This year marks ten years since Alistair Spalding took over as Artistic Director and Chief Executive at Islington’s Sadler’s Wells – in which time the venue has become a centre of excellence for dance. Mark Kebble talks to him about a decade of success
First things first Alistair, does it feel like 10 years?
In some ways it does. That’s quite a long period of time and the longest I have ever been in a job. On the other hand, it’s gone by very quickly. I talk to people about shows that I think we staged two years ago, and they say no it was five years ago! With the pace of things here and the turn around of productions, time just flies by.
Did you think you’d be here for so long?
I didn’t think that far ahead. It was such a different set up when I first came here and it was pretty tough, so wasn’t sure I was going to last long! Maybe I thought I’d be here around five years – my regular period in jobs was six years.
Let’s step back first of all – you were at a great venue in the form of the Southbank Centre, so what did you see at Sadler’s Wells that enticed you here?
I had a good time at Southbank. What happened was I’m a big fan of the choreographer William Forsythe and he brought his company to London in 1998. The new Sadler’s Wells had just opened and I came to see him there. He has this habit of clearing the whole stage, having nothing on it. I sat down and looked at this new space for London and thought ‘woah’. Then it turned out the Director of Programming was leaving…
You were in charge of programming for four years before taking over as Chief Executive and Artistic Director. What did you see in those years that shaped your vision for Sadler’s Wells?
I suppose it was mostly what wasn’t happening. This theatre was designed to be a dance house with its beautiful studios and wonderful stage. There was a lot of stuff happening that was not dance. It was to do with money – studios were hired out for musical rehearsals and a lot of work on stage was not dance, it was opera and light entertainment stuff.
Why was dance your focus?
It was about trying to think about what it could be rather than what it was. If you look back at Sadler’s Wells’ history, it was strong when there’s been a focus on dance. When it went downhill it became a general theatre in Islington, which didn’t work with the West End just down the road. We have got to have one reason to come here – and that’s got to be a dance house. London needed a dance house.
As a medium, is there anything more beautiful on the stage?
I don’t think there is. I genuinely think that – people will go ‘well he would say that’! I quite honestly fell in love with dance. I came to it late in my life. I love the abstraction, I love the dance, I love the combination of the emotion of the music and dance. I fell in love with it all. I also thought it was very cool too and I still feel the same way. I still prefer going to see a dance performance than anything else. I see around five dance performances a week and I still get a thrill when the lights go down, particularly in dance as anything can happen. There’s no real rules: people can speak, take their clothes off, have animals involved, anything can happen.
I have to admit a decade ago I had no idea who Carlos Acosta, the Ballet Boyz or even Matthew Bourne were when I first came across Sadler’s Wells… Does it fill you with great pleasure to have opened up dance to so many people like me?
In a way, I am bit like you. I didn’t come to dance until much later in life and I wanted to share that with other people. To a certain extent dance can get self-absorbed, I wanted this place to go much wider, to make people conscious of choreographers like Akram [Khan]. I wanted people to see that work and discover the music – and to show that it is for everybody. People think it’s elitist, but it’s not. Or people have the idea that it’s all hairy armpits and leotards – I want people to ask ‘what did I just see there’? It’s a very open art form, with lots of different collaborations. It’s a mix of many different things.
How important, too, is the Peacock Theatre in this regard, particularly when you look at something like The Snowman at Christmas?
Very important. In terms of our economy, 10% comes from the Arts Council and we have to get 90% ourselves. The Peacock is a big driver in that. It’s a commercial entity, we try to make a profit there and that comes back into work we do. On the other hand, you see the most diverse audiences in a commercial venue. There’s no sense you have to be a certain type of person to come – if you want to have a good time come to the Peacock! The work we have there is high quality and entertaining – a lot of people take their first step in this form there.
I love the quote from Dickens on your website about fights breaking out in the audience in the 1830s. Today, is it possible to define who the Sadler’s Wells audience is?
It’s more of a broad cross-section than many other places, but there is still a little way to go. It does depend on the show – Breakin’ Convention is totally different, it wasn’t just young people, it’s a whole range. There’s such a variety in the art form. In a couple of weeks we have Brasil Brasileiro and that will bring in a much wider cross-section of the population with the whole range of diversity in London. That’s great as you can keep presenting many different things – other art forms don’t have the same flexibility.
When it comes to the work, both commissioning and producing, what do you look for?
The first thing is quality. It’s got to be a level of quality of performance and production values as a minimum. There’s got to be a certain amount of innovation. We’ve just had Dada Masilo on, which was a new version of SwanLake. It was very funny, but dealt with some major issues in Africa such as AIDS – it sounds like it could have been dull, but it was a totally life-enhancing experience. There’s got to be a little something new in there and interesting choreography. Also it’s very important to have work that brings the audience in. Some of the work here is a little more dense, but it needs to speak to an audience. This may be challenging, but you are part of it…
Do you enjoy taking risks?
Yes. I am pretty certain there’s a section of our audience that love a risk. You really don’t know what’s going to happen, and occasionally you throw a wild card in. I don’t do that lightly, mind, it’s not just a gimmick.
How big is dance in London at the moment?
It’s hugely popular, in the sense of people going to see it and also in taking part. You have East London company Boy Blue that just grew out of the communities there and is now a resident company at the Barbican. It’s great there’s so much grass roots going on. There are a lot of stats out there that it’s the most popular choice of activity at school for girls, and second for boys. It’s become very cool to dance, particularly for young men. Now you see guys dancing in streets with ghetto blasters.
Of the choreographers you work with, who constantly amazes you?
They all amaze me. We have chosen the cream of the crop [of Associate Artists], there’s no doubt about that. I am looking for the next big things, that’s my job, looking for the next generation.
And are there plenty of opportunities for young choreographers to come through?
There are. A lot of people who have made it had a good opportunity to study dance at school very early on. That’s a slight worry today as education is going towards the more academic subjects and I think that’s a mistake. You need to have an opportunity to see if you have a talent and that mostly happens in schools. Dancing is a young career, you really need to start early on in life and sow those seeds.
If you had to pick 3-5 shows that stand out for you in your time here, what would they be?
I’ll give you four! Two of them are when we decided to start producing work here ourselves. The first was zero degrees with Akram Khan and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. It was just fantastic and really the first thing we made here. We had the rehearsals and did the technical, it was just brilliant. It’s one of the best things that happened here artistically. The second is PUSH with Sylvie Guillem and Russell Maliphant, which is coming back to the Coliseum this summer. It was another thing we produced and was just brilliant. The third was during the early days when I was the Director of Programming. William Forsythe brought his Eidos: Telos. I saw it a number of times and it was just one of those pieces that was absolutely fantastic. It was one of those pieces that said to me dance can be anything. Then fourth is Alain Platel’s Wolf, where he had 14 dogs on stage. It was extraordinary and quite controversial too. The dogs were just roaming – it goes back to this thing that just anything could happen. The atmosphere in the theatre was unbelievable.
Finally Alistair, where’s next?
Well, I have shot myself in the foot as we have just announced that we will be building one more space that will have 500 seats. That’s going to take another five years…
To see full details of the autumn season at Sadler’s Wells, visit sadlerswells.com