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Q&A: Sadler's Wells Artistic Director Alistair Spalding on Dance, Present and Future

Alistair Spalding has been Artistic Director and Chief Executive of Sadler’s Wells since 2004. With over three centuries of theatrical heritage, Sadler’s Wells has evolved into an ambitious dance house presenting a wide range of dance forms, nurturing new talent and producing touring productions across the UK and around the world. Alistair talks to us about the new season and about his plans for the future.

Eli Goldstone: This year marks the 20th anniversary of the iconic Sadler's Wells theatre. Can you tell us a little about the new works commissioned as part of '20 for 20'?

Alistair Spalding: Yes, 2018 marks the 20th anniversary of our wonderful building, and I’m delighted that we’ll celebrate our anniversary with 20 commissions representing the finest talent from all over the world and artists at every stage of their career.

Natalia Osipova is a rare talent who lifts the bar in what is possible in the performance of dance. We are interested in seeing where that talent can be unleashed and so we have, with Natalia, put together a hand-picked programme of dance works from classical to contemporary, including new works commissioned for her by Alexei Ratmansky and Ivan Perez.

We’re producing the first new work by American choreographer William Forsythe since he closed the Forsythe Company three years ago. I believe he is the most important choreographer of our time. A Quiet Evening of Dance is a typically provocative and playful title that alludes to what will be an intimate, sophisticated pure evening of choreography stripped down to its essence.

We’ve always encouraged collaboration among artists, and in particular dance and visual arts together have produced some incredible productions here in recent years. Layla and Majnun is a very special example of this kind of collaboration, between Mark Morris, the late Howard Hodgkin and Yo-Yo Ma’s Silkroad ensemble. The production has music by Uzeyir Hajibeyli composed aged 23 in 1908 – an extraordinary find by Yo-Yo Ma.

Visual art and dance come together again in the form of two collaborations between our Associate Artist Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and sculptor Antony Gormley - Icon and Noetic. Our commission, Icon, features a set made from 3.5 tonnes of clay!

Akram Khan, XENOS

Another major highlight is Akram Khan’s XENOS. The production is commissioned by 14-18 NOW, the UK’s arts programme for the First World War centenary, and marks Khan’s final performances as a dancer in a full-length piece. We also present a co-production with Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan, and a new show by our Associate Artist Kate Prince about the life of Sylvia Pankhurst, which we are co-producing with the Old Vic.

We are marking the anniversary week itself by looking ahead to the next generation of choreographers and dance makers. We have appointed four Young Associates, who will present new work for us at the beginning of the week: Anthony Matsena, Wilhelmina Ojanen, Ruby Portus and Christopher Thomas. At the end of the week we’ll present Reckonings, a triple bill of new commissions for our Sadler’s Wells stage, by a new generation of dance-makers: Julie Cunningham, Alesandra Seutin and Botis Seva. I’ve chosen these artists because they tackle politically charged and social themes, and through their distinctive voices help us see the world through a different lens. It’s going to be a very busy and exciting year!

Eli: I think that dance is the vanguard of new theatre - do you think the work is unencumbered because it is still evolving?

Alistair: I agree that there is a sense of freedom around contemporary dance because it has less of a history than some other arts forms, such as classical ballet or opera. It is therefore unencumbered, and more open, perhaps, because there is less expectation about exactly what it should be. The art form is continuously evolving, so you never know quite what you are going to get when you go to a performance, which is very exciting.

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Noetic

Eli: How has technology changed the sort of work that is being produced? 

Alistair: Projection has been a very important development in the use of technology on stage. The use of projection has made a huge difference to the aesthetics of dance, and the way it is used in performances is revelatory. It is used very inventively in productions such as Akram Khan’s DESH, for example.

Off stage, one of the other major changes that has happened in recent years is the use of technology during the creation of a work. Choreographers will record what they have made on their phones or devices and use technology in the making process, in the studio, to edit and develop their work as it is being created.

The distribution of dance through You Tube and other media platforms has also been a huge change, and has been very significant in helping dance reach much wider audiences. It enables people to see dance performances online and to explore the world of dance, and it gives dance makers a new way to distribute their work and build their reputations, too.

Natalia Osipova, Pure Dance

Eli: What has been the most challenging part of your time at Sadler’s Wells?

Alistair: Trying to achieve new productions and support new work and ideas while balancing the financial side of the equation. That has always been the biggest challenge, and still is! Sadler’s Wells depends a great deal on ticket income and so keeping that balance has not been easy, making sure we continue to innovate and that we develop audiences for a very broad range of work.

Eli: There is such diversity in dance, but how do you go about reaching new audiences and helping them embrace a form that they might not even be aware of, or think isn't for them?

Alistair: Using collaborators from different art forms is something that has helped enormously in this, for example bringing music artists such as Jamie xx together with choreographer Wayne McGregor and visual artist Olafur Eliasson, and Antony Gormley together with Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, brings fans of music and visual art to a dance performance that they might not have considered going to otherwise. Equally, Hofesh Shechter’s performances have a very music gig-like atmosphere, and that has certainly brought new audiences to the theatre.

We have lots of family-friendly performances, both at Sadler’s Wells with our Family Weekend, and at our West End venue The Peacock, and I think it is very important to encourage children to see dance from a young age. Our Breakin’ Convention festival of hip hop dance theatre also brings new audiences, and has a fantastic atmosphere as the whole building is buzzing with dance workshops, graffiti artists and DJs as well as the performances on stage.

Presenting a wide range of dance is crucial to encouraging new audiences, as well as to keeping the creativity of the art form alive. Throughout the year we present dance styles including contemporary ballet, hip hop, flamenco, Bollywood, ballroom and tap. We offer audiences a taste of a range of styles in Sadler’s Wells Sampled, which we have for one weekend each year, bringing together an eclectic mix of extracts from some of the most exciting dance works around.

Mark Morris Dance Group, Layla and Majnun

Eli: For non-traditionalists, what are some particularly exciting highlights of the new season?

Alistair: We’re presenting a few works that would fall into that category this season. In March we have Alain Platel’s Requiem pour L. which he has made with his regularcollaborator Fabrizio Cassol, inspired by Mozart’s final and unfinished work. With 14 musicians from across Europe and Africa, composer and musical director Cassol reconstructs the Requiem using diverse musical influences from popular African music to jazz and opera.

Berlin-based contemporary choreographer Sasha Waltz takes the body itself as her subject in Körper, a rather fantastical piece she has created for 13 dancers.

Sharon Eyal, who we have just named as our newest Associate Artist, presents four pieces this year including a new work for the National Youth Dance Company, Used to be blonde, and Love Chapter 2 with her company L-E-V.

William Forsythe is creating his first new work since he closed the Forsythe Company three years ago, and I am delighted that he has asked Sadler’s Wells to produce it.

Eli: Finally, what is your vision for the future of Sadler’s Wells?

Alistair: Our new venue in Stratford, which is due to open in 2022, is a major next step for us. The new theatre in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park will be part of a new cultural and education district in east London. We will be alongside UAL’s London College of Fashion and the V&A, in a curatorial partnership with the Smithsonian. Close by, UCL will develop a major new campus.

This new space will be important for our artist development work. It will include five studios, a large rehearsal room and facilities to be used for training, research and the production of new work. At the heart of the new building will be a fully-equipped auditorium seating 550, which is being designed to be a flexible performance space. There is no mid-scale venue for dance in London so this space will be an important addition to the dance infrastructure for the capital.

Looking outside London, we will be able to help UK companies stage their midscale work here, and at the same time, Sadler’s Wells will be able to produce new work that can be toured across the country and internationally.

As well as enabling us to present the best work created for this scale, we also plan to establish a new centre for choreographic practice and a hip hop academy. This will all help to deepen our engagement with the next generation of dance makers, and audiences.