ab [intra] is Rafael Bonachela’s first full length work for his company in six years, and was inspired by his desire to “capture the energy and drive I feel each time I walk into the studio”. The title is Latin for ‘from within’, an allusion to Bonachela’s philosophy of dance as a transfer of energy from internal inspiration to external representation.

Janessa Dufty and Izzac Carroll © Pedro Greig
Janessa Dufty and Izzac Carroll
© Pedro Greig

I have to admit that as the houselights went down I was still puzzling through how he would depict this, but as it turns out I shouldn’t have worried. Bonachela doesn’t capture energy so much as wield the choreographic version of ball lightning, rolling it into dance that builds and builds in intensity until it simply explodes across the stage.

The work opened unobtrusively enough, with the dancers spread out in groups of two or three, quietly improvising. With their muted ‘normcore’ dancewear, David Fleischer’s minimalist industrial set, and Damien Cooper’s stark lighting (done on low energy LED in a laudable environmental initiative), I felt I’d stumbled into a rehearsal space at warm up time.

The movement took off properly, though, with the introduction of Julian Thompson’s cello, recorded into fragments against an electronica soundscape by composer Nick Wales. Comprising mostly of duos and trios, the first half was a gradual build of theatrical tension displaying Bonachela’s trademark intricate athleticism. In ab [intra] it all looked impeccably strong. The level of precision, unison, and physical awareness was impressively high, and all of it was necessary to give full expression to the gripping intellectuality of Bonachela’s style. This was choreography that was complex, mentally demanding, physically taxing, and meticulously detailed. Not at all something one could ‘veg out’ to (and I don’t just mean the dancers).

Wales’ original soundscape was interspersed with additional music from Peteris Vasks’ second cello concerto. Normally I prefer to hear classical instruments live, but in this case the choice of recorded cello actually enhanced the visceral tension of the dancing. With the theatre subwoofers turned up louder than any live cello, the audience could not escape the amplified sonic detail of strings gripped and dragged across by the forceful down-bow of sticky, dark-rosined horsehair, or the clash of pernambuco bow wood, col legno, against string. Every pizzicato, and particularly the string crossing passages, vibrated through the body as palpably as the movement on stage.

Charmene Yap and Davide di Giovanni © Pedro Greig
Charmene Yap and Davide di Giovanni
© Pedro Greig
The highlights of the first half were the duos, achingly beautiful in their aesthetic balance and eloquence. The first was danced by Janessa Dufty and Izzac Carroll, and the second by Davide Di Giovanni and Charmene Yap. Both pairings were remarkable for the seamless melding of dancer to dancer and dancer to choreography. The control and grace with which the bodies flowed through inconceivable arcs, rolls, and balances, all the while interlocking limbs and torsos in a complex physical intertwining, can only be comprehended by viewing it. They were not so much pas de deux as dances for a singular entity that just happened to involve two bodies, demonstrating that these dancers have achieved the sort of effortless flow of phrasing that comes only after extreme discipline. And although Bonachela has said that the work was inspired by his dancers’ emotional reactions to improvisation, the overwhelming impression was of the inhuman beauty of physics, of intellectual relationships between velocity and displacement, and the abstract laws of kinetic energy.

The second half was mostly ensemble-led, with the dancers launching themselves into a building energy and tension that hit breaking point by the finish. Nelson Earl deserves special mention for the utter commitment with which he threw himself into his dancing, and the magnetically inhuman quality he gave to his solos.

The gathering physical momentum of the second-half was matched by a build in the music, but here I felt there was a miscalculation in the percussion-only parts of Wales’ score. Bonachela is so capable of creating his own highly detailed visual rhythms that his choreography looks best when set against instrumental soundscapes. With percussion-only music, the audience is rhythmically overwhelmed and unable to focus. The dancers also responded better to the instrumental parts, with an observable increase in emotional focus during those sections.

This was all forgotten in the build up to the final scene, however, with a crescendoing symphonic soundscape reflected on stage in increasing choreographic intensity and the dancers’ utter exertion.  I was gripped until the last second, after which I collapsed back into my seat.  If this is the sort of energy that Bonachela and his dancers walk into every working day, then it is a force to be reckoned with.