Artist Director Rafael Bonachela discusses body image and the endless challenge of choreographing the nude.

Perhaps there’s something in the water, but Sydney has had more than its fair share of nudity of late, not least in the dance world where Olivier Dubois’ Tragédie at Carriageworks earlier this year sported 18 naked dancers in a 90-minute marathon of privates on parade.

That show drew wildly mixed reviews, so Rafael Bonachela gets kudos for being next into the lions den with a work entitled Nude: Live, designed to complement the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ exhibition of nude art from Britain’s Tate Gallery.

“We’ve been talking for a while about doing something with the Gallery,” says Bonachela, “We did Inside There Falls with Mira Calix at Sydney Festival two years ago and we’ve done John Calder’s Thirteen Rooms, so any opportunity I have to take Sydney Dance Company outside of the proscenium arch I’ve embraced. It takes a long time to organise, but when they said they had Nude from the Tate, it was like ‘Ok, perfect!’ A celebration of the body and Sydney Dance Company dancers, it was the perfect marriage.”
Not that the Gallery insisted on the nude element, but Bonachela has wanted to choreograph naked bodies for a few years now. “It’s quite tricky actually,” he admits, ruefully recalling one of the company’s posters a couple of years ago that featured naked dancers. “It was very tasteful you know – you didn’t see any of the bits – but we got complaints. There are some very prudish people in the world. It’s interesting how scared we are of what we are and what we look like.”

In the past, Bonachela has seen a couple of naked works, both from Canada – “what’s the thing about Canadian companies and the full body nude,” he jokes – one of which he describes as the best kind of pure dance. “It was fascinating,” he laughs, “in every way. Because I think we’re all intrigued by the naked body. At the beginning you’re like, ‘Oh God, he’s naked or she’s naked’ and ‘Look at her breasts!’, but after five minutes you’re not looking at a naked body anymore and you just focus on what’s happening.”

Crucially, when a choreographer works with dancers they normally have 100% control over limbs, down to the tiniest finger. Ironically it’s the bits we don’t normally see, and over which a dancer has no control, that becomes the challenge with nude bodies. Bonachela agrees, acutely aware of those awkward bits and their tendency to dangle and sway. “My choreography is a lot about touch and contact and interaction between bodies – I love duet making, trios and so on,” he explains. “So to have to deal with women’s breasts just jumping or things like that… will my choreography work in a different way because of that, or will it not? And I don’t know – that’s the thing.”

Bonachela hasn’t had a chance to see the art in situ yet, but fully intends his dance piece will be a work in itself. “It should be an opportunity to see some of the greatest art by some of the most important artists on the theme of the nude, and then a dance performance,” he explains. “But not mimicking, or in any way making it obvious, because as soon as it becomes obvious it won’t work for me.”

Performances are planned for the different themed rooms in the exhibition – called things like ‘The Political Body’, ‘The Sensual Body’ – and Bonachela will take his company along to make notes and see what memories are conjured up looking at certain works. “What does the political body mean to a gay man, to a gay woman, to a straight man, to a straight woman?” he wonders. “What has your body experienced? What makes you feel sensual?”

“Why are we so afraid of the naked body?” he speculates. “There’s a mix among the dancers from a 19-year old to a 36-year old. All of these things I hope will come out. There will also be music as you watch the exhibition, but am I going to choreograph to the music? There are a lot of unknowns here, which is good.”

At the time of this interview, the first rehearsal is still a week and half away, and though most of his seven dancers are familiar with each other, they will still need two weeks in the studio getting comfortable with it all as the first part of the process. “Are we going to not be naked all the time? I feel like it needs to be, but I just don’t know…” Bonachela wonders. “I was wondering if the dancers need me to get undressed? I mean, I suppose I could be naked in rehearsals, but they are going to have to be the naked performers dancing in front of dressed people.”

That’s nearly, but not entirely true, since one performance has already been booked out by an Australian naturist group. Not that any of his chosen performers balked at the prospect. “Nobody was like ‘Oh my God, I can’t’. Everybody was like ‘yeah, amazing’,” he recalls. “At first I thought ‘Am I going to find dancers that will be comfortable?’ It’s one thing to be on stage naked, being lit. There’s all that space and distance. You don’t see the audience. These dancers will be spread around the gallery in a very loose and interactive way.”

Meanwhile, Bonachela is genuinely intrigued and excited “because I don’t know what’s going to happen. What are we going to find? Where is the journey going to take us?” Wait and see…

Nude: Live is at the Art Gallery of New South Wales from January 7-23