• Working together on 'Lux Tenebris'" Rafael Bonachela and Nick Wales with dancer Richard Cilli.
    Working together on 'Lux Tenebris'" Rafael Bonachela and Nick Wales with dancer Richard Cilli.

Rafael Bonachela, the artistic director of Sydney Dance Company, and musician Nick Wales have collaborated on six works together.

RAFAEL Bonachela first met the man who was to become his good friend and artistic collaborator when he came to Australia from Spain in 2008 as a guest choreographer for Sydney Dance Company, before he had been appointed as the company’s leader. It was about five years before the pair began working together.

What was your first impression of Nick?
I remember this really funny, smiling person. I really only started talking to him in the last week I was there because the time was so intense for me. He invited me to meet some friends. He was really sweet, welcoming, and had made an effort to talk to me and make a friendship. So when I came back I got in touch and that was the beginning of the friendship.

Tell us about your first collaboration?
It was after at least three or four years of living in Australia that I went from knowing Nick to working with Nick. It was partly because he was such a dear friend, we were really best mates. He also already had a wonderful ongoing collaboration with [choreographer] Shaun Parker. I was just making friends and also getting to know people.

Eventually I asked him to help me to put some music together for 2 One Another. The arc of the work, for me, needed something a bit more punchy, and the existing music I was exploring just wasn’t suitable. He took the initiative and composed a 20 minute piece of music, punchy music, but also with strings.

He took guidance from the music which I had already selected, and added percussion, and he had this idea to record the dancers saying Samuel Webster’s poetry and thread it through the work. So he didn’t just make the 15 minute piece, he also linked the other pieces together with something that was coherent. And then I knew I had found the person who has the sensitivity – who really understands my taste for lyrical and traditional but also my interest in the more edgier, punchy music. He’s a classically trained composer, but also likes clubbing and listening to minimal, electronic music – he actually plays in clubs – he has this real interest and curiosity, as a human being, in opposite sides of music. Maybe that’s why we get on as human beings, we really care about each other.

What is your method for working together?
Sometimes I’m the one offering the concept, to which he responds, but not always. We exchange emails a lot, and random words. I [might not] know what the piece is going to be yet, but I’m open enough to involve him in it. Then we go to the studio, and I might sit on the sofa, looking at the news, or playing randomly with music. For Lux Tenebris, for instance, at first I didn’t know the concept, but I had a feeling it would be a dark place, but a place of beauty. I remember something had been discovered about a planet, and then Nick also found that there were sounds that they had recorded of that planet, and eventually we were on the internet and we found the words “Lux Tenebris, Light in Darkness”, and I realised that this was what this work was about.

[Usually] I start the process with Nick about a year [before the scheduled premiere]. If possible I start [choreographing] from day one with the entire piece of music, or at least 40 minutes out of fifty. If I don’t have the music as early as possible, I don’t have time to be fair to the music. I need time to digest it; I need time to get it wrong.

When we started Ab [Intra], there was a whole section I didn’t have, but that was okay, because I didn’t have a clue what the work was going to be like. He needed to see where I was going. So he waited a bit, came into the studio, [I showed him a section of the choreography], and he really reacted to it. But I cannot start and not have anything. That’s suicidal. I’ve done it before, and I always feel like I’m never catching up to the music and haven’t done a good enough job choreographically because I didn’t have time to immerse myself.

My process is: I’ve got the music, I listen to it at home and whenever I can for weeks. Then I go to the studio, I sort of let the music go, and I start my process. Then when I have about six minutes of dance, I start trying the material to the music, because if the music is finished and I have nothing, it’s overwhelming. I need to have a little bit of music to play with – I might chop and change, make it longer, choreograph on the spot if I have to, but I’ve got something. I start dividing the music, and I divide the choreography, it’s like a puzzle. The music guides the order of the choreography.

I don’t make steps to the notes, I make steps to the feelings. I’m driven by the mood, the sensation, the dynamic.

Any disagreements?
One of the things I’ve learned about collaborations is that if you’re not honest it can be suicidal.

Sometimes I have to say, “I’m not feeling it”, and he’ll be like, “Do you think I should keep going with it?”, because it’s a lot of work and hours in the studio by himself before I come back again. I have to say, “If you want to keep working with it just do it for a bit longer but I have to tell you that there is something about it that is not quite right.” Sometimes it’s instinctive, you don’t know why.

Sometimes we have to drop it, and he’s okay with it. But I’m not flippant; I have to be honest, I don’t feel great about it, but it’s not personal. He loves world music and he’s always trying to push in some sound – it’s so funny! And sometimes it survives! I have to give him the time and me the time for the music to evolve. It works both ways, he pushes me and vice versa.

He tells me things about the choreography. I’ve learnt to listen to him, and he’s often right! I really take his comments on board.


First impression?
He seemed determined. He was very focused on what he was doing, and we didn’t actually meet until the work was done. But he was also very friendly and warm, a lovely person.

When Raf came back to Sydney he said he had one phone number in his phone, which was mine! And we became really good friends. Because I had a relationship with Shaun Parker and because we were friends he wanted to make sure that our friendship wasn’t jeopardised by us working together. Then he asked me to create some small bridging passages for some music he’d already picked for 2 One Another. I saw it as a great opportunity so I ended up delivering him 18 minutes of music. He was looking for a climax for the work and nothing he’d found really hit the mark, so I thought, I’ll have a go and write something, and he really liked it.

Your process together?
It’s one that’s very much based on trust. Raf, in his general output, often likes very classical things, but he also likes very electronic things. So when we collaborate he’s usually looking for more of the abstract electronic type of sound. I combine strings and classical music and instrumentations with electronics, and that’s the sound he really likes to embrace.

Early on in the process we get together and think of some ideas, and I start writing music for the dance four or five months in advance. He’ll come into the studio and I’ll get a feel for what he likes and doesn’t like.

We work in parallel but not entirely together. He creates the dance without the music to begin with. I keep writing the music and because the dance starts much later than my process I don’t see it until a lot of my music is done. And then we tweak some sections, or develop or extend.

He’s always trying for me not to have any world music influences, but I always try to sneak them in and see if he notices. That’s a kind of running joke we have. Monks and African drums, Middle Eastern Dervish flutes. I don’t think I’ve fooled him but he often ends up liking the sound of it.

His work is very clean and very abstract and refined, so a lot of the music has that clean energy, like very defined electronica. He quite likes it hard-hitting, not soft, music with drive and passion, regardless of the style. I think it’s the Spanish in his blood. He’s always encouraging me to push the music over the edge, so that it’s almost losing control of itself in terms of its abstraction and its general form, so it’s not too recognisable and not derivative of anything in particular.

I think he’s probably pushed me in areas I wouldn’t have gone, away from melody and those sorts of things and more into abstraction, which I’ve found really interesting. If anything sounds too filmic, or that sort of territory, he won’t like it, although it needs to have a certain amount of listenability to it. He’s not interested in weird for weird’s sake, but he’s interested in pushing the boundaries in what’s possible musically, and with dance as well of course, and the music reflects the abstraction.

Any disagreements?
Just about world music. He calls it National Geographic.

When I gave him the music for 2 One Another [the first piece we worked on together], he was travelling around quite a bit and I didn’t hear back from him, and I thought he must have hated it. Then I met up with him in Brazil on a holiday, and he still didn’t say anything, and then, three hours in [to the meeting] I asked him, Raf, what do you think of it? And it turned out he hadn’t had time to listen to it. I think he was probably terrified of what he might think as well.

It’s always funny seeing the dance to the music for the first time. I generally really like it but there was one piece, Ab [Intra], I’d been working on that was quite special to me, and the climax ended up just being a solo dancer. I generally don’t comment on things but I really felt that there was a moment musically that he wasn’t taking advantage of. I thought the dance had more potential than what was going on. That was really the only time I suggested he readdress a section. And he took that on board and he did change it.

But we give each other space to do what we feel, and that’s probably the important thing about collaboration, not to over-control anyone, and have that trust in each other. If you’re meddling in someone else’s process that’s a different art form to yours, their voices will be stifled. At the end of the day, you will get the best result through granting creative freedom to each other.

It’s a balance of friendship and work but it comes down to respect. We don’t really have any arguments. I must say though that most collaborations I do are with friends, that’s how they come about, through friendships. If you have that rapport you can explore creative things together.


Works together

  • 2 One Another
  • 2 in D Minor
  • Scattered Rhymes (with Tarik O’Regan)
  • Emergence (with Sarah Blasko)
  • Lux Tenebris
  • Ab [Intra]

Wales has also composed eight pieces for Shaun Parker and Company, including AM I, The Yard, This Show is About People, Happy as Larry, Spill and Trolleys.

This feature was first published in the December '18/January '19 edition of Dance Australia. Want more like this? Buy the latest edition of Dance Australia at your favourite retail outlet, or online here... OR never miss an issue by subscribing here.

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