November 6, 2006 5:34 pm

London’s risk-taking lord of the dance

In an increasingly competitive arts environment, full-on success stories are relatively rare. At Sadler’s Wells, however, Alistair Spalding is celebrating the end of his second year as chief executive and artistic director with another set of record results.

When Spalding took over the reins two years ago, he showed that he was a man with a mission – to change the venerable institution from a receiving house, one that filled its repertoire by playing host to travelling dance and opera productions initiated elsewhere, into a cutting-edge producing house.

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“The whole point is to create new work,” Spalding explains – and although Sadler’s Wells includes opera in its programme (in the run-up to Christmas, both Opera North and Glyndebourne Touring Opera are bringing acclaimed productions) his aim has been to create the UK’s leading venue for dance. “I want everyone to be clear about what the territory of Sadler’s Wells is.”

Spalding has been working towards this for some time. Six years at London’s South Bank Centre saw his programmes encompass some of the brightest names on the contemporary dance scene: Netherlands Dance Theatre, Mark Morris Dance Group, Michael Clark, Ballett Frankfurt, Pina Bausch, Alvin Ailey and more.

When he moved to Sadler’s Wells in 2000, he was responsible for programming, and could extend his passion for bringing the best dance to wider audiences: from the National Ballet of Cuba to the kung-fu master Shaolin Monks, the Dutch National Ballet, Birmingham Ballet, the Bangarra company from Australia, the ever-outrageous Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo and many others.

But the directorship has allowed him to go the whole way: to turn the institution’s face firmly towards developing a new generation of British-produced dance work in collaboration with visual artists, musicians and actors.

It is surely a risky strategy. Nurturing new work is famously expensive and uncertain. And he has to fill his main space, a 1,500-seat theatre, throughout the year, as well as continuing to put on profitable shows at Sadler’s Wells’ central London outpost, the Peacock in Soho.

“It was quite a change,” he agrees, “moving to Sadler’s Wells, where only 14 per cent of our income comes from subsidies – as opposed to the South Bank Centre, where it is 70 per cent.”

So far, so well justified. A recent Arts Council report cited contemporary dance as the fastest-growing art form in Britain, but even so few could have predicted the scale of the response to Spalding’s most popular seasons – of flamenco, hip-hop or Brazilian dance.

By the end of his first year, audience figures were up by 40 per cent, and this year is likely to see a similar sort of increase.

Individual works have also swelled the coffers nicely. In February, Matthew Bourne’s Scissorhands brought in 92,500 people, with revenues of £2.8m, Sadler’s Wells’ highest grossing show.

What pleased Spalding most, though, was that “66 per cent of the audience were first timers, who’d never been here before: that is a huge figure”.

That new work brings in new audiences is something he believes with great intensity. “When we talk about our audience we’re not just talking about Londoners – this is a world city, a cosmopolitan place. When we put on our Brazil season we did the research and discovered that there are 80,000 Brazilians in London. But we’d already found with the flamenco that we reached out way beyond the usual suspects, say for instance the Spanish who are nostalgic for home. It’s much wider than that.”

Once people have ventured up to Rosebery Avenue – some way outside London’s regular theatreland – it is important to keep them coming back. “Three years ago,” Spalding tells me, “70 per cent of the audience only came once a year. So that’s been a main aim on the marketing front – we now have a ticket pricing structure that gives reductions and so on, so many people are coming two or three or four times a year.”

Reaching out in this way is all important. “I’m not just running a building,” he is eager to tell me, “I’m on a mission – to de-mystify dance. Part of what we do, part of the role, is to show a way into what for some is a confusing or mysterious art-form.”

With Indian dance, for instance, the remarkable Akram Khan has created new shows that cross the cultural boundaries and point to “a contemporary way of presenting solo work, a way that explains it and helps the audience to see it”.

Khan is one of the “associates” that Spalding brought to Sadler’s Wells from the first days of his directorship. Individual artists or companies, the associates include Sylvie Guillem, the Ballet Boyz, Matthew Bourne and others, in a loose arrangement that offers them a home base, rehearsal spaces and creative input and allows Spalding to make the fullest use of his dance studios and studio theatre, but at the same time demands no exclusivity of the artists. It’s a scheme that seems to benefit everyone and to allow an admirable creative generosity.

For instance, Khan’s next collaborative piece – surprisingly, with the actress Juliette Binoche – will be staged at the National Theatre rather than at Sadler’s Wells.

If the associates are at the heart of his programming, they’re also Spalding’s shock troops in the dance crusade, taking the work far beyond the doors of the institution. Last month saw the first collaboration with New York City Center, which hosted four performances of Push, the award-winning duet work by Guillem and Khan. Khan and Spalding also have plans with the National Ballet of China to make works in Beijing for 2008 that will travel back to be seen in London, and vice versa.

The associates “build up a core of work”. “When something goes well we bring it back, take advantage of the word of mouth and the reviews – each time you do that, you have to go further out, with your ripples – but we’ve done it, we keep increasing the ripples in the pond, and the potential audience keeps getting wider.”

A good example was this summer’s sell-out Guillem/Khan partnership, Sacred Monsters. Only five performances – tickets gone months in advance, but it will be back.

In the world of creative risk-taking, just like everywhere else, success breeds success. When the Jerwood Charitable Foundation recently awarded an annual £120,000 to fund creative opportunities for dancers and choreographers at Sadler’s Wells, Spalding was quoted as saying he wanted the Jerwood Studio to be “a laboratory”, adding that “immediate results are not the point. It’s about giving artists the freedom to experiment and the freedom to fail.”

This is fighting talk but the “freedom to fail” can be an expensive luxury, can’t it? Spalding takes a bold approach to the tightrope walk of creative/commercial success.

“It sounds odd but even from a marketing viewpoint – my marketing director is very close, we talk five times a day – we worry when things completely sell out. We don’t want to get into a position when we’re not accessible, not continually reaching out. We don’t have a big subscription base – so we don’t have that security but it also means we’re not weighed down by the expectations of a subscription audience. We have greater freedom. With some institutions, if they start moving away from their core audience base they’ve got a real problem.”

Is there a limit, though, to this policy of expansion? “We’ve done the research – we’ve tracked the past five years – and it’s clear that an increase in provision increased the number of people who are coming. The audiences are there.”

So far, he has been proved right – not only by the audience figures but also by the exceptional quality of the work. London’s lord of the dance has designs on you.

www.sadlerswells.com

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