Alistair Spalding on dance
“Are you a dancer” is the question that Alistair Spalding gets asked the most.
Understandably so, as he runs London’s most successful and internationally renowned dance theatre – Sadler's Wells. Yet the answer to the question is ‘no’.
A primary school teacher in his twenties, Spalding discovered his affinity for arts & culture later in life. His theatre career started with a string of jobs across the varied disciplines within the sector but his big leap came in the form of Dance Performance Producer job at the South Bank Centre. That’s when he discovered his love for the genre and quickly became ‘the dance person’ as he refers to it. It’s from that job that the opportunity at Sadler's Wells followed.
When Spalding joined Sadler’s Wells some 15 years ago now, it was a struggling local theatre with a multitude of productions in varied art genres. It was his decision, as soon as he arrived, to turn the venue into a dance only theatre and to start producing its original work with the house’s associate artists. It paid off – Sadler's Wells’ revenues grew by 50% since Spalding took over and the audiences doubled too.
He explains that his affinity for dance comes from its collaboration with other creative genres - colleagues in music and visual arts. He also mentions the profound emotional effect dance performances have on him – their combination of music and movement, their abstractness and an open form – communicating ideas without words.
He highlights that this ability to communicate without language and "creating with your own being" makes dancers unique in terms of their personalities. For Spalding, they have a sense of equilibrium about them, brightness and openness thanks to the fact that they’re deeply in touch with themselves.
And they all bring different experiences to the theatre’s audiences – from the rock-concert-like creations from Hofesh Schechter to Akram Khan’s tender stories of belonging and identity, Matthew Bourne’s Red Shoes to exquisite flamenco from Sara Baras.
Sadler's Wells is also well known for its collaborations with creatives from a variety of fields, who are deeply engaged throughout the process of creating the shows. Some of the collaborators to date include sculptor Antony Gormley, fashion designer Hussein Chalayan, musician Jamie XX and artist Olafur Eliasson.
It’s thanks to this variety and accessibility that Sadler's Wells attracts varied audiences, with ticket sales contributing 70% of the theatre’s revenues. That’s very unusual for an arts organisation. Usually, the revenue is split equally into three parts: funding, ticket sales, and fundraising. But Spalding is positive about the theatre's current business model – for him it means that he has to keep commissioning and bringing to the venue programs and performances, which will keep his audiences engaged and growing.
This he believes can also be achieved by international collaborations and exchanges. Dance companies from other parts of the world can share their ways of being, their cultures and through movements present their identities. And Sadler's Wells' own productions can tour across the world, this way creating a two-way artistic dialogue.
When asked about the future of his theatre, Spalding's immediate focus is the development of a new theatre to open in 2022, as part of the East Bank culture and education district on the site of Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. The new venue will not only make dance accessible to local communities, but it’ll also house a number of studios available to young talent, a choreographic centre, and a hip-hop theatre academy. All are part of Spalding’s mission for Sadler’s Wells to be an all-encompassing, world-class dance house, which champions dancers right from the beginnings of their careers and supports them throughout.
Production and music by James Green