Balancing acts at the cutting edge of dance

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

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.’ ”

The programme has proved hugely popular, so much so that Spalding cheerfully admits it “started off as one or two things and now we’re stuck with it . . . it’s work that we would never normally dream of putting on”.

It hasn't been all unbridled success though. In 2011, Sadler's Wells was in the pit of the recession and had just produced its most ambitious show, a dance cabaret musical called Shoes, written by Richard Thomas, composer for Jerry Springer: The Opera.

“The research was the most amazing thing. One woman had a library downstairs in her house in London and they took all the books out so she could store all her shoes. Obviously they were a particular type of person we were approaching but the average person had 80 pairs of shoes. We thought, this is definitely going to work.”

The critical reaction was largely indifferent and the box office stumbled. “The lesson was, make sure you predict when things are going to be difficult and be careful about cash flow. But the second thing was that we really knew what we were good at doing, which was not making big commercial West End musicals. We had a million pounds and up the road a musical is being made for £8 million; you can’t compete with that.”

Talks turns to funding and Spalding is deeply dismissive of the current vogue for chasing a philanthropic, more American model for funding the arts. “I’m definitely not a fan of the American model. I hardly ever go to America to see work; we take work there but there isn’t a flourishing of dance.”

He lays the blame at the generally conservative nature of philanthropic funders, who are happy to shore up a new wing, but baulk at the thought of putting money into a contemporary dance show. “What happens is the big ballet companies get most of the support for quite conservative programming. It’s stultifying and it’s not the way forward.”

Despite dance's high-art image, Spalding is adamant that it can be just as effective as theatre or novels at tackling everyday issues. He references Zero Degrees, a show by Akram Khan based on a journey Khan made from Bangladesh to India. "It was the first thing we ever produced," says Spalding. "We premiered it on the day after the London bombings. This was an incredible moment in London. [The city] shut down completely; everyone was in shock and we were opening this new show the day after."

The show draws on one particular experience when Khan shared a train carriage with a dead man and was shocked by the cavalier manner in which the body was handled. Part of the show, says Spalding, “was a kind of mourning for this dead person. It’s not direct, in the way theatre is, but in a way it’s even deeper than that because it’s a physical expression of a sentiment, of a feeling of humanity. And that’s exactly why I love the art form because it does more than words can do.”