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After eight years as Sydney Dance Company artistic director, Rafael Bonachela's passion burns as brightly as it did in his small Spanish hometown as a teen. By Benjamin Law.

Sydney Dance Company’s Rafael Bonachela

Rafael Bonachela
Credit: Peter Greig

If someone were to make an elevator pitch for the movie of Rafael Bonachela’s life, it would be Billy Elliot meets Fame directed by Pedro Almodóvar.

Obviously, there would be dance sequences –  first in Barcelona, then recital halls across Europe. But at its narrative core would be the journey of a young, wide-eyed, gay Spaniard, leaving provincial working- class roots to become one of the most in-demand choreographers in either hemisphere.

It wouldn’t all be pretty. One defining sequence would involve the time Bonachela – still a teenager – was training to be a dancer in London. It was 1990 and Bonachela found himself freezing at night and rationing barely-there money for food. “It was really lonely,” he says. “No money, food that was shit, in a hostel.” Each day, he would write out his daily food budget on paper to keep track. A typical day’s entry would read: one coffee, 80p; one sandwich, £1.50. This is not the diet of an athlete, Bonachela will muse at one point. “But I looked great.”

At the time, it doesn’t matter that he is practically starving, that he has no guarantee of a future or income. “It felt like I could do it,” he says. “Maybe – maybe – I could dance one day and get paid for it.”

He makes it, of course. He wins fame as a dancer and choreographer. On the other side of the world, he becomes artistic director of Sydney Dance Company. He tours. He wows.

On paper, the plot possibly sounds far-fetched, even a little hokey. But when you think about it, the best dance movies tend to be like that.

 

The first thing Rafael Bonachela does when he meets me in Sydney’s harbourside Elizabeth Bay is give me a massive hug. The man is sturdily compact: short, outrageously handsome and so tightly muscled that embracing him is like getting squeezed by several firmly packed hessian sacks. His shirt shows off his impressive tattoos: an older one on his left upper arm and a more recent one that runs down the entire length of his right arm, a line of Spanish poetry written in calligraphic script. “Enamorado De la Vida,” he reads, rolling up his sleeve, “y del Propio Amor.” Rough translation: “In love with life and love itself.”

It is a rare late afternoon off for Bonachela, who is about to launch Sydney Dance Company’s national tour of its latest production, CounterMove – a two-part production by Alexander Ekman and Bonachela.

By the time you read this, the company will have completed seasons in Sydney and Canberra, and toured Switzerland, Germany, Brazil and Chile with a previous show, before touring CounterMove again for the rest of Australia. Amid all of this, Bonachela is also supposed to be devising new work.

For now though, he can breathe. Bonachela and I stroll past myriad inner-city workers, endless joggers and their personal trainers, before stopping to watch a dog that has dived into the harbour for a swim. When I ask Bonachela about his childhood, he compares this water view before him to La Garriga, his home town, a landscape just as beautiful but utterly distinct. “You’d look out of my mum’s window,” he says, “and you have the mountains everywhere.”

When Bonachela discusses his childhood, you get the sense his body’s probably always been well conditioned. From the youngest age, Bonachela was constantly shifting muscle, either to dance, which he loved, or to do manual labour, which he hated. “My father had land, so we worked a lot, very hard – what I now call ‘child labour’,” he jokes. “I appreciate the value of the work, but he was hardcore. He never knew how to balance teaching us the value of growing vegetables and working hard but also to be fun. For him it was just hard work. I would hate it with passion.”

Both parents grew up under Franco’s fascist dictatorship; neither attended theatres nor museums, much less contemporary dance performances. As Bonachela puts it, they were two people who met young, married young, had him in their early 20s and brought up a family. Compared with his three younger brothers – “normal football-playing kids” – Bonachela was always the odd one out, constantly dancing and being asked to perform flute or guitar at the family Christmas table.

In some ways, his love of dance was inexplicable. “There was no dance school in my town, but since I can remember, I always loved dancing and performing.”

At school, he’d take along a beatbox, play cassettes of Michael Jackson’s Thriller and choreograph routines.

At 15, Bonachela started taking the 40-minute train ride from La Garriga to Barcelona on Fridays. Fuelled by his obsession with Fame – the 1980s TV series, spun off from the movie of the same name – he enrolled himself in jazz dance lessons at the city’s Cadaqués Centre dance school.

Initially, Bonachela just came for jazz, until a teacher implored him to stay and do more. One class led to another and Bonachela started missing the train home. Soon, he was missing the last train on purpose. Classmates would take him out to dinner or the cinema. Eventually, his parents issued an ultimatum: they would support his endless dancing and pay for lessons, but only if he finished high school. He agreed. From then on, a typical day was gruelling: waking at 6am, taking a train to Barcelona, taking dance lessons, taking another train to a town near La Garriga to study, then finally catching another train at 10.30pm to eat, sleep and crash. “That’s when I started losing my hair.” (It’s worth noting, none of Bonachela’s younger brothers have gone bald.)

On a teacher’s encouragement, Bonachela auditioned for the Catalan dance company Lanònima Imperial. He got the job in July, just 17 and only two years into proper dance classes. By September, he was touring Paris, Hungary, Italy, Austria and Switzerland. After a year with Lanònima Imperial, he auditioned and got into the London Studio Centre dance college. However, the costs associated with moving to – and living in – London were impossible to meet. Bonachela hustled, lining up meetings in government offices, and enthusiastically made his case for a scholarship, while his mother went to La Garriga’s town hall to do the same. Eventually, the local mayor agreed to fund his flights from Barcelona to London, even though Bonachela didn’t – at that stage – speak any English.

Bonachela’s father – a traditional man – found all this confounding. By the time Bonachela left for London, they no longer spoke and his parents were on the brink of separation. Bonachela’s first day in London was a disaster. His cheap flight arrived hours late, and the Catalan dancers with whom he travelled also spoke negligible English. The taxi got lost. When they finally arrived at the home of Bonachela’s aunt, they had to haul suitcases up a steep flight of stairs, off which one of them fell in a shocking tumble. Eventually, Bonachela found himself, exhausted, sharing a room with eight men, crying himself to sleep. What had he done?

All sorrow evaporated when he started dancing. At the London Studio Centre, Bonachela found himself in the real-life version of Fame. “There was people from everywhere in the world,” he says. “Asian people, black people, white people, everyone singing. I was in heaven.” He concedes he was eating terribly but, in some ways, his privation helped him focus. “I had no money to have fun, but I was very happy.” Three years later, he successfully auditioned for Britain’s oldest dance company, Rambert. He was 20. After a decade, he became Rambert’s associate choreographer and quit dancing altogether.

Bonachela’s eyes light up when he talks about choreography. “The first step is always different,” he says. “Sometimes I find a piece of music and I’m blown away by it.” Other times, he says, the triggers are words. It’s no accident he has poetry tattooed on his arms. To him, dance is the physical extension of words – stanzas made physical – which is why he has always sought out “intelligent dancers”. Obviously, dancers need to be physically fit and technically able. “But you can have a perfect body and be very empty,” he says. “I’ve worked with many dancers that were born with ridiculous bodies but they were lazy. And I can’t stand lazy people. We’re not saving lives – we’re just making a dance here – but don’t waste my time.”

In the international dance community, most know the bittersweet story of Bonachela’s appointment to Sydney Dance Company. After the SDC’s long-time director Graeme Murphy retired in 2006, the board named Murphy’s successor as Tanja Liedtke, a prodigiously talented, beautiful and young choreographer. Bonachela and Liedtke had been friends from when he was at Rambert and she was based in London. “She spoke fluent Spanish,” Bonachela says fondly. “She’d lived in Spain, although she’s German.” Shortly after Liedtke was appointed, Bonachela met her for coffee in London, where she asked him to be the company’s first choreographer under her directorship. Would Bonachela make his first full-length dance work in Sydney? Thrilled, he agreed.

Bonachela was in Cuba in August 2007 when he got the news that Liedtke had been killed in an accident. She’d spent the evening watching Bangarra Dance Theatre’s performance at the Sydney Opera House, and four hours later, was hit by a garbage truck in Crows Nest. She was 29. “She never made it to the first day of her job,” Bonachela says quietly. “She was killed the day before.” For a year, Sydney Dance Company – out of grief and respect – made do without an artistic director.

Months later, Bonachela got an email from the company asking him whether he’d proceed with the work Liedtke originally commissioned. Feeling conflicted, Bonachela contacted Liedtke’s family and partner, who gave him their blessing. The resulting performance – 360° – debuted in Sydney to acclaim, and the SDC approached him for the top job. Despite running his own business in London, he said yes, and for two years split his time between Sydney and London. “It wasn’t sustainable though.” Eventually, he had to bite the bullet. He chose Australia.

 

Nowadays, Bonachela is a permanent resident en route to becoming an Australian citizen. He adores Sydney, adores Australia. Only two things frustrate him: its ugly politics and the self-directed hate Australians often express towards their own arts scene. “People in the arts here bring themselves down. I’m like, ‘What are you talking about? You’re great!’ Everyone is like, ‘Oh, London has so much; New York has so much.’ But it’s got so much that you don’t have time to do everything. And there are a lot of people [seeing] Cats.”

In 2019, Sydney Dance Company will celebrate its 50th anniversary. Bonachela will have been artistic director for more than a decade. By the time he leaves – whenever that is – he wants several things to happen. First, he wants Australian audiences to be familiar with contemporary dance from all over the world. Second, he wants to start a company – an offshoot of SDC – exclusively of young dancers. Finally, as a kid who came from a small town himself, he wants the company to continue its outreach work. “Everyone gets a Shakespeare play in Australia, everyone goes to see a concert.” Why not dance? Bonachela is always animated, but he gets most excited when he’s talking about education.

And though he works relentlessly, you get the sense balance is somehow being restored. Bonachela now sees his family in Barcelona once a year when the company tours Europe. Last year, after Bonachela’s mother recovered from a year-long illness, she visited him in Australia for the first time. It was the first time she’d left Europe. “With me here she wasn’t a mother or a grandmother,” he says. “She was just a woman in the world with a lot of people [being] really nice to her, even if they don’t speak the same language.” Bridging that gulf is another reason why Bonachela loves dance. “It’s everything that cannot be said with words.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 21, 2016 as "Beyond words". Subscribe here.

Benjamin Law
is a freelance writer and author of The Family Law and Gaysia.