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5 minutes with Rafael Bonachela, Artistic Director & Choreographer, Sydney Dance Company

Sydney Dance Company’s Les Illuminations premieres this month, set to a score by one of the world’s greatest composers: Benjamin Britten.

5 minutes with Rafael Bonachela, Artistic Director & Choreographer, Sydney Dance Company

This August, the Sydney Opera House will present the world premiere of Sydney Dance Company’s Les Illuminations, a new work by Rafael Bonachela, set to a score by one of the world’s greatest composers, Benjamin Britten, and performed live on stage by Australian songstress Katie Noonan. We speak with Rafael about the intimate new work.

What inspired the new work?

Katie and I had been looking for an opportunity to work together again since our collaboration on LANDforms in 2011. She came across Benjamin Britten’s Les Illuminations and felt that it would be a beautiful piece to be choreographed, so I was instantly intrigued. The music provides a very rich well of inspiration for the dancers and myself to draw on – from the texture of Katie’s voice, to the gorgeous imagery in the poetry and in the musical score.

Could you tell me a bit about the process of creating such an intimate work to the score by Benjamin Britten? What were some of the challenges you faced here?

Working with Britten’s score is definitely challenging, as it is quite complex rhythmically. However, I am very much enjoying working with the complexity, and also struggling with it at times, but that is what makes creating a new work interesting. The score is in two parts, comprising Britten’s Simple Symphony, followed by Les Illuminations, and so I am choreographing to two different pieces of music at once. The greatest challenge is how to find a unique identity within each piece (Les Illuminations and Simple Symphony) but also variety and different qualities in each of the duets. Also, we decided that to make the show more intimate, it would be performed in the round, so I am working on a very limited space, which is like a catwalk. That in itself is an exciting challenge and the first time I have created a piece where people will see the work from both sides.

How did you go about conveying the romance of the piece on the stage?

I have always as a choreographer been really interested in duet making. As soon as you put two people together connecting and interacting through movement it is easily read into a relationship, it is as simple as that. So in this piece I have been able to explore this. It is not all about romance however, when you look at the poems for Les Illuminations some are very tender and romantic but there is also some quite dark imagery. They talk about life as a savage parade and also explore the chaos of cities, the underworld, pain and tragedy.

It’s a smaller ensemble of dancers than you usually work with. What does this offer the work over a larger one?

Working with duets of dancers I hope will create a sense of intimacy, which really draws people in to that world. Working with a smaller ensemble does have the effect of distilling and concentrating the emotional intensity, which really pairs well with the score, the solo voice and the evocative poetry. The audience also has a centre of focus instead of it being spread across a larger ensemble and this creates its own emotional intensity.

What was it like working with Katie again? What did she bring to the production?

It is always amazing to work with Katie so I feel very lucky to have had two opportunities now! Of course there is that voice – I could listen to her sing all day. She has a very direct emotional connection with audiences and a purity and clarity in her voice, which is so unique. Apart from her amazing vocals, Katie also brings her interpretation of Rimbaud’s poetry and some of the key phrases and words that have inspired her. For Les Illuminations I have an amazing team of collaborators including Katie, musicians of the SSO, the wonderful Toni Maticevski for costumes and Benjamin Cisterne for lighting and set design, and we have all been very open and generous in sharing ideas and thoughts in creating the work.

Toni Matičevski was on costume duties, marking a first-time collaboration for the SDC. What can we expect to see?

I have seen some sketches and they are exquisite but I won’t be revealing anything just yet! There are two worlds that we explore over the course of the evening ­– for the first part of the evening which is set to Britten’s Simple Symphony the whole design palette is very youthful and innocent whilst Les Illuminations is much darker and more intense.

Is the production expected to head overseas?

We would love to tour the production, and I have tried to build in a lot of flexibility so it can be staged in a variety of ways. It is definitely on the wish list! For this year, however, we have a big international tour of 2 One Another (which premiered in 2012) to South America, Mexico, USA and Russia in September/ October. So there is plenty to keep us busy!

Sydney Dance Company’s Les Illuminations is showing at Studio, Sydney Opera House from 28–31 August, 2013.
To book tickets, visit

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