‘No rules’: Inside Sydney Dance Company head Raf Bonachela’s latest creation


After 15 years heading up the Sydney Dance Company, artistic director, Raf Bonachela has returned to his roots and choreographed an emotional journey set to a diverse soundtrack from his native Spain.

One of Raf Bonachela’s early memories is taking road trips with his dad who grew up in the deep South of Spain.

He recalls his father endlessly playing cassettes of flamenco music (which has its home in Andalusia) and it had a predictable effect on the aspiring dancer and choreographer.

He hated it.

“We would be in the car and all the music he would play was flamenco. It was just sort of force-fed on us,” he says.

Growing up in post-Franco Spain in the late 70s and early 80s, Bonachela’s life was a world away from the beauty and glamour of the contemporary dance scene he where he would eventually shine (very) brightly.

His parents got on a bus and left Andalusia, and headed North to pursue economic opportunities in what was then Spain’s industrial hub – Barcelona in Catalonia.

It was a time of extraordinary change, the country was opening up after years of oppressive rule by both government and the Catholic church. People were looking outward, the South was seen as backward and poor. And as Bonachela points out, at that moment, flamenco and “really anything from the South” wasn’t cool.

But his dad wasn’t entirely “with” the change.

“So for me, my dad was like, ‘You love music?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Go and play the Spanish guitar.’ You love dance?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Do flamenco.’ I’m like, ‘Fuck you,’ Bonachela recounts. “Literally [my parents] paid for flamenco lessons that I never went to.”

Bonachela says that period when he was coming of age saw the beginning of pop music and pop videos from artists like Madonna and Michael Jackson and he felt he was part of something that was happening around the world, and he wanted to be “international”.

He succeeded. The better part of 50 years later he’s running the Sydney Dance Company, touring all over the world to critical acclaim and, by all accounts justifiably, takes credit for building it into a “cultural powerhouse”. The Company recently returned from an international tour, notably including the Spanish capital, Madrid, where legendary film-maker Pedro Almodóvar, attended the performances, not once, but twice.

And not only has Bonachela steered the company for a decade and a half, he has also overseen the creation of a full-time dance school with 60 students.

“So our studios, our building, is full with young talent every day that come from every corner in Australia to learn how to become a dancer,” he says.

Oh, and he’s changed his mind about flamenco too.

“When I was 18, I was in Rome. I was already in a dance company performing. I saw my first ever flamenco dance performance with live music in a festival under the full moon. I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is incredible’,” he says.

“No one took me, really, to a proper flamenco performance [before]. My parents didn’t go to the theatre. That’s not what we did. I was the weird one that wanted to dance, and sing, and all of that.”

And his latest work is, in a way, a realisation of the dreams and aspirations of that young artist.

There are no rules in contemporary dance.

Raf Bonachela

He has now created a full-length piece, informed by his past and the deeply emotional music of his Spanish youth but realised by a group of Australian dancers he has worked with for years on the other side of the world. It will be performed in the Company’s new intimate, 150-seat space in its Sydney headquarters.

The result is “Somos” (“we are” in English) – a work set to 12 songs by 12 women – Spanish and Latin American – that have been part of Bonachela’s life since leaving Spain.

Artists vary from the genre-breaking sensation Rosalía, to Mexican legend Chavela Vargas, and the inimitable Silvia Pérez Cruz.

“For me, when I hear it, I just feel like, wow, it’s beautiful. It’s just that music that gets you because there’s so much passion in it. There’s no narrative… I want the audience to have an emotional journey, whatever that will be,” he says.

It is his first major creative foray back to his roots, and one which was potentially fraught with contradictions.

He is insistent he wanted to avoid any kind of “Spanish fiesta” trope and that he should stamp it with the drama and emotion elicited by the music.

“I need[ed] to make sure that there’s an edge. I have a lot of respect for this music. I have a lot of respect for these artists. I’ve asked for permission, they’re lending me their music and I’m going to interpret it in my way,” he says.

Sitting in his sun-drenched office, overlooking a sparkling harbour in Sydney’s Walsh Bay, Bonachela’s excitement about his opening night, happening in less than 48 hours, is palpable.

So it seems a bit unfair when I ask him a potentially complex question about what would success look like for him with regard this show – given it’s so personal.

“There are no rules in contemporary dance. I want to be able to create work because I am a passionate choreographer. But most importantly what keeps me incredibly still inspired, and motivated, is the fact that I can make things happen,” he says.

“Ultimately. It doesn’t matter what the reviewers say, it doesn’t matter what’s written about it. It doesn’t matter what the clever people say. For me, it’s to be sitting in a theatre where there are people that have bought their ticket. I don’t care where they come from. I hope they come from different places, and different backgrounds. If I see that in a theatre, that, for me, is success.”

“We are making shows for people to see. I’m still really wanting to make pieces that people want to watch. I care about the audience. I want the lights, I want the costumes. I want to do something that I’m sharing with an audience. So for me to have an audience and to grow that audience is part of our success.”


From: 1 Nov – 18 Nov

Neilson Studio at Sydney Dance Company

Single Ticket Prices
$35 – $85

50 minutes

Tickets: https://www.sydneydancecompany.com

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