The office of Rafael Bonachela, Artistic Director of Sydney Dance Company, is neat. Too neat. A blackboard overtakes its back wall, covered in a parade of capitalised words like “chaos” and “embrace” that look as though they’ve been chalked there permanently. Bonachela explains that they are the “picture” to the Company’s latest performance Les Illuminations, a song-cycle composed by Englishman Benjamin Britten in 1939, which will feature Katie Noonan and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. For months, Bonachela has known the music he will use to choreograph the piece, but with three weeks until opening night, he outwardly admits he’s still staring at this drawing board.

Les Illuminations involves ten movements. And maybe I’ve touched on four of them,” he says. “It’s in chunks and some parts are not even there yet.” What is there are these words, the pictures in his mind’s eye and Britten’s pre-composed opus of soprano/tenor and string. Oh, and the lyrical lines of poetry by Frenchman Arthur Rimbaud that were the source of Britten’s inspiration.

Sometimes referred to as Illuminations: Coloured Plates, the verses alluded to belong to an incomplete collection of sixty-something prose poems culled down to an exclusive ten and rearranged to suit Britten’s operatic vision. “I think they’re amazing,” says Bonachela. The first, Fanfare, reads: I alone have the key to this parade, to this savage parade. “[These poems] talk about the theatricality of life and the painful aspects of beauty. There’s a lot of emotional intensity, there are erotic visions that can be quite creepy. It talks of the savage parade that life can be. It’s dreamy and meditative, rich and perfect, nostalgic and painful. It’s beautiful.”

And although nearly eighty years have passed since their beauty inspired Britten to dedicate an opus to the collection, the composition resonated so strongly in Noonan’s repertoire that she too felt compelled to share its beauty. “It was Katie who said to me, ‘What about Les Illuminations?’” Bonachela says. “When we worked together in 2011 for LANDforms, she asked me, ‘Have you ever heard of Les Illuminations?’ I replied, ‘Yeah, actually, I’ve got it.’” Over the years it had weaseled its way into Bonachela’s collection, as had another Britten work, Curious Conscience, which Bonachela choreographed for the Rampart Dance Company in 2005.

Taking Noonan’s suggestion into consideration, Bonachela took a second listen and thought, “Oh, it’s very beautiful.” To which Noonan responded, “‘Well, maybe one day we should do it. I would love to sing it – so if you’re ever ready for it….’” It was a wonderful suggestion, although not one strictly lined with Sydney Dance Company’s ethos. “I’ll have been with the Sydney Dance Company for five years in November,” says Bonachela. Back then, “I wanted a company that was going to create new work. There are many companies that do existing works, but Sydney Dance Company was going to be a contemporary dance company that commissioned new work, new designs. It was about contemporary culture and contemporary art and inviting choreographers both international and local.” So what happened with Les Illuminations? Well, there are always exceptions. And “because this is Britten’s centenary, it was perfect. Benjamin Britten. One hundred years of his birth,” says Bonachela, “Let’s do something in celebration!”

There was no invitation to the international talent pool, only the local, Bonachela entrusting the soprano to the ethereal notes of Noonan’s voice, the orchestra pit to the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s string contingent and the stage to eight of his fastest and best dancers.

In the studio, ideas fly from the chalkboard into instruction, “It’s a duet about holding tight. It’s about embrace. It’s about floating… It’s about childishness. It’s about games.” It’s an announcement of permission by Bonachela for his dancers to run rampant with his neat words in a parade for Britten that could only be classified as beautiful.


Les Illuminations is presenting at Sydney Opera House from August 28-31. Visit Sydney Dance Company for more information.

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