Sydney Dance Company Artistic Director Rafael Bonachela on what the arts mean in a time of crisis
Like dance companies the world over, and just days out from opening night, Sydney Dance Company was placed on pause. Not paused indefinitely, but on hold until the threat of Covid-19 passes. What follows is a condensed version of my phone conversation with the company’s artistic director Rafael Bonachela, who spoke candidly about his family in Spain, how the dancers are keeping fit, SDC’s new virtual studios, and the importance of the arts in a time of crisis.
First of all, how you are, where are you?
RB: Well look I’m at home. We are all at home at Sydney Dance Company. All of the admin staff is working from home. And then also the dancers are at home. Obviously you know it’s not the same working at home as a dancer as it is when you’re in an office. I’ll go back a little bit. We went to the theatre to do our technical rehearsal two weeks ago, three weeks ago, and on the second day once we had the tech the Forsythe to work . . .
Let me just go back in case people don’t know, Sydney Dance Company were literally days from opening night of your latest triple bill “Bonachela/Forsythe”. . .
RB: Yes days from opening night. Literally three days from opening night… in tech rehearsal. And then just everything started to get a little bit, you know, worse. We were following all the government recommendations, but then we had a student from our pre-professional year that showed some of the symptoms. And at that point, once we heard that somebody in our environment had a sore throat we sent everyone home into isolation. And thank God, he did not have Covid-19. So we took an abundance of care for everyone, but it was important to us that no-one got sick. So, we sent everyone home on the Tuesday night. I continued just to do the lighting, because I could be just with two people finishing that up. And then we just went home.
So, this is the Tuesday [March 17], and the preview was onstage on Saturday night [March 21]?
RB: That’s right. The preview was on the Saturday night. And then the opening night was on the Monday. So, we were very, very close to opening night. And we knew, in fact, we knew we were not opening, it had already been said that no more than 500 people could come together. At that point, 100 people could be together, so we could still keep working. We knew that we would never open but at least wanted to tech it because we had created a full programme. We had a world premiere, with the newly commissioned music that the Australian String Quartet were going play live on stage. It was a very, very exciting beginning of the year for us.
CL: So really this is quite early on in the social distancing rules—no more than 100 people can be together?
RB: Yeah. So, what we were able to do, which was amazing, was on that weekend before the opening, the Australian String Quartet went to a recording studio in Sydney, and we recorded the Bryce Dessner piece that had been commissioned and was going to be played live on stage. We are, at the moment, in the process of editing and producing the music that’s in the work.
So, in the future you will have elements of your new work, perhaps to even do a remote opening night? You have the music, you’ve done the tech check. . .
RB: Absolutely. Look, at that point we thought that we could still do a little bit around New South Wales too. You know, at that point we thought we would be able to maybe have the world premiere in Orange or Dubbo, like “the show must go on.” But now we know that we can’t because people cannot gather in the theatre. So, the music, I don’t know if it will be released so people can hear it before the world premiere. Maybe we will wait, but at least we have something. And you are right, you know depending how long we are in this situation we’ll have to be responding artistically. And having the music recorded and edited and produced you know it’s something, something that we can go with.
I feel that for the arts the Covid-19 pandemic has been particularly devastating. But then again, from the global perspective many people will suffer much greater losses that it can feel almost selfish to feel flat about the loss of a creative work. How do you work through that?
RB: Yeah, but you know, that’s where the arts is the medicine. You know the arts is the medicine that allows people to connect and to escape and to enrich themselves when we’re stuck at home, when we cannot do anything. At the same time that I was preparing this my brother was in intensive care in hospital in Spain.
The arts is the medicine that allows people to connect and to escape and to enrich themselves when we’re stuck at home, when we cannot do anything.
I’m so sorry to hear that.
RB: He’s out of the hospital now, so I can tell you that he’s one of the lucky ones.
Did he have the virus?
RB: Yes, he had Covid-19 yes. He went on a business trip and the three people that went on this business trip from Barcelona to Madrid came back with the virus. And, so for me it was interesting because what I do and how much I believe in the power of the arts is what’s keeping me sane from what was going on [to] a person that I love, my brother that was so far away from me, and his wife with three kids, my mother. I mean the whole situation was, like, tragic.
Is he better?
RB: He’s better. He’s better and he’s finally at home. But he was the first person to come out of intensive care in that hospital.
And your mother, is she okay?
RB: She’s fine. She was already in isolation, because she’s in her seventies. And the wife of another brother, she’s a doctor in that hospital that my brother was put in. So, we already put my mother in isolation before the government in Australia even started to talk about this virus. So in a way, I was seeing what the future was going to be in Australia.
So, you actually had a sense of where Australia could be headed?
RB: I did. As soon as I knew that there was someone unwell [in SDC], although it was not Covid-19 eventually, but it took a few days to find out, that’s when I said, that’s it, forget it. Everybody home. I hadn’t told anyone at that point about my brother because I was just trying to keeping it together. And work and being able to create something was what’s keeping me. You know, then would I finish at five o’clock [then I was] on the phone with my family, my brother’s wife and my mother, because for them it was going into the night. I was living almost in two time zones.
How do you think Sydney Dance Company will re-emerge?
RB: Look, you know, it’s devastating, and we’re going to have huge, significant revenue falls. The fact that we could produce a show [“Bonachela/Forsythe”] and that we were not able to put it on stage and we were not able to sell tickets and of course, all of the international tours were cancelled. Sydney Dance Company also have a business of offering classes, there are eighty thousand participations a year, that is, taking a dance class. Sydney Dance Company and many, many other arts organisations have to be incredibly resourceful to survive, entrepreneurial. You know, we’re not fully funded by any stretch of the imagination. So, every little bit that every company can make themselves to survive is essential.
To keep the whole company afloat?
RB: Exactly. So, for us it will be huge. But I’m an optimist. But it will not be easy, for a while, and I don’t know how long that will be. But at the same time I feel like there will be, and I hope not just the Sydney Dance Company but with the whole world, that this crisis brings, like, a renewed energy in what we do. People are being cooped at home and they then really realise the importance of music, dance and people . . . of connection. Yeah. But it won’t be easy, I know that. But at the same time, the truth is, that it’s never easy for the arts. I mean this is a bigger war than ever, but, you know, I spend my whole life fighting—fighting to get money to go to London, fighting to fundraise to have my own company. People often say to me, “oh you’ve done so well,” and I’m like yeah, but there’s so much I didn’t get. You know, like, I got to where I got working really hard. And that’s what art is, working hard, and we’re not scared of that.
So, that tenacity, the perseverance, it will continue.
RB: Yeah. Exactly. So I think this is just like you said, it’s the whole world, it’s not just us, and it’s not just the arts. It affects every layer of, you know . . .
. . . society?
RB: A very important part of the survival of the arts in Australia is philanthropy, philanthropy and sponsorships you know, and people will be affected in every way financially.
So, you’ll need to find new ways?
RB: Exactly new ways.
Of keeping those audiences?
RB: Absolutely. So it will be an interesting journey.
And how are the dancers?
RB: They’re good. Look we’ve kept doing two classes a day.
Two virtual classes?
RB: Absolutely. One at 9:30am, one at 3pm. The 9:30am class is ballet or contemporary. The 3pm class is improv or conditioning. We even did a steps class yesterday from the ’80s. We went right back to the ’80s! It is very important to stay mentally and physically healthy. And then we’ve had meetings on Zoom with everybody, you know, to have constant chats about what is going on and reassuring people of where we’re at and what we’re trying to do. Some of the dancers have been teaching in the new virtual studio, which has been amazing. I’ve had conversations with the dancers saying, look, I think our job description right now is out the window, so any hidden talent, anything that you want to do, anything that anyone wants to upskill on, you name it.
Has anyone come out of the woodwork with a special talent?
RB: Yeah. Oh, absolutely. You know Liam [Green] is incredible with data, we’ve being doing a lot of customer surveys lately with our new virtual studios, so he’s been able to do graphs! And other people are supporting technically and have been making little videos for the company. We’ve started literally like a spreadsheet of what people wanted to do, what people wanted to learn that they’ve never done before.
That’s a real positive. You never know really what careers might come out of this!
RB: Absolutely. Absolutely.
I wanted to ask you about Janessa Dufty who was due to give the final performance of her career during this season of “Bonachela/Forsythe.”
RB: Look, Janessa and I started on day one together. Like, I got this job in Sydney and two weeks after I did an open audition. Because I was in a new country where I knew very few people and I was like, let’s call an audition and see who appears, and Janessa was that incredibly talented, beautiful, gorgeous dancer.
So, that was twelve years ago?
RB: Yeah, yeah, twelve years ago. I thought it was eleven but suddenly she reminded me it was twelve! And we’ve grown together in every possible way. So, it’s devastating [that she couldn’t perform her final show]. But I have to say that she’s still been so incredibly gracious, she just smiles through the worst of situations. I posted this film of her on Sunday [on Instagram]. And she’s like “oh my God, I’ve never seen this footage.” And she’s been posting stuff online. And you know, we’ll do something bigger in a few weeks to celebrate.
Obviously classes are not running in the studios at the moment, so what has SDC done to fill that gap?
RB: We certainly didn’t anticipate that we would be creating a virtual studio basically overnight. But that’s what happened, because we have this incredible family and community—which is the eighty thousand participants a year, that come and take a class, ballet, jazz, hip hop, contemporary, stretch.
RB: And that was just in our studios at Wattle Street. The truth is that we have already for a few years been talking about delivering learning online, because we live in a huge country where people live remotely. So in our, sort of, future planning there was always this idea of how to create learning that could be delivered online, and be potentially part online and then they come for a weekend or a week and we work together and so on, but to facilitate dance across the board.
So, this has really been a catalyst to expedite that?
RB: Exactly. As I said earlier Sydney Dance Company would not survive if we didn’t have our classes. We just went like, wow, let’s just do it right now. So, we built the virtual classes literally in a week. And it’s been an incredible result, we received five thousand participants.
You had five thousand people taking class?
RB: Yeah. We had about nine hundred people that have never, ever, ever participated before with Sydney Dance Company.
So, it means even people who don’t live in Sydney now have this opportunity.
RB: Yeah. We have this amazing class called Friday Feels which Charmene [Yap] teaches. Every week it has a theme and last week was love. And the dancers and the team at Sydney Dance Company choose the music during the week. Basically you get the link to Zoom and then it’s a little bit of freestyle and a little bit of following Charmaine. But it’s like a disco, really fun. Honestly it is the best thing.
So, everyone’s rallying . . .
RB: Everyone’s rallying. Everyone’s trying to stay positive and uplifted. So, I think something beautiful will come out of it, you know, because we’re connecting with so many more people than we had already otherwise. I’ve always said we’ve got to throw the walls down so that people love dance and come and see it. And that’s always been my motto. You know, dance isn’t scary. And I think this situation hopefully will encourage more people to be interested in the artform also.
How about we end with a few fun, quick questions? Something a bit lighter?
RB: Let’s see if I’m good at it.
What’s the craziest thing you’ve done in isolation?
RB: Probably try to make paella. Just because I happen to be born in Spain, I don’t know how to make it.
Do you have a TikTok account?
RB: TikTok, no I don’t actually!
Pet hate in an audition?
RB: My pet hate is that people cover themselves.
I wasn’t expecting that answer. Okay. So you want to see . . .
RB: I want to see people. Like, you know, if you’re hiding behind jumpers and trousers and whatever. You should be proud of you and who you are and your body as a dancer and a human being. It’s like, you know, be who you are.
I like that. How about in the studio?
RB: Things on the floor all over. The space, I like it to be pristine. Like, I always say to the dancers “this is not a picnic, guys.” That’s always my thing. Even in the new studios, I asked for some boxes to be put on the walls so people can put things in the wall not on the floor!
Does anything get you nervous on opening night?
RB: God. I mean, because I’ve had to really train myself to not be nervous, and that’s taken me years but . . . maybe if anyone changes anything last minute. Like, they go, can you remember this, and then mention this, then I’m like, oh my God! like, you know, I’m going to forget, because I’m already so nervous!
The strangest thing that you’ve learnt to love about Australians?
RB: Hmm . . . something that I sort of love, but at the beginning I was like what?! And I really love it now. It’s all of this shortening of things. Like people would be like oh, see you this “arvo” [afternoon]. Arvo? and I’d be like arvo, see you this arbo? And then there was more and more. Like, it’s endless. And even names!
Did you get Raffa or Raff?
RB: Yeah Raff. Raff is as short as they can do it, I think. But like sometimes there will be a new dancer coming in, and their name will be a proper name, and then six months later I’m hearing a name that I’ve never heard before. And then I realise that person called Simon is actually now Si. I’m like who’s Si? And I’m always like the last one to clock that Simon has become Si. You know, so, I think that’s a weird thing that I sort of now love.