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Interview with Alistair Spalding, Artistic Director of Sadler’s Wells

18 October 2013 | Tom Hunter

“In my view we need a world where people can do both: they can add up and dance.”

Alistair Spalding has run Sadler’s Wells since 2004, and in that time it has gone from strength to strength, producing groundbreaking new work and generating record revenues. We caught up with him about the current state of affairs…

London Calling: Can you tell us just a little bit about what your role really entails?

Alistair Spalding:  My title is Artistic Director and Chief Executive so I’m responsible for the artistic direction of the theatre but also I’m responsible for keeping the whole organisation on a firm financial footing. There’s a lot of fundraising involved, and then a lot of the time I’m travelling to see work abroad. So it’s a mix of emails and the usual stuff with a lot of meetings and a lot of travel and a lot of fundraising.

LC: Is there much glamorous travel then?

AS: Sometimes it’s glamorous: I’m going to New York and Taiwan this autumn, I’ve been to China. Sometimes it’s Ipswich – not that there’s anything wrong with Ipswich!

LC: Do you think it makes sense for one person to be responsible for both the artistic and commercial?

AS: I always think the artistic person should be in charge because for an arts organisation that’s what it does – it’s not the money that drives the organisation it’s the art.

LC: Under your leadership, Sadler’s Wells has become fantastically successful both artistically and commercially. What have been some of your highlights?

AS: There’s lots of artistic highlights, but I suppose the turning point was in 2004 when I took over and was able to implement some of the things I wanted to do. They were to start making things here again, and to focus on dance. The full dance programme took a little while to get going, whereas the production started straight away.

One of the most exciting things was that in the first year 2006 there were two productions which were huge successes and set the tone: Zero Degrees and Push, with Sylvie Guillem and Russell Maliphant. It was very lucky that those two things came along: they’ll always stick in my mind, even though there have been many since.

LC: What’s the next big challenge to crack?

AS: There’s always a new challenge. Since I took over we’ve doubled the audience and the turnover has increased by 50% so we’re a much wealthier organisation, but in relation to some others we’re not. We get 10% of our money from the government, many theatres get more and are able with that extra money to spend a lot of time exploring new work and not necessarily putting it on stage. I’d like that to be the next stage, so we have ten things in incubation rather than one.

LC: Do people find it hard to talk about dance? Is there a shared language that most don’t understand?

AS: In dance it’s usually very abstract so it’s hard to find what you feel about it, what you’re thinking about it or what you can say about it. It’s a bit of a barrier that, so we try to give people that language. The first thing that I always say is you have to turn off a bit of your brain, because you’re not necessarily going to read a narrative into some of this stuff. For most of it you have to just absorb it: just be there and take it in. Somehow people are starting to do that more, and I think that’s because people are changing and they’re not so hung up on words or meaning. They’re more willing to be trusting in the abstract.

LC: Do you think dance in general is becoming more popular then?

AS: I think so. It’s no accident that the Contemporary Arts are seeing a huge increase as well. People are somehow more empowered or more willing to make up their own minds than they were.

LC: Is collaboration very important in dance?

AS: In dance you have to collaborate, unless you do a solo in silence with no light. You’ve already got a lighting designer, you’ve already got a composer; already you’re having to work with other people – it might be a dead composer but you’re having to work with his or her music and that leads to people being quite open and leading to strong collaborations.

LC: What are the trends in dance at the moment? Where’s the new edge?

AS: The history of dance really started in the formal sense in theatre with ballet. Louis XIV invented all of the ballet movements. Since then and until recently it was all coming down from up: it was an elite art form danced by kings and princes. Now it’s coming the other way, and hip-hop is the perfect example: it’s literally coming from the street and then coming up onto the stages.

So now some of the things that we present here are more like the peoples’ art form, and I think that explains why people are coming more and more – and especially young people. They feel it is something to do with their lives, and they can do it so they want to see someone who can do it even better.

LC: Do you think public investment in the arts gets a reasonable return?

AS: Generally across the arts for every £1 we get £2 back. At Sadler’s Wells for every £1 the government puts in we produce £10. It’s about education – that’s happening because young people have had access to proper training as well as to self-teaching, which is now in danger. The creative subjects are being driven out because there’s such an agenda to be focussed on the academics. In my view we need a world where people can do both: they can add up and dance.

To see the full programme of events on at Sadler’s Wells, check out their website.

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