Dance with Alistair Spalding CBE, Artistic Director and Chief Executive of Sadler’s Wells

Wednesday 21 November 2018

With the unlikely tunes of a late soundcheck still playing in the background, the director of Sadler’s Wells, home to some of the most exciting contemporary dance today took to the stage to start a talk only ever heard once before.
Immediately the surprising image of Louis XIV appeared on the screen in a rather fetching period costume. It was the Sun King’s personal interest in dance that led to the codification of the ballet moves that survive today. Ballet we learned provided pleasure and interest in his court and was also in part a reflection of the stylised moves and postures the courtesans themselves adopted as outward signifiers of rank and class. The subsequent rise and rise of ballet in Paris, Russia and Norway broadly followed dynastic lines of marriage amongst Royal families.
Alistair contrasted this with the opening of Dick Sadler’s hall of entertainment in 1683 in Islington. A great many lines of entertainment ensued, reenacting sea battles on a stage full of water, fisticuffs, wrestling with the occasional sing song sent in to test the artistic heights, such it appeared was the status quo for much of entertainment in England . Dance was noticable mostly for its absence with a clear preference at any societal level for the theatrical, the linguistic or the bawdy. A lineage that was suggested aligned to the more Teutonic interests our Royal household and associated countries.
Alistair then outlined the weypoints in dance from that point generally, chiefly the period of 1890- 1895 and two men Ivan Vsevolozhsky and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky who wrote what have been consistently been the three most popular performances ever since: Sleeping Beaty, The Nutcracker and Swanlake.

Moving onwards he highlighted the role of the Choreographer and in particular Diaghilev who had come into Ballet following a passion for collecting Art, that is to say with no specific dance background. His company, the Ballet Russe would go on to change to the course of dance and their performance in 1913 of “The Rite of Spring” is widely considered to be the starting gun for modernism in Ballet and the beginning of contemporary dance as we know it now. A distinction that he drew loosely as an interest and association with the ground and weight as opposed to weightlessness in earlier dance forms.Needless to say the intial performance was reported to have started a small riot of outrage.

Back at Sadler’s Well another towering figure took to centre stage. Lillian Bayliss was the remarkable producer who ran not only Sadler’s Wells but also The Old Vic with a vision to “create art for the artisans of Islington”. Perhaps the clearest testament to her endeavours was the formation of both the English National Opera and the Royal Ballet, both out of Sadler’s Wells. So it was not until 1928 that a Ballet Company formally existed in the UK!

The development of Modern Dance gathered pace quickly from this point, with notable influences in forms of expression coming from the dance hall and show business, notably Fred Astaire whose untrained and natural movement would influence and inspire George Balanchine at the New York Ballet. American influence at Sadler’s extended to the drive of Robin Howard, an ex Fighter pilot who had lost his legs but brought Martha Graham and the Graham technique to London. Later in the 80s the impact of Hip hop and the Rock Steady Crew, would be followed by the burst of creativity in Music Video, Michael Jackson and Bruce Lee. Remarkable pools of inspiration at first sight but formative on some of the current greats such as Wayne MacGregor and Hofesh Shekter.

Meanwhile in Europe and particularly Germany a more extreme minimalism had taken root. Some people are just simply ahead of the thought processes others and so it was with Pina Bausch and her work in the industrial town of Wuppertal in Germany. Her studied works have become canons of modernism and play to packed audiences whenever they travel.

Sadler’s position in this, as the showcase for dance really clarified in 2000 with Alistair taking the helm in 2005 and made commitment to just present dance. Sadler’s does not support a dance troupe, positioning instead with selected Choreographers who in term have their own crews. The divisions between Ballet and contemporary dance have narrowed and there has also been a willingness to take on and introduce inspiration from different fields such as contemporary art.

The future looks as exciting with the announcement of a development into the East of London as part of the Olympic legacy and a commitment to promote and present more female choreographers

In 2016 Sadler’s Wells Associate Choreographer Russell Maliphant was the first to set a performance in the barn
In 2017 New Wave Choreographer Alexander Whitley presented the second piece.

A number of dance Students attended and supper was served in the Mess Restaurant

Read more about Alistair and his work at Sadler’s Wells at
Read more about the dance performances we have shown at Messums Wiltshire in collaboration with Sadler’s Wells by choreographers Russell Maliphant and Alexander Whitley

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