Balancing acts at the cutting edge of dance

Alistair Spalding talks turning Sadler’s Wells theatre into a powerhouse of contemporary dance

Alistair Spalding: ‘I hardly ever go to America to see work; we take work there but there isn’t a flourishing of dance.’ Photograph: Aidan Crawley

Alistair Spalding: ‘I hardly ever go to America to see work; we take work there but there isn’t a flourishing of dance.’ Photograph: Aidan Crawley

Sat, Jul 12, 2014, 01:00

Talk to Alistair Spalding about dance, and one of the first things he’ll light upon is hip hop. “All the terminology in ballet and the movement and vocabulary was invented by a king, Louis XIV. It was an elite form for the courts which eventually became for everybody and filtered out into the public realm. What’s happening with hip hop is exactly the other way round.”

By way of illustration, he mentions the complex rules that underpin the chaos of dance battles. “The rules are you must add something to the move the other person has done, it has to be creative . . . With dance, it’s so important that the performer owns the material. [In hip hop] there is this form that these young people haven’t had passed down to them – they have it in their bodies.”

It might seem a little strange for an eloquent 57-year-old British man to have so much to say about the rise and rise of street dance. But as the artistic director of Sadler’s Wells dance theatre in London, Spalding is perhaps more comfortable than anyone at dance’s cutting edge.

This, he says, is an “incredibly exciting moment for the art form” that is more than just “a street dance phenomenon; it’s the possibility for different ways of expression that is across every single thing”. And, he adds with no little relish, “it’s now so cool to be a good dancer”.

Spalding came to the form relatively late. He saw his first dance show during his last year in university, aptly enough in Sadler’s Wells, featuring Merce Cunningham. “That was the leotard and hairy armpit end of contemporary dance. This was 1977, it was behind a gauze. John Cage was in the pit blowing into a conch horn. You might think that would completely put you off for life but it somehow stayed with me.”

It wasn’t until his 30s that Spalding moved into arts management, via a teaching job, and a few years after that, he began to focus on dance. He views being a relative outsider as an advantage. “I sit more as an audience member and have this as a focus: do I get it? Does it speak to me? That’s been an incredibly important element in developing audiences.”

And develop them he has. In 10 years he’s turned a struggling theatre into a powerhouse of the dance world. Perhaps the oldest trick in running a theatre is balancing the artistic books – getting in enough commercial shows to keep the box office healthy, and programming enough experimental work to sustain the critics. Spalding shifted the theatre’s focus into producing work and in the past decade it has invested in 80 shows. Commercial productions are frequent, but many of its programming strands are ambitious and expensive undertakings, such as Wild Card.

“I thought, I’m a 57-year-old man, I see the world in a certain way. And we should bring some other curatorial eyes in to this. So we said, let’s do a handover to some other people.

“We’re relinquishing responsibility and saying to our audience, ‘We have no idea what’s going to happen that night . . . You trust us to programme it, but with this we don’t know. Come and take your chances.’ ”