First, Sadler’s Wells; Then, the World
By ROSLYN SULCAS
IN September 2005, a year after Alistair Spalding was appointed artistic director and chief executive of Sadler’s Wells theater here, he was in his theater for a performance by the recently formed Forsythe Company. The audience response to William Forsythe’s work was more nonplussed than enthusiastic, and as the group around Mr. Spalding discussed this reaction during intermission, he remained silent. Then he said, “This is why we need to program more Forsythe.”
That counterintuitive thinking says much about Mr. Spalding, 51, a tall, fair man whose reticent manner belies his role in having transformed Sadler’s Wells into what may well be the most important dance house in the world.
When he took over in 2004, the theater was in debt, and its programming had suffered from years of changing and shaky direction. Mr. Spalding has turned matters around by taking risks, trusting his instincts and continually supporting and producing new work. This approach, the antithesis of the market-research-driven philosophy that motivates most American theaters, has met with both financial and popular success.
Mr. Spalding has a rare combination of talents and inclinations. He is a passionate dance lover ready to take on difficult and abstruse work, but he also has a nose for putting together unexpected combinations of artists in high-profile collaborations. He thinks that dance can encompass a broad range of forms (he started an annual hip-hop festival and regularly presents flamenco and tango) and knows a good money-making show when he sees one.
“What has made Sadler’s Wells stand out have been the more offbeat, innovative things,” Mr. Spalding said recently in his modest office, adorned with photographs of Pina Bausch and the Frankfurt Ballet.
“The theater is now financially stable,” he added, “but that’s not because we’ve been more prudent.”
Unlike most major European houses Sadler’s Wells — the latest in a line of theaters that began with Dick Sadler’s musick house in the 1680s — does not depend solely on government subsidies. The theater, which was the first home of the Royal Ballet (then called the Vic-Wells Ballet), receives about $3 million a year from Arts Council England, which distributes governmental money largely raised by the national lottery. But that is just 13 percent of Mr. Spalding’s $22 million budget for the 2008-9 season.
Since 2004 the theater has raised 70 percent of its income from ticket sales; the rest comes from fund-raising and hall rental. (Sadler’s Wells also makes about $750,000 a year at the Peacock Theater, which it rents from the London School of Economics to present more commercial shows in long runs.)
Mr. Spalding’s manner is so understated that it is easy to miss the force of his ambition. “Alistair is very mild-mannered and diplomatic on the surface,” said Debra Craine, the dance critic of The Times of London. “But actually he is ruthlessly effective. It’s just in the most appealing package imaginable.”
Much else about Mr. Spalding is not immediately apparent. He grew up in a working-class household in Hertfordshire with little exposure to the arts and left school at 16. He was a clerk in a legal office for some years before going to college, and he taught at elementary schools for six years before deciding to work in the arts. He found a job programming film, classical music and visual arts at a new theater in Crawley, northeast of London, and soon added dance to the mix.
“I realized it spoke to me more than anything else,” he said.
In 1994 he moved to the South Bank Center in London, where he attracted the notice of dance fans by introducing what he called “a lot of Belgian stuff” — Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Wim Vandekeybus, Alain Platel — and promoting young local choreographers like Jonathan Burrows, Wayne McGregor and Matthew Bourne.
Mr. Spalding was hired as Sadler’s Wells’s director of programming in 2000, and when the chief executive, Ian Albery, left two years later, he applied for the job. He didn’t get it. The board chose Jean-Luc Choplin, a former general manager of the Paris Opera Ballet with ambitious plans — producing a Robert Wilson piece, presenting Jessye Norman — and little heed for the cost. “Alistair sat tight under Jean-Luc and managed not to be sacked, which happened to almost everyone else,” said Val Bourne, the former director of Dance Umbrella. “I think that period really toughened him up.”
When Mr. Choplin (who now runs the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris) left 18 months later amid allegations of financial disaster, Mr. Spalding became interim artistic director. He was soon named permanent artistic director and chief executive, and he appointed associate artists: Akram Khan, the Ballet Boyz, Matthew Bourne, Jonzi D, Mr. McGregor and Russell Maliphant. “It was a drawn-in-the-sand moment,” Mr. Spalding said. “I wanted to change Sadler’s Wells from a place where work was presented to one where work was made, so I offered to commission their work and support them.”
The first two productions that emerged — Mr. Maliphant’s “Push” and Mr. Khan, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Antony Gormley and Nitin Sawhney’s “Zero Degrees” — were huge critical and public successes and eventually toured worldwide. “Alistair’s gift is that of allowing, of making space available, for people to do what they need to do,” said Mr. Gormley, an acclaimed sculptor who has since collaborated on another Sadler’s Wells project, “Sutra,” with Mr. Cherkaoui. “He supports the process as well as the product. So there can be an alchemy born of putting things together that haven’t been together before. There might even be explosions.”
Mr. Spalding has maintained his policy of commissioning work from the theater’s resident artists (Sylvie Guillem, Jasmin Vardimon and Christopher Wheeldon have been added to the list), but he continues to support less accessible artists he considers important. Last year he staged a two-week retrospective of almost every work by the conceptual choreographer Jérôme Bel; next month he is doing something similar for Xavier Le Roy. And in April and May he will present “Focus on Forsythe,” which brings six recent pieces by Mr. Forsythe to several stages, including the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern.
Moving beyond Sadler’s Wells is part of Mr. Spalding’s plan for world domination. (If you say that quietly with a British accent, no one will notice until it has happened.)
He has a New York partner in City Center, which also supports Mr. Wheeldon’s Morphoses company and has presented “Zero Degrees” and “Push.” (Mr. Spalding, in turn, has imported City Center’s Fall for Dance concept.) Sadler’s Wells also has a three-year contract to program a monthlong spring season at the London Coliseum, which allows Mr. Spalding to present companies — like American Ballet Theater this year — in works too large for the Sadler’s Wells stage.
More recently he has established new partnerships with the Young Vic theater and the Roundhouse, a performing arts center where, in February, the choreographer Hofesh Shechter will present work in what Mr. Spalding describes as “a gig setting.”
This is the kind of tactic that has brought in a public described by Ms. Craine as “the hippest, youngest, smartest, sexiest audience for dance in London.” The down side, she added, is that Sadler’s Wells is now so powerful that other London dance spaces are struggling to find an identity.
In response Mr. Spalding said: “I think that if there is momentum on a large scale with Sadler’s Wells, that helps momentum in the field. My intention is not to take over but to push dance into the mainstream in this culture. I think you can only do that by knowing what you like and knowing deep in your heart that something is good, whatever is being said around it. Obviously you have to be able to say no. But in a way it’s more important to be able to say yes.”