From small-town Spain to head of Sydney Dance Company: Rafael Bonachela's First Day

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Spanish-born Rafael Bonachela, now Artistic Director of the Sydney Dance Company, shares his memories of his first day in Australia, and takes Janice Petersen through his treasured family album.

Sydney Dance Company's Rafael Bonachela seems relaxed and grounded as he invites me into his breezy, light-filled apartment in Sydney’s eastern suburbs.

It’s not just that the Artistic Director happens to be barefoot, he’s relishing a rare afternoon off work in a home that’s a world away from the Spanish town of his childhood.

The sinewy Spaniard was born with an insatiable desire to move his body - and bring others along for the ride.

He'd put on performances in his small town in Barcelona, long before he knew it was an art form he would dedicate his life to.

The choreographer and dancer has been at the helm of the Sydney Dance Company for eight years and is happy to heap praise on his new homeland.

“Australia has made a dream come true which is the dream I had as a little child in Spain which was to do with dance before I knew that dance could become a profession and that you could earn your living and that you could create choreography and make a dance as I used to call it as a child,” he says.

First Day Bonachela
Rafael Bonachela as a young dancer.
SBS

Bonachela was born at the end of Francoist Spain, a time when dictator Francisco Franco rose to power during the Spanish Civil War.

The dancer was three years old when Franco died and the country moved back to democratic rule.

“When I was born in La Garriga it was a society which was going through 36 years of dictatorship and it had gone through a lot of war before that and a lot of pain and a lot of horrible things that happened," he says.

"I was born at a time of hope and of change and that change happened very, very quickly.”

First Day Bonachela
Rafael Bonachela says he was "born at a time of hope and of change" in Spain.
SBS

He reflects on his childhood as he thumbs through faded photographs of himself as a boy dressed in various home-spun costumes, treading the boards around his tight-knit neighbourhood.

“It was a very small town, a country town like you would say in Australia and I loved dancing. But it was something that my parents didn't know what to do with it but that didn't stop them from supporting me as a young kid," he says.

"I'm a pre-Billy Elliot boy. I always say there's a pre and a post. The post, it's much easier for boys to dance and to not feel like there's something wrong about it.”

That love of dance proved irrepressible and led him to London where the then teenager revelled in the boundless energy and creativity of his cohort.

After two decades though, he set his sights on Australia where he would take the reins of one of the country's leading dance companies, the SDC.

“I was 38, I was single and I was ready for another challenge, so I just took it on and I packed my bags and literally within two weeks and one suitcase, I moved to Australia,” he says.

First Day Bonachela
Rafael Bonachela thumbs through his family album.
SBS

His memories of his first day in the country are seared into his mind with all the force of a harsh Australian sun.

“I was looking forward to this new chapter. I had never been to Brisbane and it was December and it was so hot. It was so sunny," he says.

"The space around the sky and everything about it and I actually, in fact I connected so much with my childhood because I spent my childhood in Spain where there was the sun, there was the good weather where there was the Mediterranean life and in a way I felt immediately at home in that sense.”

And while he’s a fan of the laidback attitude of many Australians, much more dynamic traits resonate more deeply.

“I have known many Australians throughout my career in dancing and other projects and for me my impressions were that in dance there was a real curiosity and also a wish to go into a next chapter and to find out more things," he says.

"I have found a lot of passion. I am very fortunate to work in the arts and when you work in the arts you have to be passionate there's no two ways about it. You do it because there's a need to do it, because you want to communicate with people, because you want people to be moved, people to be inspired.

"People need to feel something and if we don’t have that in the arts then I don’t know where we're going to have it.”

First Day Bonachela
Rafael Bonachela in one of his early performances.
SBS

On a rare work trip to Barcelona in 2011 with the SDC, he was able to show his childhood friends what became of the boy who loved to dance.

“My mum organised the bus from my home town," he says. "It felt like a wonderful circle that all these people that saw me dance when I was a child and I was literally dancing in the streets just because I loved doing it, because I loved sharing it and I loved putting up a show.

"To come back later, many, many years later with Sydney Dance Company and to be performing in a theatre in Barcelona was a very, very special moment for me and for my family.”

And while he has mastered the universal language of dance, the nuances of the local lingo back in Sydney still keeps this seasoned performer on his toes.

“I would hear like, 'arvo' and a lot of words that make so much sense to everyone but I was like, 'Oh I thought I knew English and now I have to learn all these other ways of speaking,'" he says.

"But I find that funny and now use them of course and I go back to London and everyone thinks I have an Australian accent."

And it's an accent he continues to work on, along with building a lasting legacy of moving dancers' bodies and audiences the world over.

“I hope that I've given to Australia a new way of seeing dance," he says. "I've created my own work but at the same time invited many choreographers that had never presented their work here in Australia and that's something that I was very aware from the beginning. What I learned from dance and to be able to share that here.”

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