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Originally written for Mood of Monk

Throughout January and February of this year, Samuel Webster was invited into Sydney Dance Company’s studios by artistic director Rafael Bonachela, to experience the process behind his latest piece, LANDforms. This piece is the result of two interviews, one before the process began, and one after – the two are married by an overall attempt to observe the process at all stages.

Rafael Bonachela. Portrait by Samuel Webster 2011.

Rafael Bonachela saw me before I saw him.

I was waiting in the Sydney Dance Company cafe, handwriting abstract thoughts about the floating ornaments, the nature of empty artistic space and the necessity of freeing myself from preconceptions. I had, after all, reviewed many of his dance pieces. I was familiar with his work and – what is perhaps more detrimental to the situation – I knew what I liked about it.

I say detrimental because there is a danger in knowing why you like someone before you meet them. In the pessimist, it sets up benchmarks of character, however inaccurate. To the optimist, it creates a way of being. I could not, for example, assume that his public warmth deemed him an extrovert in the face of a stranger, or on the end of a microphone.

“You’re always writing, aren’t you?” The personal attention struck me kindly, something I would soon find as natural as his coy smile. “I’m going to get a coffee. Can I get you anything?”

Immediately, the interviewer in me begins to softly worry as Rafael – Raf to his friends –  ventures towards the counter to order. The reason is almost too self-reflexive to give note to: respect has a tendency to diminish the critical mind. I had arrived at the studios determined to create something great: I knew Rafael had much to say, and I thought I could bring it out. What I discovered over the course of the two hours is that such goals are ultimately selfish and pay no respect to the artist in question. Subjects should not be seen as fish to be fried: there is no learning there. Besides, the goal implies that Rafael is difficult to engage with and there is no statement further from the truth.

Given that he has only been artistic director for three years, the same amount of time he’s lived in Australia, I open with the basics: how much has changed since you arrived?

“Project to project, you don’t start from where you left it, but you’ve learned and resolved some questions after finishing a work.” He speaks as if explaining the simplest of things, as if everyone is involved in continuous expression. But there is an insistence in his tone, he pushes to be understood. “What’s really shifted for me now is that I have a full-time company. To be living every day with the same group of dancers…I get to know them every day, and not just through my own work, but through watching them do other work.”

I consider the tendency the company has, to present ‘double bills’ with Rafael alongside a guest choreographer. It strikes me that the programming might be a reflection of education rather than sheer variety, but Rafael refutes the notion.

“When I was approached [to be artistic director], no one came to me saying ‘this is what we want it to be.’ They came to me saying, ‘we like your choreography, so we admire what you do.’ My dream company was a company which, of course, does my work because I’m a passionate creator, but I am a choreographer that likes other choreographer’s work.”

Rafael’s gestures seem to diminish as he finds his meaning, precisely: “There is more than me in the world.”

As he speaks I can see weight on his shoulders: as the artistic director of the major modern dance company, he must feel responsible, in part, for the genre’s success in this country.

“There was a sense of duty. There is great work being made in the world and as the leading contemporary dance company, [we] should be supporting the work.”

This, of course, could be quite problematic without a qualified array of dancers to work with, artists in their own right who have always seemed more focused than extravagant. I tell him: There’s something reserved about your dancers’ approach, nothing is flamboyant for the sake of being flamboyant.

“Movement speaks for itself, movement will tell the story. I’m a sucker for that, so every added flavour has to go.”Is that why he tends to use quite simplistic costuming?

“If I could have them just in knickers and a vest, I would.”

I tell him that sort of simplicity is something I strive for in my own writing, and how criticism often gets in the way of actual emotional response to a work, but unlike mine, Rafael’s focus seems to always rest upon the audience. “You’re going to a theatre to feel and to be inspired, and to have some sort of experience. If you tell me before I go to an exhibition that I need to have a degree in Fine Art, why is that artist doing the work?

“The most satisfying moment for me is when someone comes to me and says ‘Look, I don’t understand anything, and I don’t know why, but I loved it.’ I don’t make it for the theatre reviewers, I don’t make it for the people who understand dance, I just make it because I make it, and whoever buys the ticket, buys the ticket.”

Negative criticism, as a form of writing, is often just an outcome of taste, a necessary part of representation which unfortunately affects people’s willingness to try new things. There are lots of people who won’t watch certain films because their sensibility won’t allow it.  In another vein, a lot of people won’t watch contemporary dance until they are exposed to it.

“- and that’s why I’m trying to focus on access,” he picks up my thought, midsentence, “every time I do a Work in Progress, where I talk about my process – after, people are blown away. If people got more access to that, if people understood just a little bit more that it’s not just about choosing a piece of music and putting some steps behind… There’s a lot of work we have to do with dance.”

A little while ago, I came across Sarah Wilson’s thoughts about the artist’s intentional state of confusion: the moments of chaos an artist will allow, in order to maximise expression. There is a resonance worth addressing between Rafael Bonachela and Salvador Dali’s poignant thought:

You have to systematically create confusion; it sets creativity free. Everything that is contradictory creates life.

What I have found in Bonachela is a deliberate chaos which I have since adopted as my own. Rafael’s chaos manifests itself as an openness to the subsidiary of individual resonance; that is, though he has spent time positioning his artistic drive, he is continuously open to the possibilities of the process.

The process might involve meticulously designed physical experiments or simple freeform improvisation, but whatever method, Bonachela serves a dual-role as choreographer: he is simultaneously both director and curator. He has a well-honed sense of intention, but allows himself the liberation of creation, giving his skilled players the opportunity to present and include their own experiences and understandings into the work.

Though he is, at all times, dedicated to “the work” (by referring to his pieces as such, he seems to present them as grandiose; the ultimate end to the process and the most important thing at all times) his process is both structured and fluid enough to allow for change without the risk of losing sight of the big picture.

However, the way Rafael describes his technique is far from technical, despite obvious complexity. He seems to find no intellectual divide between asking about simple movement, and relating the way his techniques operate as linguistic functions upon three layers of two dimensional spatial maps. Even that last sentence, though accurate, seems to fall out of the general consciousness, it requires thought and displays it. The simplest way I can explain it is to imagine a 2D-map, with numbered positions. Perhaps ‘1’ is at the far left, and ‘4’ is on the other end, far right. Imagine this map at floor level, assign it as the bottom layer (L). Stack two more layers on top of it, one elevated to the waist (M), another at eye level (H). If you can visualise this, you should be able to imagine L1 in relation to H4. Into this, Bonachela places the dancer, with a physical phrase, and gives him a list: L3, L4, M4, H4, M2, L1, H3. Imagine the dancer, with his grace and poise, moving from point to point expressing a notion. Make it two dancers, now three, joined at all times. How about five?

Even now, while trying to be simple, I find myself dragged into the mathematics of the situation, a spatial construction in which Rafael feels at home. He gesticulates as he talks, in a way that suits a profoundly European man who has spent the last decade between the UK and Australia.

I find myself scanning my memory for a connected thought. Perhaps it lies in the narration to Jorgen Leth’s “The Perfect Human”: We will see the perfect human functioning. How does such a number function? What kind of thing is it? We will look into that, we will investigate that.


“I knew, as a duet, it would be fine,” he explains. “I knew as a trio, it’d be fine. Then I threw five people in there – five very specific people. There are some lifts with Juliette, with her neck on his neck, and her toe out. If I hadn’t put them in that task, she would have never had her neck on his neck, or her foot there. That’s what I love about the task… some tasks didn’t take me anywhere, but the fact that they spent a day doing that, and I got that moment, it’s worth it for me.”

I tell him that I’ve noticed that one movement in particular, Snow, is noticeably complex in comparison to his former work, and wonder aloud whether it is the pressure of modern criticism which draws him to more intricate formations.

“Harder is not better…” After the first word, he pauses, as if trying to afford his language specificity. I become aware that with his accent comes a tendency to worry about his English, despite his eloquence. “Obviously I appreciate intricacy – I just adore something that’s beautifully put together, but complex. For me, that movement had to be this very square, precise thing –  it’s very geometrical because a blizzard is very fast, it’s almost so fast you don’t see anything… those are my reasons, but it’s subliminal. It moves beyond the steps. The steps are nothing, in a sense. They’re everything but they’re not, because it’s the idea behind the steps and the structure. You could have the most beautiful dance phrase, but it depends how you put it together, and how it exists that’s going to make the difference.”

When I respond to his self-reflection with my own, illustrating the novel-writing technique which positions a novel as a snowflake – multiple triangles, each with consecutively smaller triangles on each of their three sides. He agrees with me that the work can be about starting with the bigger picture and moving to smaller, sections, becoming more abstract as they become more abstract, yet the voicing of such ideas seems foreign to him.

“For me it’s interesting to be doing this with you, because I never sit and analyse myself.” Rafael’s hands, often seen with splayed fingers, turn in on himself. “To actually be talking in a way where you’ve been in the room, because when people [usually] interview me they’re not in the room.. It makes me think, “how do I get there?” here’s a lot I don’t know at the beginning, but I know, because it happens… and it comes by being open and by pushing yourself.”

But it’s not just about one man, inside his creative process. Rafael has to share the space with sixteen dancers, there is a necessity to accommodate them artistically and, he tells me, he is delighted with the results. As creator, he can stand back and let freeform improvisation unfold, while keeping the work in mind.

“It’s about allowing those individual thoughts, movements, ideas to happen” He muses, his arms gesticulating in the small circles which become him. “but only if it fits with what I have in mind will it go into the work.”

I wonder if that makes him more of a curator, playing devil’s advocate to try and tease from him some further consideration. Is there a danger in becoming a pastiche artist of movement?

“Everything which is presented to me has come from somewhere else; it always stems from my idea. I have a list of [physical] phrases – some of them are very open, and they trigger things which I don’t expect, and I like them because they resonate with the work – There was one called ‘Paradise” and it was about taking one of the photocopied pictures and going inside the picture, and saying, ‘how do you feel’, ‘how do you dance’, ‘what do you do’ and that’s as open as you could get.

“If you don’t ask, you don’t get it. Some things make it to the cut, some things not. It changes from piece to piece, someone who has danced in the last piece, maybe is not dancing – it’s not about their pretty face or their hairstyle, it’s just about the work.”

There is a duality to Bonachela’s process. Though he describes himself as being intensely focussed on the work, he is a benevolent creator. I saw him often in the studios, coming forward, his shoulders hunched in humility, his hands turning their palms open as he praised the dancers. Each one brings in their own life experiences, and it enters the work naturally, as through any vessel of expression.

“One day, I started working with Lachlan and Juliette and one thing happened between them and I thought, ‘that is the key…”  On the spot, I started choreographing – not even sending them to go and think. It had to be about touching, pushing and letting go, touching, pushing and letting go – and that was it, we had it!”

As he describes the phrase, he leans forward and clasps his wrist gently around mine, then pulls it back. It’s not the first time I’ve seen him break out of the banal physicality of an interview. His passion extends through his eyebrows and through his fingertips. He is charismatic and tender. It is almost impossible to view him out of the artistic role for it inhabits his physicality so completely.

To allow myself a slight mode of confession, I must admit that over the five weeks I spent in Rafael’s studio, I found myself becoming more open as an artist. I was there, composing the poetry for Protogenos, and taking photos, and my creative process was engaged with his. However, when it came to the other stresses of life, I found myself weakened emotionally and physically. The openness brought forth poetry from the metaphysical – areas I had not consciously ventured into – but it also brought a profound sense of responsibility, of creative pressure, of negativity and its psychological ills.

I feel drawn to ask Rafael if he felt the same rawness throughout, but he did not. He tells me simply: “I am an optimist by choice.” He simply disconnects from negativity in favour of a more creative spirit.

The Perfect Human comes to mind again, not to elevate him to such a status, but to draw a connection between my experience watching Rafael over a number of weeks, and  Jorgen Leth’s concept of vulnerability.

To paint myself in so few words, I must default to quotation: Today, I experienced something which I hope to understand in a few days. In the middle of my heart there was a small white spot. I don’t know what it’s supposed to mean.

Protogenos will be sold at Shared Frequencies, the program which debuts LANDforms. The book is a series of dance photographs and visual poems, inspired by LANDforms, and Sydney Dance Company’s Dancers. For more information, view the media pack here. Shared Frequencies runs from March 30th through to April 16th at the Sydney Theatre.

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