In March 2004, London’s Sadler’s Wells Theatre was falling apart. Executive director Jean Luc Choplin had left abruptly, just 18 months into his five-year contract. An employment lawsuit alleging sexual discrimination had been brought against the management. A new chair of the board resigned after just three months in post. Several other staff had also left; those who remained were thoroughly demoralised. Above all, the theatre was running at a crushing loss of £50,000 a month. The Daily Telegraph described the sorry state of affairs as a ‘soap opera’. Yet just five years later, the New York Times was able to report that ‘Sadler’s Wells may well be the most important dance house in the world’. What happened?
He comes across as enthusiastic and eager. Eager as a puppy. A puppy who really loves marketing.
To find out, I went to the theatre to meet two lead players in the story: executive director Alistair Spalding and marketing director Kingsley Jayasekera. For power-players in the international dance world, they are remarkably unintimidating. Spalding is a diffident man in his early fifties whose genial manner and mild, sometimes self-deprecating humour make everything he says sound reasonable, even commonsensical. Jayasekera, meanwhile, comes across as enthusiastic and eager. Eager as a puppy. A puppy who really loves marketing. Yet they took on the Sadler’s Wells soap opera and rewrote it as a success story.
“No one wanted the job when I came in,” remembers Spalding. “Things were just horrible.” Spalding understood that more than most: having been the theatre’s director of programming since 2000, he was fully aware of the institutional bloodletting. Yet as an insider, he also had a shrewd idea of the theatre’s potential and when he was appointed director in 2004 he already had a vision for its future, summed up in what was to become the theatre’s marketing slogan: ‘Sadler’s Wells is dance.’
‘One of the first things we did,’ he says, ‘was to say: this is going to be a dance house. That sounded quite strange, because in fact we had been programming a lot of dance for years. And yet the general response was: a dance house for London – at last!’ Jayasekera elaborates: ‘Sadler’s Wells was known for doing dance, but it didn’t show dance all the time. There was a belief that dance had to be funded by other things – theatre, musicals, opera. But from a marketing point of view, that didn’t seem to make sense: you can’t become really identified with dance if you keep diversifying.’
The directorship of Sadler’s Wells may have felt like a poisoned chalice, but it also presented a rare opportunity.
Spalding wanted to focus the entire theatre around dance, from renting studio space to filling up the performance programme to driving community and outreach projects. Why dance? Because, he believed in it. He had started out as a programmer in regional theatre, where he found himself enjoying modern dance more than anything else. ‘There was a freedom to it,’ he remembers. ‘It didn’t have to come from any particular tradition. Dance felt like a happening art form, a cool place to be.’ Having pursued that passion in his subsequent role as dance programmer at London’s multi-arts South Bank Centre, Spalding was, in 2004, in a position to focus an entire organisation towards dance. The directorship of Sadler’s Wells may have felt like a poisoned chalice, but it also presented a rare opportunity.
The immediate problem, though, was not direction but survival. With only about 14% of its income from government subsidy (the current level is 11%), Sadler’s Wells desperately needed to make its performance programme pay off. In stepped Jayasekera. He had been working in theatre advertising agencies, with clients ranging from the Royal Opera House to commercial West End theatre – and Sadler’s Wells. He joined them when Spalding took on the directorship, and his first task was to use his marketing savvy to put the finances back on track – fast.
Target number one was the Peacock Theatre, which was run by Sadler’s Wells as its ‘sister’ venue. ‘At the time the Peacock was mostly rented out,’ says Spalding. ‘We couldn’t maintain the quality of what was shown’ – this, by the way, is putting it very mildly – ‘so it wasn’t helping either our finances or our reputation.’ Jayasekera, capitalising on the Peacock’s location close to London’s theatreland, brought his West End experience to help book populist, commercially-orientated shows. But not just any show: they had to have a strong connection with movement – a kung fu spectacular by the Shaolin Monks, for example – so that any financial return would also help boost the theatre’s profile.
Target two was the Christmas season, which they trumpeted. At Sadler’s Wells they backed long runs of Matthew Bourne’s hit Swan Lake, thereby both stealing a march from ballet companies’ traditional Christmas fare and simultaneously presenting Sadler’s Wells as the cooler, hipper option. At the Peacock, they plugged The Snowman, which hit both targets: a popular West End show that fitted Christmas as snugly as a stocking, the tinkle of Santa’s sleigh bells chiming harmoniously with the ker-ching of the cash register.
There was certainly a financial imperative behind these decisions – just as there is behind the big “summertime sizzlers” that the theatre later began to programme (salsa shows, tango, West Side Story) – but the plan was never just about balancing books. It was also about establishing an identity and a reputation. In short, about building a brand.
‘It was very important not to just become more commercial,’ says Spalding. ‘The recognition as a dance house was also paramount. We had a broad definition of that, and commercial dance was certainly included in the spectrum. But the clear message was that you could come to Sadler’s Wells to see dance of any kind.’
‘Instead of trying to support the dance programme by diversifying outside the field,’ continues Jayasekera, ‘we diversified within it. That really expanded our audience, because we could bring in hip-hop or tango or flamenco alongside contemporary dance or modern ballet. We don’t make a hierarchy between them. If we’re doing flamenco, say, we simply try to get the best flamenco that we can.’
Alongside sorting the finances and establishing an identity, the third part of the plan was symbolically perhaps the most significant. Spalding wanted Sadler’s Wells not just to host dance works but to produce them; it would become a player. To that end, he appointed six associate artists. It was a bold step. It is still unusual for a theatre of this size (1500 seats) to produce and commission new pieces; they are more commonly initiated by dance companies, perhaps with support from theatres as ‘co-producers’. And though several venues (particularly on the smaller scale) had associate or resident artists, the tendency was to support up-and-coming choreographers on the path towards establishing a company of their own.
Sadler’s Wells went to the other end of the scale: five of its six associate artists – Matthew Bourne, Wayne McGregor, Akram Khan, Russell Maliphant and the Ballet Boyz (Michael Nunn and William Trevitt) were already experienced, well-established names. Their appointment instantly brought kudos and recognition, and within a year the theatre had two huge hits: Zero Degrees, a co-production with Akram Khan Company, and Push, a Sadler’s Wells production choreographed by Russell Maliphant. Both were publicist’s dreams: Push featured star ballerina Sylvie Guillem, Zero Degrees teamed up dancer/choreographers Akram Khan and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui with big-name artists Antony Gormley (set) and Nitin Sawhney (music). But their success was down to the pieces, not the publicity: critics raved about the works, and so did audiences.
‘They were brilliant both for people who knew nothing about dance and for people with years of experience,’ says Jayasekera. ‘In that sense, they were a perfect advert for what we were about.’
‘They’re beautifully crafted pieces, but they’re not easy or straightforward,’ adds Spalding. ‘They challenge the audience as much as they engage them.’
They were, in short, just the ticket. “Things had been going pretty much according to plan,’ remembers Spalding, ‘but with Zero Degrees and Push in quick succession, everything started working out far quicker than any of us expected. We began to attract a lot more attention. Everyone in the theatre was very excited, and the whole operation really lifted. We started to get a grip on the programme, and managed to get the Peacock turned around, with fewer dark nights and better shows.’
And the rest, as they say, is history. Having been kickstarted back into life, Sadler’s Wells wasted no time in harnessing its new-found momentum. They were able to be more choosy about which performances to present, to increase their commissioning and producing programme (the tally of Sadler’s Wells productions, co-productions, commissions or co-commissions stands at 46 to date), bring in more associate artists, and to expand their range.
Apart from the contemporary dance, modern ballet, circus crossovers and popular or social dance shows that form the backbone – or rather, backbones – of the performance programme, one particular festival merits special mention: Breakin’ Convention. This annual festival of hip-hop dance theatre was begun in 2004 under the direction of another of the theatre’s associate artists, Jonzi D – the only associate who was an unknown quantity at the time. It was a calculated risk. Jonzi already had a vision of bringing hip-hop dance to the theatre stage when he first met Spalding at the South Bank Centre, and convinced him that there was a huge potential audience for it. The results speak for themselves. From the outset, the weekend festival has sold to capacity. By 2007, it was big enough to start a national tour. Last year more than 21,000 people attended the festival, at Sadler’s Wells or on tour. Perhaps most significantly, Breakin’ Convention has not simply reflected the phenomenal growth of street dance in the UK, but been instrumental in its rise.
One reason that Spalding and Jayasekera were able to turn the boost of 2005 into a new lease of life is their focus on audiences. ‘It’s the audience that keeps it going,’ says Jayasekera, simply. ‘The field is very audience-led.’ Spalding places the emphasis differently: ‘We respect the audience but we’re not just led by them: we also try to guide them.’ They use a kind of risk-management to achieve that. ‘We only programme experienced, accomplished artists,’ explains Spalding. ‘They may be new to this country, but we know they have reached a certain level. So the risk for the audience is less.’
Inevitably, risks remain: although Push was an outstanding hit for Maliphant and Guillem, Eonnagata (2009), in which the same team collaborated with world-famous Canadian director Robert Lepage, was a misfire. Still, audiences recognised that the idea was good even if the results were not; and they appreciated the production values. Crucially, they kept trust with the theatre. And as Jayasekera comments, it’s on the basis of trust that audiences become willing to see not only new works, but also different types of work within the programme – a tango enthusiast will take a chance on contemporary dance, a balletgoer might try hip-hop.
The result is that Sadler’s Wells has managed to build an audience for dance who are not just a dance audience. They’ve also built perhaps the only international dance brand that belongs to neither a choreographer or a company. ‘Audiences used to say: I like watching Rambert, or Northern Ballet Theatre, or whoever,’ says Jayasekera. ‘Now, its’ more often: I like what Sadler’s Wells does.’ That’s a remarkable achievement. ‘If I’m happy about anything,’ says Spalding, ‘it’s that we are now seen as an important player in London. A dance house is now up on the same table as the National Theatre and the Tate Gallery.’
Not everyone is as happy as he is, though. The slogan ‘Sadler’s Wells is dance’ has irked other dance programmers in London, who feel squeezed out of the frame, left searching for an identity in the spaces that Sadler’s Wells hasn’t already captured; also that Sadler’s Wells can cherry-pick artists who have been nurtured elsewhere. ‘A bit of repositioning is not a bad thing,’ counters Spalding, mildly. ‘It makes people clear about who they are and what they should be doing.’ The nearby Barbican Centre has certainly upped its dance profile in response, though other organisations have struggled to find a niche.
They also struggle for media attention, which Sadler’s Wells is remarkably adept at attracting. Judith Mackrell, dance critic of the Guardian, confirms that Sadler’s Wells has made a huge difference to her job. ‘Editors now look at the Wells season with as much if not more interest than the Royal Opera House programme,’ she says. ‘The inclusion of names such as Antony Gormley, Nitin Sawhney or Alexander McQueen into the mix of its in-house productions really gets editorial juices working. And Alistair Spalding has become one of the few visible dance personalities who is not a dancer or choreographer.’
Spalding has been accused of empire-building; he counters that Sadler’s Wells has lifted the entire field of dance. From a media point of view, Mackrell agrees: ‘Dance has a much higher profile in general. It feels busier, more cosmopolitan, smarter and more articulate.’ Some artists object that there is too much focus on audiences, media and marketing and not enough on the art itself; perhaps on the artists themselves. My own impression is that Sadler’s Wells cannily varies its approach depending on the production. It certainly takes artistic risks as well as backing safe sellers – and its audience appreciate that.
No one, though, denies that Sadler’s Wells has not only turned around its own fortunes, but transformed the landscape of dance in the process. They’re about to think even bigger. ‘One thing to make clear,’ says Spalding, momentarily assertive, ‘is that we’re going to be more ambitious with our producing. There’s a Pet Shop Boys project in 2011. Before that, in autumn 2010, there’s Shoes, with songs by Richard Thomas [Jerry Springer: The Opera], and choreography by Stephen Mears, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Kate Prince, Aletta Collins.’ It’s a list that includes big names in musicals, contemporary dance, opera, theatre and street dance. Quality assurance, risk-management, cross-selling, media attention – it pretty much touches all the bases.
Will it work? It’s hard to believe that the mild-mannered man sitting in front of me could mastermind a blockbuster, but his story indicates otherwise. Perhaps he has only shown me his Clark Kent aspect, and as soon as I’ve leave, he and Jayasekera will change gear, turning back into the superheroes who once saved the most important dance house in the world from disaster.
Ten of my landmark memories from Sadler’s Wells
Breakin’ Convention (2004-present)
The annual hip-hop dance weekend when excitable youngsters invade Sadler’s Wells and claim it as their own. Take ear plugs, and marvel.
Palermo, Palermo (2005)
Pina Bausch’s mind-warped version of her stay in Sicily. To this day, I still love saying “This is myyyyyy spaghetti.”
Zero Degrees (2005)
An uncannily timed premiere, the day after the London bombings of July 7th. Akram Khan and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui in a haunting piece about death and body doubles.
Mad Korean story of a family of martial-arts masters who get burgled. Poor burglars. The piece copies lots of film effects – and betters them, using only bouncy boards and tae-kwon do.
A Compás (2006)
An education in flamenco form and feeling, Paco Peña’s unprepossessing but utterly captivating evening shows that you don’t need to be flash to be flamenco.
Wild Cursive (2007)
The works of Cloudgate Dance Theatre of Taiwan can be really slow – I mean, zen – but Wild Cursive manages to release its quiet spirit into joyous, free-form expression. Beautiful, to its core.
Three Duets (2008)
Two ordinary blokes – Jonathan Burrows and Matteo Fargion – sit on chairs, gesticulating and sometimes vocalising, for three hours. How can something that simple be that fascinating for that long? Go figure.
Steve Reich Evening (2008)
This – along with Zeitung (2009) – shows Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker at her most brilliant, demanding, and starkly beautiful. No concessions whatsover to the audience: if you don’t love it, you can shove it. I love that.
Impressing the Czar (2008)
The Royal Ballet of Flanders in William Forsythe’s legendary work, opening with a history of western art and ending with the destruction of civilisation by – hang on, aren’t they the Girls of St Trinian’s? We knew Forsythe was clever, but who knew he could be such fun?
In the Spirit of Diaghilev (2009)
Four world premieres by four choreographers. The evening began with a spacy oddity (by Wayne McGregor), then brushed the sublime (Russell Maliphant, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui), before veering out of control (Javier de Frutos) and crashing spectacularly, leaving collateral damage and a chorus of boos. Hurrah!