Sydney Dance Company artistic director Rafael Bonachela on the emotion behind his work. By Romy Ash.

Never a backward step for SDC’s Rafael Bonachela

Rafael Bonachela is already sitting in the Southbank Theatre when I arrive. Empty grey seats face the stage. Without a crowd, the seats look like teeth, row upon row of square molars. The stage itself looks claustrophobic, too small to hold the kind of dance Rafael, artistic director of the Sydney Dance Company, is known for choreographing.

“You can make it bigger,” Rafael says, “here and here.” He gestures as if pulling the stage upwards and back. He’s shorter than I had imagined, with fine hands that are never still. “It’s a beautiful theatre, beautiful for dance.” Frame of Mind, Rafael’s new work, will be performed here in the coming weeks, alongside William Forsythe’s Quintett, a work Rafael first saw in London in 1998. Quintett is Forsythe’s love letter to his dying wife. “It’s a very moving work, very beautiful. I remember seeing the work and I was just like wwwooohhhhww. Five dancers only, the music is Gavin Bryars, this very repetitive mantra, this recording of a homeless man singing, ‘Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet’. It’s like, oh my god. I was so moved, so many years ago, not knowing why.” Rafael speaks thoughtfully, passionately. We ignore the stage, lean towards one another, the arms of the theatre chairs sticking into our backs. 

“I do this a lot actually also,” he says. “You make work for a reason, but the reason doesn’t really matter in many ways. The audience will always find – especially with dance – they will enter the work and feel so different to anyone next to them.” He’s wearing a thin black puffer jacket, and a black leather jacket, which he peels off, onion like, until he’s down to his black pants, black T-shirt and muscular arms. 

“For me it is about emotion. That word sounds so weird, but yeah. What do I want to say with my work, with my dance? To be in that studio, and make the dance happen, with the bodies. Every work comes from a different place; in this case [for Frame of Mind] it was the music. It also happened to be – and this piece is not about that,” he qualifies, “– it happened to be that my mother had been in hospital for 10 months, my partner was living in New York. Last year was one of those years. Can anything get more difficult, more challenging? My mother – we were having paella at the beach in Barcelona, and within two weeks she slipped down the stairs. It made me think about how one thing can change things forever. 

“Once I opened it up to the dancers it became a more universal thing. It wasn’t about my mother, or my partner, it was just about ways of feeling emotionally and psychologically. But drawn from individual stories – triggers for the dance – each dancer translates into movement and then the work becomes something else.” 

Rafael was born in a village north of Barcelona, La Garriga. He describes it as “a little jewel”. A spa town in a valley surrounded by mountains. “So there was the wealthy people that were having a holiday there, and then there was the people that lived in the town,” he says. “My parents are immigrants from the south of Spain, which when I was little it was like, you were called a xarnego … because your parents weren’t Catalan speaking.” His parents worked at textile factories their whole lives, his father in the day, his mother in the evenings. 

“I used to make a dance,” he says, explaining how his love of dance grew in this small provincial town. “I didn’t know that was choreography. In school, mostly with the girls, I would make a dance, which was mostly pop songs, whatever artist. I remember Thriller, Michael Jackson, coming out at that point. It was the beginning of pop videos, so on the television there would be this singer coming, with dancers behind. Then literally the series Fame came on TV, and I was like, this exists? You can go to a school and learn how to dance and you can make a job? It was a revelation. At that point I had not seen contemporary dance, I had not seen ballet, or anything like this – all my references were from TV. There are pictures of me in yellow tracksuits and leg warmers,” he says, laughing. “Because I was a freak. I was with my cassette, with my boogie box, with batteries, taking it to school, pressing play, doing some steps. Everything was about dance.”

He took his first dance class at 15, joined his first company as a dancer at 17. He lost all his hair at 18 “from stress”. He still seems genuinely surprised at the path his life took so quickly, first as a dancer, and then as a choreographer. “I always performed. I used to make that dance with my friends – so we would get the mothers, aunties to make costumes, and we would perform in the main square of the town.”

I ask him if he was bullied, setting himself apart in such a way, in such a small village.

“There was a time,” he says, “when I had to run to school because there was a group of kids who wanted to somehow harm me. They never did, but I have a memory, the feeling of the walk home from the school. I knew there was a street where somebody that lived there had decided that because I was dancing – because I put myself in the town square; it wasn’t like I was shy or anything like that – they wanted to hurt me. It never stopped me was the thing. I never let it get to me. ‘There’s nothing wrong with this, and I’m going to do it.’ ”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 9, 2015 as "Never a backward step". Subscribe here.

Romy Ash
is a novelist. Her first book, Floundering, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award.