Rafael Bonachela On Sydney Dance Company's 50 Years

Rebecca Varidel
3rd Nov 2019

Even as a fan, a lover, a supporter of Sydney Dance Company I learnt something more of its history, and of its future in this interview with Artistic Director Rafael Bonachela, that I'm delighted to share with you.

2019 is the 50th anniversary of Sydney Dance Company. What has the company meant to contemporary dance in this country and internationally?

I am delighted to present our 50th Anniversary program. Much is owed to those many artists that have contributed to Sydney Dance Company in the last 50 years - over 250 dancers, dozens of composers and designers and the artistic leadership of Suzanne Musitz, Jaap Flier, Graeme Murphy and Tanja Liedtke.

The cumulative efforts of these artists have been to build a company which has for 50 years, defined contemporary dance in Australia and offered transformative experiences to audiences here and around the world.

I have chosen to celebrate this important milestone by commissioning a range of Australian voices – a tribute and continuance to the extraordinary investment that Sydney Dance Company has made to the Australian cultural landscape over five decades.

It has been a great joy to program my tenth season and I look forward to sharing the stage with the unique voices that this program encompasses.

What changes did the first years of Sydney Dance Company bring? I remember until that time for example, there was a definite 'look' for example in ballet, where all the dancers were the same height, the same body shape. 

Sydney Dance Company has gone through so many transformations and rebirths in its 50 years. It only became known under that title in 1979. Before, we were called Ballet in a Nutshell, Athletes & Dancers and The Dance Company (NSW). I think a big turning point for the Company came in 1969, when the founding Artistic Director Suzanne Musitz announced “No bourees, no arabesques and no pointe shoes!” That ethos really carried throughout the years of the Artistic Directorship of Graeme Murphy, who was at the helm of the company for more than thirty years. He created iconic works like Poppy, Scheherazade and Rumours – some of our long term followers will probably remember these! We also performed at Darlinghurst nightclub Kinselas in 1983 for the first time, which was a huge step for us. We were taking contemporary dance to a whole new audience, introducing people to Sydney Dance Company who otherwise would never have heard about us.

I think most characteristic to the Company, we aren’t afraid to mix a classical dance aesthetic with unleashed imagination, curiosity and human emotion. To this day, we want to be able to push boundaries and challenge expectations. The spirit of bringing transformative dance experiences that speak to audiences here and around the world has stayed with the Company from the very beginning. Now that we’re celebrating our 50th birthday, it’s a time to pause and reflect on the Company’s honourable history, where we now stand, and look towards the future.

When did you become artistic director Rafael? How has the repertoire changed since your arrival?

In 2008, I was honoured to be commissioned by Sydney Dance Company to choreograph 360° - my very first work for the Company. At that time, I was based in London, choreographing for Bonachela Dance Company, a company I formed in 2006. Four months later, I was offered the job as Artistic Director at Sydney Dance Company and moved to Australia.

As Artistic Director and resident choreographer I approach the repertoire we stage in different ways. As the resident choreographer I’m very passionate about creating new works to give our company it’s signature by developing an identity and aesthetic that is uniquely ours. As the Artistic Director and curator my focus has been on introducing international choreographers to Australia for the first time.

In the past few years, I’ve begun commissioning and supporting more home-grown talent, because I feel that it’s important to also showcase great Australian choreographers when we go abroad. That is what makes us unique.

As an audience, we've enjoyed a lot of collaborations over the last few years. Can you tell us about some of them?

Absolutely. I am constantly collaborating with different artists. It’s a way of staying connected to an ongoing source of stimulation. They help me concept and search for new creative ideas to explore.

There are some people I’ve worked with continually over the years. For example, the extraordinary composer Nick Wales is one of my long-time collaborators. We have such an organic relationship. We’ve collaborated together for nine works so we’ve really developed a language of trust and knowledge between each other.

I’m also constantly seeking out new collaborators I am interested in and admire. I don’t always know how it is going to work out and what the process is going to be like, but that is part of the creative adventure. I’ll be collaborating with the wonderful Australian fashion designer Bianca Spender for the first time next year. She will be designing all the costumes for my new work Cinco as part of Season One. I’m also so excited to be working again with choreographers Gabrielle Nankivell, Melanie Lane and Gideon Obarzanek. I can’t wait!

And what does the program for 2019 hold? Can you give us a sneak peak into the 50th anniversary year of Sydney Dance Company?

In the 50 years that Sydney Dance Company has existed, the company has done a lot to invest in the cultural landscape of Australia. I wanted to celebrate this very important milestone for the company by commissioning Australian voices.  So, I’ve asked three Australian based choreographers whom I admire very much to create new works. Gabrielle Nankivell, Melanie Lane and Gideon Obarzanek have made wonderful works for us in the past and I’m very excited to have them work with us again.

As this year also marks my 10 years anniversary as Artistic Director, I am creating a new work called Cinco.  It’s for 5 dancers and set to a powerful string quartet in 5 movements by Argentinian composer, Alberto Ginastera.  For the costumes I'm collaborating with a wonderful Australian fashion designer, Bianca Spender.  I’m really excited about it, because in the past I’ve focused on larger ensemble pieces that involve everyone in the company.  But with this work, I’m enjoying having a smaller group to work with, dig deeper and be able to focus on the intimacy and virtuosity of individual dancers.

For this program we thought about how the history of the company lies in the body of the dancers and the memory of the audience.  Gideon Obarzanek is very experienced and interested in audience participation, so the work he is making will involve audience members as well as current and former dancers. 25 audience members will wear earpieces during the show and receive instructions. We’ve also invited former dancers to come to Sydney for a month to work with us on creating the piece together with our current dancers. It should be a very fun and celebratory work with 50 people on stage together each night.  It’s a way to create something new that pays homage to the past.


Rafael Bonachela On Sydney Dance Company's 50 Years was first published on Sydney Scoop in November 2018, and is republished for opening night Season Two celebrating the 50th anniversary.