is due to open in less than two weeks.
“The music was really the trigger for this work,” he explains. “Over two years ago, I met a composer named Tarik O'Regan. He was visiting Sydney, and he requested that we have a coffee and chat about music and dance. We had a coffee here, in my break, and he left a few CDs with me, which I then listened to probably at home on a Sunday – I usually have a huge pile of things to look at, books and music and everything. There was a beautiful composition on one of the CDs he left me, which was Scattered Rhymes: Fragments Of Matter In Common Speech.” Bonachela would eventually derive the title of his work from this piece, an a capella choir performance in Latin and Italian. “I used to sing in the choir for many, many years – every Saturday, with my white tunic and my cross. So I have a past of singing that music, and hearing that music often. Of course, at some point my Mum had to go to the priest and tell him that I wanted to dance, that my singing days were over. He was highly disappointed – but I was freed.”
Being free to pursue dance led Bonachela to the Rambert Dance Company in London, where he trained, before opening his own company some years later. And the rest, as they say, is history. “I came [to Sydney] at a time when there was a huge generational change within a lot of the organisations here: the people who had been running these organisations for twenty or thirty years were moving on.” Bonachela joined Sydney Dance Company soon after the departure of long standing Artistic Director Graeme Murphy, during a time when the federal government was known for being less-than-generous with its support of the arts. “I've always felt very optimistic about the arts here [in Australia], even when Australians were not. For me, having been in London for twenty years, a lot of people asked why I left. But here, there was a company with sixteen dancers, incredible studios, and a real hunger for change. I was super-happy in London. I left London having had a company, being really happy, feeling supported by the government – but [the Sydney Dance Company] was an amazing opportunity.”
Since his arrival, Bonachela has strived to make the company, and the medium of dance, more accessible to audiences who previously would not have even considered going to watch a contemporary dance performance. He has collaborated with fashion designer Dion Lee, commissioned works from top international choreographers; and has begun investing in attracting young audiences to the company. “I want to see a lot more people coming to the theatre to see dance. I want to see fewer people having the preconception that contemporary dance is something weird and scary, and I want to see a lot more access in terms of young people seeing dance – so we're doing primary school matinees. We have eight-year-olds coming to see the Sydney Dance Company. So in five years time, they will be thirteen or fourteen, and then they will be the future audience.”
The Company also stages school holiday workshops, hosts talks with choreographers and creatives, and encourages fans to follow them on Instagram and share their own 'louder than words' poses as part of a contest. It is a resolutely modern approach that stretches across many mediums. “I've come here and asked: how can we give points of access to people? And I'm trying everything I can. So I hope that, in five years, this will make a difference not only to the Sydney Dance Company but for every other dance company out there. I hope there can be more support, I hope there can be more independent choreographers getting money to be able to create their works – in the next three years, I'm committed to commissioning four to five young Australian choreographers to present works at Carriageworks as part of New Breed. That's an opportunity that didn't previously exist here.”
Bonachela describes himself as 'an optimist by choice', an attitude that is obvious to anyone who speaks with him. He fizzes with excitement when talking about dance, about Australia, and about Scattered Rhymes, which is a frequent reference point in our conversation. The work draws on the poems of Petrarch, the 14th-century poet who wrote verse after verse about a woman whom he fell deeply in love with, even though they never spoke. Tarik O'Regan collaborated with Nick Wales to turn these poems in to music. “When you come to see Scattered Rhymes, from beginning to end, it's the voice. There are no instruments, no nothing – just the voice.” The voices are those of Cambridge scholars reading Petrarch's works in the original Latin, as well as three other anonymously-written Italian poems chosen by the composers. They have been remixed electronically, over and over, to create a musical composition. “There are three duets – a woman and a woman, a woman and a man, a man and a man. Because for me, love is universal. I've reimagined [the poems] as encounters between these different human beings, as if they would have touched. For me, this is what it would have been like if Petrarch consummated his love.”
And what about for the audiences – some of whom, perhaps, may still think of contemporary dance as something weird or scary? “I meet people who say, 'Oh yeah, I've seen the posters, I've read an interview' but they've never been [to the Sydney Dance Company]. But if I had to say just one thing – moved. I would want people to be moved.”
Book now for Louder than Words at Sydney Theatre, 11 shows only, October 4 to 18. Tickets from $45, group concessions for six people or more. Book at www.sydneytheatre.org.au/whats-on/productions/2014/louder-than-words or phone 9250 1999.