In 2015, Rafael Bonachela, Artistic Director of Sydney Dance Company, created a moving, deeply personal piece called Frame of Mind. Choreographed to a Kronos Quartet recording of classical contemporary music by Bryce Dessner, it won a rapturous audience response and four Helpmann Awards.

Bonachela can still remember the moment he first heard Dessner’s score. “[It was a] Sunday afternoon, Rushcutters Bay Park, which is right near where I live”, he says. “It was a beautiful day around the beginning of the year. When you follow an ensemble – and in this case it was the Kronos Quartet – they often commission composers that you like or things that are more adventurous. So with the Kronos Quartet, I always check out what they’re doing and I said ‘oh, there’s a new CD, fantastic! I’m going to go for a walk and listen to this’ and that’s where I discovered Aheym, which was their Bryce Dessner CD. I think it was commissioned by the string quartet.”

“It was a birthday present for their lighting designer,” says Dale Barltrop of the Australian String Quartet.

Dale Barltrop and Rafael Bonachela. Photograph © Pedro Greig

“I didn’t know Bryce Dessner’s music as a classical composer [he also plays with New York rock band The National] although I had met him by chance in Sydney when he was with Nico Muhly playing at the Opera House. Nico Muhly is this composer who does a lot for dance. So I meet him to talk [about] Sydney Dance Company and the person with him is Bryce Dessner because he was playing with him in this thing they were doing around the world, with Sufjan Stevens,” says Bonachela.

“So then fast forward a few years later, I come across this piece of music and I’m like ‘oh, he’s the guy that I met so many years ago’. Listening to that music I was totally lost in another world. It took me on this really intense, emotional journey. And there was a lot going on in my life at the time with my mum being sick in Spain, my partner leaving me [to go to New York] blah blah blah. So I was in this space of so many things happening around me, that were affecting my frame of mind [with the feeling] that things happen around you that you have no control of over, that can have such an impact on you. So I had this trip of feeling alone although I was surrounded by so many people and this music really resonated with me and with my state of being. And I was like ‘okay, I’m going to make a piece of dance to this incredible piece of music’.”

Frame of Mind has since toured around Australia and to America, Germany, Chile and Colombia. Then this January, Dessner was in Sydney performing and contacted Bonachela. Quite by chance SDC was rehearsing Frame of Mind again as they were about to perform it at a dance festival in Santiago. Bonachela invited him to see it. The two of them watched a run-through in the studio and Dessner was blown away.

“He said to me, I have never seen choreography performed to my music that matches that emotional sensitivity, but also the craft of the composition and the layers of the composition because it’s very demanding. There’s this physicality that becomes emotion, so it’s not just physicality for the sake of it. I’m saying it in my own words,” explains Bonachela.

Frame of Mind in 2015. Photograph © Peter Greig

Until that point the company had always performed Frame of Mind to the Kronos recording. Dessner asked why they didn’t find a string quartet to play it live for them. Bonachela uses live musicians when he can, though budgets only allow it happen now and again, but he went back to the SDC office and said, “I have to make this happen!”

And so when Frame of Mind opens tonight as part of a double bill called Forever & Ever, alongside the world premiere of a specially commissioned piece by acclaimed independent choreographer Antony Hamilton, it will feature the Australian String Quartet playing live.

Barltrop leapt at the opportunity when Bonachela contacted the Australian String Quartet about collaborating on the project. “The minute we got the call, I went to the rest of the quartet and I said, ‘we have to make this work, we absolutely have to make this work’ because as a string quartet, we spend the majority of our lives playing in this tiny insular little group,” he says.

“And of course we collaborate with other musicians, but to actually collaborate with dancers is a really special occasion. I had already had a relationship with these guys from back when I was involved with the ACO when we did Project Rameau, and so I’d worked with SDC before, and I’m a huge fan. We had to move a few engagements to make it work, but it worked out. There was a period of about a month where we weren’t quite sure and SDC weren’t quite sure if it was all going to fall into place and then it just did and so we’re really thrilled.”

Barltrop has been a fan of Dessner’s for many years. “I got to know him through The National and went to see The National play when I went to live in Vancouver, and then when the Kronos Quartet released this album, I got a copy of it because I thought this will be really interesting to see what he’s doing with classical music,” he says.

“I listened to it quite a lot and I thought there’s got to be an opportunity to perform this at some point. As of yet, we haven’t done it so this will be the first chance that I’ll have, and the quartet will have, to play his music and I think beyond this production, we’ll get a lot of mileage out of these pieces too.”

“There are four pieces on the album Aheym; Raf used the three string quartets. And the three work really well together actually. They complement each other. Even though they’re unique, and they each have a different sound world, they work well as a set and I think that the Kronos Quartet obviously knew what they were doing putting them together on the album. And to be able to be onstage with the dancers, we’re feeding off of their physicality, and them off us too, so it becomes a different product than if it were them just doing it to the recording. There’s always going to be that element of interaction and spontaneity that keeps things really interesting and evolving so I think it’s going to be great.”

Dale Barltrop and Rafael Bonachela. Photograph © Pedro Greig

Some of the music is very energetic, even ferocious at times. “It’s actually really gruelling, because there’s a lot of fast, repetitive motion,” says Barltrop. “Having said that though, there are also these incredible moments of stillness and atmosphere that he creates but it often involves even small, repetitive motions that we call tremolo so there is definitely that element to it. But the music is just so spellbinding, it really pulls you in, it’s quite hypnotic in places. He, of course, comes from the world of indie-rock. He was a member of The National and so he sort of brings that element into his music. Even though he’s a fully fledged composer of classical music, there is that grittiness and edge to it which I think is really appealing to a lot of people out there who may not necessarily listen to classical music and so it’s really quite exhilarating for us to be playing it.”

The quartet will stand in front of the stage at a lower level than the dancers but clearly visible to the audience. “I imagine for acoustical reasons we’ll be facing the audience. We want our instruments to be projecting out. But the nature of our semi-circle means we’ll be able to see the dancers as well from where I’m positioned. That’s important because I’d imagine that there will be times when we need to take our cues from these guys and of course they’re not just responding to us, we’re responding to them as well. It’s a wonderful challenge because it takes us outside of our little world. I can’t wait,” says Barltrop.

As for whether the musicians be specifically costumed, Bonachela says: “The dancers are wearing black in a way that suits their body. It will be the same for them – any blacks they feel comfortable with. It doesn’t have to be too formal. So there’s an element of them being themselves, like the dancers being themselves. A bit individual in a way. Less like a uniform, all black because that will look beautiful in the space and it will connect with the piece. But I don’t what it would be if the dancers were in leotards.”

Barltrop laughs and shoots back: “Oh, a leopard print leotard please!”

Forever & Ever plays at the Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney, October 16 – 27