Rafael Bonachela isn't afraid to embrace emotion.
When the artistic director of Sydney Dance Company was conceiving his new full-length production, ab [intra], he invited dancers to improvise movements in response to their deepest feelings.
The results, recorded on Post-it notes, were profound.
"Those improvisations were bonkers, people were shouting — a lot of it was about finding your place in the world, being surrounded by people but feeling alone," Bonachela, 46, says.
"I'm not scared of touch and a lot of my choreography is about connection. I asked my dancers to be in the moment with each other. I had enough material to make work for the next 10 years."
Bonachela is a warm and kinetic presence who punctuates sentences with hand gestures. When we meet, he's a bundle of energy.
Making a new work involves total discipline. "I wake up early, meditate every morning and won't even have a glass of wine," he says.
Bonachela, who was appointed artistic director of the company in 2009, has reason to be nervous.
It's been five years since his last full-length work, 2 One Another, a globally acclaimed show that combines dazzling physicality and fragments of poetry.
In ab [intra] ("from within") 16 dancers are cast against a pared-back set by designers David Fleischer and Damien Cooper.
The work represents the evolution of an approach that is more interested in the possibilities of human movement than in dance-world hierarchies.
For Bonachela, contemporary dance isn't just about athleticism or artistry, it has something to show us about how we live.
"It's only when a dancer has the courage to be him or herself on stage that a work makes sense," he says. "This is important [in a world] where everyone wants to be perceived a certain way. In my work, girls don't play girls and boys don't play boys — they are just people who identify as male or female."
The show's many layers are built around the chemistry between individual dancers.
"I've been working with Charmene Yap for nine years and there's a duet that she's performing with Davide [Di Giovanni] that is all about connection, fluidity and trust," he says.
Bonachela is also obsessive about music — in this case, a score that marries string instrumentals with freewheeling electronica by composer and long-time collaborator Nick Wales. It lets him place the dancers' gestures in time and space.
"I shift between cello concertos and down and dirty electronic music, which sometimes make people leave because their ears hurt," he grins. "This time, I found a cello concerto by Latvian composer Peteris Vasks.
"I loved it. I knew I could share the stage with this piece of music. I took it to Nick, who used strings in his own composition. There are sections that are purely classical and others that are electronic but organic. I find beauty in both."
Bonachela, who grew up working-class in La Garriga, a town outside Barcelona, has always pushed the parameters of dance.
He has collaborated with musician Sarah Blasko and fashion designer Dion Lee. Last year, he staged Nude Live, a nude performance at the Art Gallery of NSW.
ab [intra], which will be performed around the country before touring overseas, is the culmination of a 10-year journey.
"It takes a while for a group of artists to find their language and we're there as a troupe," he says. "Some people will be challenged. Some people will be moved. That's to do with what they've lived through.
"In February, we received a standing ovation in Paris. For me, that's as important as performing in Orange. Everyone can relate to the body. I care about making dance less scary for people and won't stop until I get there."
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