Dance Matters

June 28, 2010

The Man Behind the Curtain

Sadler’s Wells trailblazer Alistair Spalding


His manner might resemble that of an amiable accountant, but don’t let the deceptively low-key image fool you. As chief executive and artistic director of Sadler’s Wells, Alistair Spalding has turned this London venue into the UK’s leading dance presenter while simultaneously fashioning himself into one of the country’s savviest and most powerful players.


The facts and figures speak for themselves. Under Spalding’s leadership, Sadler’s Wells has commissioned or produced over 40 new dance works since 2004; many have toured the world under the Sadler’s Wells banner. Along with the Peacock Theatre, a more commercial sister venue in the West End, Sadler’s Wells is now programmed 50 weeks annually. Attendance has risen by 56 percent during the last six years, with crowds flocking to see top-flight British and international dance alongside recurring seasons of flamenco and hip hop. Meanwhile, off-site partnerships between the Wells and various London theaters, museums, and music spaces have helped foster new audiences for dance-based work. (The Wells also has a programming partnership with New York City Center.)


A prime motive for all this activity is that Spalding unabashedly loves the art form. “I can honestly say that I never tire of watching dance,” he says, chuckling. “It’s so open. When the lights go down literally anything could happen.”


Spalding’s professional progress has been slow and steady. Between 1994 and 2000, the erstwhile schoolteacher was head of dance and performance at London’s Southbank Centre, where he developed strong co-producing relationships with artists and companies like Jonathan Burrows, DV8, and Alain Platel. Now, he says, he holds two jobs. “One is to make a success of this venue. The other is to make a success of dance by pushing it to the center of discussion in terms of culture in the UK.”


He’s accomplished both, but not without taking a risk. The Wells was debt-ridden when Spalding assumed command, and staff morale was low. His notion of turning it into a production center as well as a receiving house was bold and daring. “Any kind of arts orga­nization should have creativity at its center,” he explains. “I don’t think you can do that just by inviting people in. You have to also have someone living there. And so I appointed the associate artists.”


The roster of talent currently residing in Spalding’s stable—including Matthew Bourne, Sylvie Guillem, Akram Khan, Russell Maliphant, and Wayne McGregor—has helped reinvigorate the Wells and secure its ever-growing international status. So, too, have productions like Maliphant and Guillem in Push; and zero degrees, Khan’s collaboration with fellow associate artist Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui; and Sutra, featuring Cherkaoui and a pack of Shaolin monks. All have been popular and critical hits globally.


The relationship between the associates and the organization is supportive but not possessive. “If they’re making a large-scale dance work I’d quite like them to make it here,” Spalding says. “But it’s not a shackle. They’re free to go elsewhere for other projects.”


Khan, for one, is deeply grateful for “the chance to test things out without feeling I have to start all over again. There’s a long-term strategy here. Instead of moving sideways we can move vertically, by taking bigger risks and exploring new concepts and challenges.” Hofesh Shechter echoes him. “Alistair encourages me to be brave, but there’s no single formula for the associates and no demands made on us. We have complete artistic freedom.” 


As the builder of a dance empire, Spalding is obviously sitting pretty, but he remains vigilant about the union between art and commerce. “We’re financially stable now because we’re artistically successful,” he says. There have, he admits, been a few creative missteps. “We might lose money with some things, but we believe they’re important to do. Our priority is to put on good things. That’s why people keep coming back.”  —Donald Hutera



King of the World

The director of LINES on the Monaco Dance Forum


Like the Ballets Russes, Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet thrives on collaboration. King’s pairing of music from all over the globe with his powerful, extraordinary dancers has earned the company a fiercely devoted following at home in San Francisco and beyond. His wonderfully over-stretched, sinuous works gained the admiration of Jean-Christophe Maillot, the prolific choreographer and artistic director of Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo. Maillot invited King to participate in all three acts of the Monaco Dance Forum, a yearlong celebration of dance that is, this time, devoted to the Ballets Russes centenary. 


The premiere of King’s Scheherazade opened Act I of the Forum last December. In March and April, he took part in a series of workshops for over 80 students plucked from prestigious schools around the world.


“What Jean-Christophe did is brilliant,” says King. “Unlike so many who are pulling in the reins, he’s able to give back to the field. He’s keeping dance alive in the richest way possible.” In no small part due to the support of Princess Caroline of Monaco (and the legacy of her mother, Princess Grace), Maillot brought over 30 directors to Monaco to work with and adjudicate the students. “It is so difficult for dancers to go to all of the companies they’re interested in, so he brought the directors to them,” says King. “That was beautiful.” The Forum not only facilitated contract offers with companies like Boston Ballet and Dutch National Ballet for 53 young dancers, but will also pay many of their first-year salaries.


For Act III of the Forum, King is creating a world premiere for Maillot’s company that debuts this month. It’s a new kind of collaboration for King—not with musical or visual artists, but with an author, Colum McCann, whose highly acclaimed novel Let the Great World Spin will shape King’s ballet. The different mediums and approaches to their work proved to be an initial challenge. “It took us a while,” admits King. “We had to wade around each other and hone in on how to get to the essence of things, the universal themes. He’s done a lot of writing for us, and we’re using the writing for images.” They found common ground by focusing on motivation. “We are really looking for the same thing: what’s behind form. When people call work abstract, it’s the reduction of an idea to a symbol. Just like in algebra, the symbol refers to something. Tendu is talking about nonstop line—eternity.”


King enjoys working with Maillot’s company. “His dancers are fully committed. They’re greedy, beautiful movers.” What does he want from the dancers who perform his works? “Artists are not Legos, they’re human beings. I’m looking for conscious understanding and an immense willingness. Relentless generosity, the greatest kind of loving. With artists, the child is the art. You protect it fiercely, help it grow, feed it, and then share it in the world. What am I looking for? I’m looking for a room full of mothers.” —Kina Poon



Hofesh Schechter’s
Political Mother. Photo by Ben Rudick, Courtesy Sadler’s Wells.