Sadler's Wells boss on dance, funding and the future

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Sadler's Wells boss on dance, funding and the future

Watch the full interview here.

It was a programming stint at the Southbank Centre that made Alistair Spalding, Sadler’s Wells’ Chief Executive and Artistic Director, fall in love with contemporary dance. It was also a turning point in his career that made him into one of the dance world’s movers and shakers.

The New York Times labelled him as someone who “knows a good money-making show when he sees one” and no doubt this is a huge factor in successfully running Sadler’s Wells. Mr Spalding said that the economics of the London-based theatre is “quite challenging” with only 9 per cent of its funding coming from the Arts Council and majority then comes from ticket sales, therefore it is essential to have a “good handle” on making good money and making good art.

Mr Spalding joined London Live’s Anthony Baxter live in the studio and spoke a bit about his background. Born to Scottish parents, Hertfordshire-bred Mr Spalding’s only dance connection as a youngster was when they dropped off his sister to go Scottish country dancing. After leaving school at 16, he worked as a legal executive and then went on to study linguistics, which landed him a teaching job.

His first move into the arts was as a programmer in a Crawley theatre that allowed him to learn the ropes of running a theatre. From there, he moved on to the Southbank Centre where he met a young Matthew Bourne, who up until now works with Mr Spalding as one of Sadler’s Wells’ associate artists.

On dance

So what is it about dance that Mr Spalding loves? Music in the dance piece is very important to him as well as the abstract nature of dance itself that you to interpret the meaning yourself. For him dance is “more open and very beautiful to look at most of the time”

He said that “working with dancers is a joy” because of their “great energy”. For him, dancers are in touch with their physicality, they’re outgoing and also dance is a collaborative form.

On Sadler’s Wells

According to Mr Spalding, when the historic Sadler’s Wells reopened in 1998, there was “very little money around”. Although it was built as a dance house, it did not solely focus on dance. He joined the theatre in 2000 as Director of Programming but had the arduous task of having to produce a profitable scheme when he finally took charge of Sadler’s Wells in 2004.

He then executed a bold decision to make Sadler’s Wells solely focus on dance and start producing in-house productions. These big changes in policy was also partnered with bringing in associate artists, supporting the work of celebrated choreographers such as Akram Khan, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Wayne McGregor, Russell Maliphant, Sylvie Guillem and Matthew Bourne.

These changes paid off and Mr Spalding credits his talented pool of associate artists and the team behind Sadler’s Wells.

He said: “It’s a matter of bringing all these forces together, working with the artists and the team and bringing the story to the world – with marketing and press – we have a brilliant team.”

He added: “I really did have a vision. I imagined that they [theatre’s spaces – ed.] will be full of people doing dance work… We do now.”

Needless to say, there will always be failures, but he says that the theatre’s strike rate has been “very good”.

On the Arts Council

Mr Spalding is a national member of the Arts Council of England Board. He is well aware of the funding woes that most arts organisations and artists seeking funding are facing at the moment.

He said: “We all have our moans about funding and its rights and wrongs… funding is going down and difficult decisions are being made to maintain making great art despite diminishing funding.”

He says that the reason why he is in the council is because he runs a theatre and therefore knows the “ups and downs”. He did add that he does leave the room when discussing funding for Sadler’s Wells or any of its associate artists.

Queen’s Birthday honours list

Mr Spalding was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in June 2012 for services to dance. There is no doubt that he had a lot to do with changing people’s perception of contemporary dance, which are often associated with dancers wearing leotards.

He said: “It’s very different now.”

The future

Things are looking busy for Mr Spalding as he continues to support Breakin’ Convention run by another Sadler’s Wells associate artist Jonzi D, who he also met when he was still working at the Southbank Centre.

Breakin’ Convention is a hip hop event that attracts a younger audience and hip hop artists from around the world not just home-grown talent.

Mr Spalding said that hip hop is the dance form “for now” and it is a dance form just like ballet and contemporary that has language and a set of rules and so he really wanted to put this on the same stage as audiences can see the likes of Sylvie Guillem.

Mr Spalding also admits that Sadler’s Wells needs to keep the talent pipeline flowing in terms of supporting emerging artists and highlights the importance of looking at the younger generation because it’s important to “keep the flow in the pipeline”.

He is also part of making Olympicopolis – the 2012 Olympics site that will be transformed into a culture hub for London featuring a dance theatre, museum and two university campuses – a reality.

His vision is to build a middle-scale theatre in that space, which anticipated to be open to the public from around 2020.

He also spoke about his unique relationship with English National Ballet. It is mainly down to ENB’s new artistic director, Spanish ballet dancer, Tamara Rojo.

Ms Rojo’s “inventive ballet” involves collaborating with some of Sadler’s Wells’ associate artists, so it makes sense to work together and made ENB as the theatre’s first ever Associate Ballet Company. He mentioned that a new production of romantic ballet Giselle will be choreographed by Akram Khan in autumn next year.

On funding issues

“Quite frankly things are diminishing in the funding state and hopefully we will come out of this,” Mr Spalding said.

He highlighted that politicians needs to make it part of their agenda to ensure that the public do value culture in this country because ultimately the public will be investing in the arts as audiences.

Mr Spalding said all political parties were interested in wanting to help, but “all have the same underlying issue – there’s no more money”, however he added that there is a need for more work with the Liberal Democrats, because they are less interested about arts and culture out of the other main parties.

Although there is a funding slump, Mr Spalding remains positive and mentioned that some investment into arts and culture are being made for example the Olympicopolis [which is said to be getting a £141m funding – ed.] and that despite reduced public funding, the Theatre Tax Relief has been introduced, which is a 25 per cent tax rebate through productions.

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