While there’s no shortage of advice out there for young dancers, the same can’t be said for aspiring choreographers. For those whose dream is to create dance, the road to success can seem insurmountably difficult, isolating and uncertain.
To help budding choreographers arm themselves with the knowledge they need to “make it”, Dance Informa will run a multi-part series over the coming months featuring advice from some of Australia’s leading choreographers.
Opening the series is none other than Sydney Dance Company’s ever-inspiring Artistic Director, Rafael Bonachela.
Thanks for agreeing to discuss your path to becoming a choreographer with our readers. How did you get your start in choreography?
“When I was very young, my favourite game in the playground used to be to ‘make a dance’. I used to love bringing my boogie box into the playground to make up steps that my friends could perform. At the time, I wasn’t even aware that what I was doing was called choreography, but in fact I was creating and making dance, and that’s before I had even stepped into my first dance class.
Moving to London to attend school and further my dance training provided me with the opportunity to choreograph for my assessments. However, my first real opportunity with professional dancers came up when I joined the Rambert Dance Company in London.
Rambert used to have a season called its Workshop season, which provided an opportunity for dancers in the company to create a work with their colleagues – it’s very similar to our New Breed season here at Sydney Dance Company – for which I was selected and created a work titled Three gone, four left standing. This work was performed to a small audience at the Riverside Theatre in London, and really allowed me to play with and test ideas around choreography, music, lighting and design. It was ultimately embraced by the company as part of their repertoire.”
What is the most valuable thing you’ve learned?
“You never stop learning! Every day, I learn new things about choreography. Ultimately, practice, practice, practice is the only way for me to continue to learn.
When I first started out, I didn’t have other dancers to work with, so I used to record myself on video. I was constantly recording myself making phrases, sequences, exploring movement, improvising and would then watch it back and observe. It’s so important not to be scared to get things wrong, because there is literally no right or wrong with choreography; it’s just a matter of finding your way and learning new ways to work and create. You need to be bold, you need to be brave, and you need to keep trying.”
Why do you think you’ve been able to forge such a successful international career?
“At some point along this journey, I decided that I have to be true to myself and true to what I believe in. I was aware that my path as a choreographer would be different from any of the other choreographers whom I admired and respected; I had to find my own way. This way of thinking really helped me when I took the jump from being a dancer and choreographer to being solely a choreographer.
I applied to the Place Prize competition in London, and was granted a small sum of money to create a work. I then won this award, which was really pivotal in helping me establish myself as a choreographer in my own right, offering invaluable recognition and a cash prize of £30,000.
The money from the Place Prize Award enabled me to employ a producer for two days a week, who assisted me in writing grant applications to the arts council in England in an attempt to raise even more money. I also did a lot of well-paid commercial work with popular artists like Kylie Minogue and Tina Turner, to enable me to fund my own projects. I never bought myself a Ferrari or went on expensive holidays; I actually used the money that I earned commercially to support the operations of my own company at the time, Bonachela Dance Company. I had to be extremely savvy, strategic and resourceful with my funds, as I didn’t expect to be able to survive off grants alone.
It’s quite an odd thing to compete in something as subjective as choreography, but I think initiatives like the Place Prize really do provide up-and-coming artists with some fantastic opportunities.”
Do you think having experience in Europe was an advantage?
“Yes, I do. In Europe, there is a lot of support for dance. The population is higher than here in Australia, there are a lot more companies, a lot more countries and a lot more performances, and dance was happening around me all the time. Whilst I was living in London, I had The Place, The Barbican, The South Bank Centre, Laban, Sadler’s Wells and the West End at my fingertips, and I was constantly immersing myself in dance, watching performances and seeing choreographers.
During my time with Rambert, I was also in a repertoire company, which allowed me to take part in creating work first-hand. It also gave me the chance to work with some great artists and learn old repertoire from iconic choreographers.”
What sorts of things do you do to stay creative and inspired?
“I never know where the next idea is going to come from, but I stay open and curious. I read, listen to music, visit galleries, go to concerts, live life and interact with people in a 21st century urban environment.
My emotions are my starting point, and from there I move outward creatively. My natural human instincts also play a major role in my creativity and inspiration.”
How is choreographic work at Sydney Dance Company funded?
“At Sydney Dance Company, funding rotates on a three-year cycle. The company has key performance indicators to meet, such as aims, strategies and annual reviews, and we’re expected to work responsibly and deliver a certain standard of work for the funding we receive.
Sydney Dance Company is constantly aiming to extend our audience reach and engage youth in as many education and community activities as possible. We receive incredible philanthropic support from donors and supporters who just love Sydney Dance Company, and we’re forever grateful to them for their support, commitment to us and passion for the art form.”
What advice would you give young budding choreographers in your field?
“Think about choreography as much as possible; immerse yourself in it. It’s important to regularly be in a studio with yourself and your own body, or with other dancers, to develop your ideas and to learn the craft. It’s also then incredibly important to put your work on the stage, like we do with New Breed. Taking that step from being in the studio and playing with movement, to then actually placing the work on a stage — that’s a huge learning process. That’s when you realise that choreography goes beyond steps. Choreography is the lights, the music, the theatricality of the entire experience.
It is very important to be engaged with the wider dance industry, too, to recognise the importance of keeping abreast of any developments that occur in the local, national and international dance or contemporary dance world.
Speak with as many people in the industry as possible. Identify who is the best person to help you to achieve your goals. If you’re interested in creating work for other companies, get in touch with the directors. If you have your own company and your own work, and you want to have it seen in festivals, get in touch with the festival directors and programmers.
I have never been scared of approaching people. It’s okay to not be liked. The work that you do will not be for everybody, but you need to find your niche and discover who understands your work…and the only way to do that is to reach out to them.
Also, a very important point – be determined and believe in yourself. I never waited for anyone to give me an opportunity.”
To learn more about Rafael Bonachela or about Sydney Dance Company, go to www.sydneydancecompany.com.
By Grace Gassin of Dance Informa.