Sylvie Guillem and Russell Maliphant in ‘Push’ © Bill Cooper
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A formidable flush of new dance works has been commissioned to mark the 20th anniversary of the current incarnation of London’s Sadler’s Wells theatre later this year. There is plenty to celebrate: the emergence and cultivation of new artists who have become international stars; a series of healthy balance sheets; a stretching of dance’s boundaries that has revivified London as an important centre for the art form.

But there is one more achievement that is close to the heart of artistic director and chief executive Alistair Spalding: the growth and changing nature of the theatre’s audiences. He instantly gives me an example, citing an early visit by Taiwan’s Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, when the company performed its signature piece Songs of the Wanderers.

“There was a moment at the end — the curtain call has already happened — when a guy stands on stage with a rice paddle, and he starts to make this spiral for about 20 minutes,” Spalding says, spinning his hands round delicately. “And people started gradually to filter away while he was doing this.”

The company returned with the piece some years later. “But this time everyone stayed. No one spoke; they wanted to take part in this meditation for all of that 20 minutes,” says Spalding. “And I was thinking, something important is happening here. It showed that if you bring certain work, certain artists, back over a period of time, the audience gets more astute. They see better. It develops a higher quality of watching. You can feel that.”

Alistair Spalding © Lewis Khan

Spalding has been at the helm of Sadler’s Wells for nearly all of those 20 years, arriving at the turn of the millennium as director of programmes and assuming overall control four years later. He recalls the era before the building of the new 1,500-seat theatre in 1998 (the sixth to have stood on the Clerkenwell site, the first having been established by Richard Sadler in 1683) as one in which there was no clear sense of identity.

“It is not unfair to say it was a bit of a jumble of things,” he says. “There was some opera, some international work, a few British companies. But it was not a great stage for dance: it was only 10 square metres; it couldn’t accommodate the likes of Pina Bausch. She did come in the 1980s, and somehow they made it work, but then there was a long gap [before she returned]. There was no sense of a beating heart of creativity.”

The early days of the new theatre were testing. Although the new building (designed by RHWL with Nicholas Hare Architects, led by Ian Albery) was favourably received, the theatre’s revenue was struggling to keep pace with the ambition of the new regime. “We had to make money out of each week,” says Spalding. But he found he was “quite good” at the hustle. “According to the new economic model, box-office receipts would make 70 per cent of our revenue. So the programme was the most important thing to get right.”

He instituted two changes in policy when he took over. First, the theatre would be devoted entirely to dance, and become a producing house; second, it would build on a team of “associate artists”, bringing dancers and choreographers to the heart of the programming.

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui in ‘Zero Degrees’ © Tristram Kenton

The move had an instant effect. Two important turning points in 2005, he says, were Zero Degrees, a brilliantly realised collaboration between Akram Khan, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Antony Gormley and Nitin Sawhney; and Push, the minimalist duet between Sylvie Guillem and Russell Maliphant. Both were critical and commercial triumphs that would return to the venue, as well as touring internationally.

The first work introduced London audiences to an unfamiliar, non-western dance tradition; the second marked a bold departure for one of the outstanding classical ballet stars of her generation. Both journeys would become templates for the new Sadler’s Wells.

“With Sylvie, it was a case of giving her a chance to work with a contemporary choreographer, and providing her with the next step in her career. With Akram and Larbi, it was different. A lot of people were aghast . . . On paper it looked as if it might not be a good fit.”

Any doubts Spalding may have harboured were dispelled when he saw Zero Degrees on the day after the London bombings of July 7 2005.

“I was thinking no one was going to come. And then in front of the theatre, there was this whole sculpture of bicycles! Everyone had cycled and they couldn’t fit their bikes on to the railings, and piled them on to one another.”

Once inside the theatre, there was further resonance. “The piece was about living in London as an outsider. And it was also about mourning, and about death. It somehow hit a note.

“You could feel this was a moment when people wanted — needed — to come together. And that is something I try to think about when we are doing the programming — that art has this ability to talk about what it is to be human, whatever your race or background.”

The 20 works that have been commissioned for the anniversary year include a new piece by Cherkaoui in November, and Khan’s final solo performances in May. The spirit of collaboration lives on with the UK premiere of Layla and Majnun, blending the work of Mark Morris, Howard Hodgkin and Yo-Yo Ma, also in November, while the theatre’s latest associate artist, Sharon Eyal, will present the world premiere of her Used to be Blonde this month.

One effect of the prominence given to associate artists — of whom there are currently 17 — is that choreographers have developed loyal fan bases. “When I started, no one knew who the choreographers were,” says Spalding. “In a way, we have helped make stars of them.”

The Sylvie Guillem route into contemporary dance, in the meantime, continues with the visit of Royal Opera star Natalia Osipova, who is dancing with American Ballet Theatre principal David Hallberg in Pure Dance in September. Spalding says such works attract visitors who would be more naturally drawn to Covent Garden, while successful outings at the Royal Opera by Hofesh Shechter and Crystal Pite show that the effect works in the opposite direction, too. “The old division has gone away,” he says with finality.

Eyes are now on the future, in particular the building of a new mid-sized theatre, seating 550, in Stratford’s Olympic Park, to open in 2022 (“a slightly safer middle-ground venue, which is missing in London”, Spalding says), as well as six new studios and a hip-hop academy. “It will be devoted to teaching the physical skills as much as anything. We are falling slightly behind internationally. In France they are on a different level in terms of performance.

“One of the things I reflect on,” says Spalding on the new development, “is whether, 20 years ago, dance would have been such a central part of such a huge and great social project in London. Our theatre will be a welcoming point. It shows that there has definitely been a shift in public perception.” We are seeing, it seems, better than ever.

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