High water mark

The director of Sadler’s Wells, Alistair Spalding, talks about dance, digital – and how the world-famous theatre is embedded into its locality by Oliver Bennett

Alistair Spalding, director of Sadler’s Wells (Credit: Jason Dimmock)

Since he joined Sadler’s Wells 21 years ago, Alistair Spalding has had a mission – to bring dance to centre stage in British cultural life. “I really want as many people as possible to come and enjoy this wonderful art form that I enjoy so much,” he says. “We haven’t in the past been a dancing nation but that is beginning to change.” 

Spalding’s focus on dance has reinvigorated the theatre – London’s second oldest, with 400-year-old roots in Clerkenwell – and made it internationally famous. In the deep past a rumbustious place where everyone from clowns, jugglers, wrestlers and singers trod the boards, it is now best-known for contemporary dance but remains true to the promise of a great night out.

“From the beginning it has been a people’s theatre which depends on the audience coming to enjoy what we do,” says Spalding. “We want people from all parts of society to be in that audience – that’s in the Sadler’s Wells DNA.” 

The theatre, founded alongside a mineral spring by Richard Sadler in 1683, has had ups and downs across the centuries. Now the term Sadler’s Wells refers to a small group of theatres, including the main theatre on Rosebery Avenue with 1,500 seats and a purpose-built dance stage, the Peacock Theatre in Holborn – where the focus is mostly on family entertainment, including The Snowman every Christmas – and the smaller Lilian Baylis Studio where experimental pieces by emerging choreographers are staged. It’s reasonable to say that the current period is a high water mark of its existence. 

In the 20th century Sadler’s Wells laid the foundations as a dance theatre upon which Spalding has built. “It has always had a strong connection with dance, but it became a much more regular feature when [the impresario] Lilian Baylis took over in 1925,” he says. 

“It then presented a lot of opera, but that changed when Sadler’s Wells Opera moved to the Coliseum and the current building, purpose-built for dance, opened in 1998. It made sense to focus on dance and I made that a clear part of my vision when I took over the running of the theatre.” 

Now Sadler’s Wells is a global dance centre that presents a broad church of the movement arts, from ballet, contemporary European and Latin dance to flamenco, hip hop, South Asian dance and many other styles. 

“It’s very important we reflect different dance styles and cultures,” says Spalding. “The great thing about dance is that it doesn’t normally use words, so it transcends borders, language and culture and has a unique ability to unite people and enables us to see ourselves in each other.” 

The last two Covid-afflicted years have been difficult for many arts institutions, but Sadler’s Wells has survived in relatively good shape. “The pandemic has had a huge impact on the industry,” says Spalding.

“We’ve been fortunate to secure a grant and a loan from the Government which has enabled us to keep ticking over and create digital work, which meant we were able to employ artists and other freelancers while our theatres were closed.” 

Indeed, during the pandemic, Sadler’s Wells rallied around its online performances – and Spalding found that digital actually opened the door to new audiences, spreading the Wells ethos across the world.

“The brilliant thing about Digital Stage [the theatre’s term for its online offering] is that it reaches truly international audiences,” he says. “Through our digital platforms and partnerships in 2020, we shared 25 dance workshops, 14 full-length works, eight screen-dance films, four audio works and hosted a global gala. The programme received more than five million views globally and provided work and income to hundreds of artists and freelancers.” 

It also changed the viewing dynamic, with online no longer being seen as a fall-back. “We found that online is not a ‘second best’ but a different experience,” says Spalding.

“In dance made for film there will be details that you may have missed in the theatre, such as the dancers’ facial expressions. That said, it’s true that there remains something very special about the live relationship between the audience and performers, and the buzz of seeing a performance collectively with other audience members remains magical.”

Another vital aspect of Spalding’s directorship has been that Sadler’s Wells produces new work rather than just staging touring productions. “I was always very keen that we start making it possible to create ambitious and innovative work we could then tour globally,” he says. “At the heart of this process are our 17 Associate Artists who are at the very top of their game and with whom we have a close relationship. We’ve made work together since the programme started in 2005, which was the turning point in us becoming a producing venue and we’ve now produced or co-produced more than 80 works.” 

The Associates include names like choreographers Russell Maliphant, Carlos Acosta and Botis Seva and productions have toured the world to Moscow, New York, Beijing, Sydney and Paris.

At the same time, Sadler’s Wells is deeply embedded in Clerkenwell and dedicated to bringing in local audiences. “We are really focussed on this and have a number of initiatives to bring new audiences in,” says Spalding. 

“Get Into Dance, for example, is designed to reach new audiences, including people from low-income households, the over-60s, young people and people with disabilities.” The theatre also works with community groups so, as Spalding puts it, “we can bring in those who might not think of coming”, and uses lower cost ticket prices and initiatives like the Barclays Dance Pass for 16–19 year olds to do so. 

It’s part of the history of Sadler’s Wells to be a local choice as well as a world destination, and as Spalding says, that attitude continues in its programme. “There really is something for everyone here.” 


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