Richard Tognetti and Rafael Bonachela’s pas de deux sheds new light on the French Baroque.

You will never, ever see me on a dance floor. Perish the thought. At weddings , gigs, outdoor festivals — I’m inevitably the sourpuss in the corner or cross-legged in the grass, refusing even to tap either of my two left feet. 

But where Lady Gaga and Gangnam Style fail to sway me, the music of French Baroque composer Jean-Philippe Rameau is so infectious, charming and full of vigour that it gets me shaking my booty every time. And I’m not the only one: I’ve seen several Rameau operas staged overseas with inspired choreography – even breakdancing, crumping and voguing at the Paris Opéra. 

I was starting to think I’d been born in the wrong place and the wrong era, until two major Rameau performances in Australia were announced this year. Not long before Pinchgut stages one of his tragédies en musique, Castor et Pollux, the Australian Chamber Orchestra and Sydney Dance Company unveil their first, highly anticipated collaboration: Project Rameau. It combines the skills of 17 dancers, choreographed by Rafael Bonachela (below, left), and 21 musicians with Richard Tognetti (below, right) at the helm.

“When I was talking with Rafael about this project early on, he grabbed onto the idea of Rameau. And while the ACO has some history with Rameau, the orchestra had not had an opportunity to significantly explore his dramatic oeuvre,” says the violinist.

“Of course this music can stand on its own but at its heart it is intended to be performed with dance and choreography. Once you fill that space it completely changes. The music itself works wonderfully well as concert music but with choreography, it is possible to hear and see more in the music. We can bring new life to the legendary composer through the imagination of a choreographer of the ilk of Rafael.”

The artistic directors of their respective companies, Tognetti and Bonachela chose instrumental music from the ballet interludes and entr’actes of Rameau’s operas, with the choreographer listening to recordings on his walks in the Botanical Gardens for bucolic inspiration. “It was backwards and forwards, even last week. Two tracks went out, and two new tracks went in. Now it feels right,” he explains. “We both had a lot of say to things like design — minimal. We’re not going to have dancers will frilly things or wigs or long dresses, we’re not going to have gold hanging cloth or pillars.” 

It’s not just an aesthetic sensibility that the two groups share, however; it’s also a similar philosophy to each artform. “They’re committing to new music and composers, and trying to find alternative ways to present music, but they’re also keeping these close ties with tradition and old, beautiful music,” says Bonachela of the orchestra. “As a contemporary dance company, we only make new work. But there is, within the training of the dancers, a well-balanced focus on good classical technique and contemporary techniques.” 

The musicians and dancers have a week of joint rehearsals before the show opens. Most of that, says Bonachela, will be negotiating the speed. “I’ve made it go really, really fast physically; any faster and you can’t do the steps!” 

For someone used to commissioning new music to dance to, going Baroque required a different approach from the choreographer. “Working with a living composer has always been my preference, so I needed to challenge myself also and my own patterns and my own way of creating, and what better way than throwing yourself into this music. 

“There is a lot of rich detail that this music has brought to my vocabulary that is extra because of the grandeur of Baroque. If you think about what you can grasp visually of Baroque art, it is very rich, very full. There is a lot of dynamism about it. Many visions and ideas came to my head. Sometimes they are purely physical with space, and sometimes they are a lot more emotive. For me, it’s just about going with my heart. I listen to the music and I just feel this a vitality about it; this energy.” 

Certainly there is a zest and joie de vivre about the music that belied the composer’s late-bloomer foray in the opera world: he didn’t start composing for the theatre until 1733 at the age of 50, but made up for lost time with one hit after the next well into his eighties. He had a tendency to épater la bourgeoisie with his bold harmonies —  often so strikingly modern that it’s no wonder they strike a chord with Bonachela’s contemporary dance sensibility — and by livening up majestic French overtures and elegant melodies with rustic music heard in provincial markets and jaunty sailors’ dancers. But as Tognetti points out, “while much of his music contains moments that are wildly theatrical and vivid, Rameau was capable of creating as many moments of reflection and repose.” With all that variety, it seems a shame that only one piece by Rameau made it into ABC Classic FM’s recent all-French Classic 100: Les indes galantes  at No 65 — wtf?! 

Along with tunes from that exotic romp, The Rameau Project features excerpts from the composer’s first and last operas, Hippolyte et Aricie and Les Boréades, plus Platée, Pigmalion, Castor et Pollux and Dardanus. There are also a few offerings from Rameau’s contemporaries, Vivaldi and Bach: the furious energy of Summer from The Four Seasons beautifully matches the elemental force of the tempest scene from Les Boréades as zephyrs whip the dancers into a frenzy. On opening night, they’ll have to strap me into my seat if the dancing is going to be confined to the stage. 

“I hope this would make Rameau proud,” says Bonachela, “and not shake his fist at me from the grave.”

Project Rameau is at Sydney Theatre October 29 – November 3. View event details here.