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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Where Kylie met Akram

By Norman Lebrecht / January 18, 2007

Something shifted decisively in the world of dance the night Wayne McGregor and Christopher Wheeldon staged two-thirds of a triple-bill at Covent Garden last November. McGregor was promptly appointed principal choreographer of the Royal Ballet and Wheeldon, quitting New York City Ballet, came out with his own company of 20 ‘kick-ass dancers’ based at Sadler’s Wells and New York’s City Center.

Overnight, the skies cleared and classical ballet saw its future in a pair of high-octane radicals who struck sparks off one another at the barre and brought one venerable prima, a dame of the realm no less, leaping to her feet in exultation at their pounding, writhing show. The energy is back in dance and there is a cat-cream smile over the face of the man who has restored its London epicentre.

When Alistair Spalding was promoted from artistic to overall director of Sadlers Wells 30 months ago, he inherited a high-tech theatre debt-ridden and befuddled from the brief, unhappy rule of a haughty Frenchman, Jean-Luc Choplin. Spalding redesignated the Wells a dance house and declared it would produce most of its own work, rather than garaging shows by visiting troupes.

With only £2 million a year in public subsidy, a mere 12 percent of turnover, this was daring indeed. Before his second season was out, Spalding had McGregor, Wheeldon, Matthew Bourne, Akram Khan, Sylvie Guillem and Russell Maliphant using the Wells as their showcase for new work. Needing a 70 percent box-office, the Wells has been purring along at 77 and dance has become a break-even art.

‘One of the major shifts,’ suggests Spalding modestly, ‘is that there is much more cross-fertilisation between ballet and the contemporary world. They used to be mortal enemies with a huge philosophical divide. But people like Sylvie, when she wants to do modern work she comes here. And when the Royal look for choreographers – like Wayne and Russell Maliphant – they see them here. I think that’s a very healthy situation. Wayne’s company, for instance, will continue to be resident at Sadler’s Wells now that he’s at Covent Garden.’

Spalding, 49, is a master of the diplomatic solution. Next season, he has the bold Israeli choreographer Hofesh Shechter staging a Sadlers Wells commission first experimentally at The Place, then at the Queen Elizabeth Hall and finally at the Wells itself, ‘and each time there will be an added element, percussion group, full orchestra, scenography.’

He argues that dance venues need not fight for the same fans but that each can develop a distinct audience strand. Having cut his teeth as dance director on the South Bank in the 1990s, Spalding knew all there is to know about organisational malfunction and directorial vanity before he reached the Wells in 2000 and began to recast its identity.

‘We have a very broad definition of what dance is,’ he explains. ‘We have a hip-hop festival, we have salsa in the summer, we have flamenco, tango, anything that is dance. We have cradle-to-grave education classes, babies from 18 months and pensioners of any vintage. Our oldies have danced at the Venice Biennale.’

Over a three-day weekend next month, he is putting on a PlayStation-backed sampler of all the main dishes on the Wells’s menu, from Rambert, to Shechter to martial arts, to American Ballet Theater, which arrives on its first visit in 17 years. The weekend, with £10 tickets and hands-on workshops, was taken from New York’s City Center with which Spalding has initiated a regular transatlantic exchange. This, in turn, gave Wheeldon the idea to split his crack new company between those two houses, calling Spalding while he was working at Covent Garden and, over tea, asking if the Wells could be his home. ‘If you asked me who I wanted to work at Sadlers Wells,’ he blushes slightly, ever the fan, ‘Chris would have been top of my list.’

There are drawbacks to the dance intensity at the Wells, with opera being the main loser – only two weeks this year – ‘it’s so much more expensive than dance,’ sighs Spalding. Dance, however, is on such a roll that he hardly needs opera, and everyone, it seems, has got the message that Sadlers Wells is where dance comes first. Among other eye-openers, it was where Kylie Minogue met Akram Khan who has choreographed sections of her comeback show. Dance, you see, is not just back. It’s hot. ‘My ambition for Sadlers Wells,’ says Spalding self-effacingly, ‘has coincided with something happening by way of renewed public interest in dance. It’s just something in the air.’

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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]


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