Sadler’s Wells – Launch Pad

Alistair Spalding has led Sadler’s Wells for over 15 years, turning it into one of the world’s leading dance houses in the process. He tells Andrew Anderson how he maintains his motivation.

Alistair Spalding © Cameron Slater
Alistair Spalding © Cameron Slater

Artistic directors do not tend to have a job for life – whether it’s the pressure of the position, the whims of public opinion, the fact they fancy a change, or legislation and contracts that limit a tenure to four years or so, you’ll often find them on the move.

Alistair Spalding is something of an exception: he’s led Sadler’s Wells in London for 15 years, changing it from a mixed-format receiving house to one of the world’s leading producers of contemporary dance. Sadler’s associate artists are among some of the the most critically acclaimed choreographers in the world, with Crystal Pite, Akram Khan and Wayne McGregor all on the roster. Likewise, the house has partnerships with the dance world’s leading companies like Rosas, Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch and English National Ballet.

“I suppose a lot has happened and a lot keeps happening,” says Spalding, when I mention his longevity. “Each of our associate artists has kept moving forward in a strong way. That’s been a gift – they keep producing interesting work and developing, which inspires me to do the same.”

He cites the example of Hofesh Shechter, who was just starting to garner international attention when he joined Sadler’s Wells. “He was already known, but we gave him more of a platform and he’s developed a huge following since then,” says Spalding. The Israeli choreographer has gone on to make several co-commissions through Sadler’s Wells, notably Grand Finale (2017), Barbarians (2015) and Sun (2013).

Impressively, Spalding has built this success on the back of box office receipts. A staggering 70% of Sadler’s Wells’ income is generated from ticket sales, with only 9% of its funding coming from Arts Council England (ACE), by comparison, the National Theatre receives about 15% of its income from ACE, and Opera North around 57%.

The downside to this is that there’s little room for failure, so if a show doesn’t sell, Sadler’s Wells will feel the pinch. However, Spalding and his team have a number of strategies for mitigating that risk.

“As well as new works we have the Christmas season and blockbuster shows in the summer that bring in a large number of people,” he explains. “Those big shows help us develop trust with the audience, so then they are willing to try shows by artists that they might not have heard of.”

And, to give the audience that extra incentive, shows by new artists have a different pricing structure: “We have a series called Debut, where all the seats are one price, they’re cheap,” he says. “The artists on stage are not generally well known by the audience, but guests are happy to take a chance on them because it’s not too much of an outlay. So, the first show by Sharon Eyal – who is now one of our latest associates – was priced to sell and we managed to fill the house that way.”

At the other end of the scale, Spalding makes sure they get the most out of their big name artists by bringing shows back for multiple runs.

“That doesn’t happen with contemporary dance very often,” he adds. “Often a show might have a single run of eight dates. But what happens then is that you don’t give people a chance to discover the work, and to tell their friends about it. So we’ve developed this repertory system with our productions and our associates – Akram Khan and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s show zero degrees has had four or five repeat runs, for example.”

Sadler’s Wells East
Sadler’s Wells East

The next big challenge for Sadler’s Wells is the move to its new centre in East London. Sadler’s Wells East will include a 550-seat theatre, a centre for choreographic practice and a hip-hop academy. Part of the East Bank complex, the development also includes the V&A East museum, additional BBC studios and a new University College London campus.

“We start the build this year and we’ll be finished in 2022,” says Spalding. “It’s another exciting project and we’re already working on ways we can collaborate with the other partners like the V&A. Nothing is confirmed yet, but there will be cross-site projects that bring together all of the East Bank residents to make new work.

“Another benefit will be increased capacity. At the moment it can be frustrating because we’re programming for 2022 already, but that means if something exciting comes up now we have to wait years before it can reach our stage. Having another large theatre will help address that.”

You can read the full article in IAM volume 15 issue 2.