• Stage
  • Alistair Spalding: Risky commercial theatre


Alistair Spalding: Risky commercial theatre

INTERVIEW! There's Boulevard theatre, and then there's London artistic director Spalding's approach: mixing the avant-garde with the commercial. Exberliner moderates a panel with him at Friedrichstadt-Palast on January 26, 8pm.

Image for Alistair Spalding: Risky commercial theatre
Photo by Robert Grischek

The Friedrichstadt-Palast opens its doors to more than just the “suitable for tourists” crowd on January 26, when it puts on its very first “British evening”, kicking off with a panel discussion hosted by Exberliner‘s own Lily Kelting.

Among the panel guests is artistic director of London’s Sadler’s Wells, Alistair Spalding, a Profi in the London performing arts scene. The 300-year-old company, which focuses on dance, stays fresh by balancing producing smash-hits and incubating new talent. The list of their associate artists and regular guest artists is a who’s who of contemporary dance: Akram Khan, Matthew Bourne, Tanztheater Wuppertal…

Spalding also produces big-budget spectaculars, or what’s commonly known as Boulevard theatre, showcasing movement from circus to tango to a breakdancing version of Little Red Riding Hood. It’s a rare example of an institution marrying the avant-garde with the commercial. Go WYLD this evening and catch Spalding on stage for “Theatre and Society in the UK and Germany: Two Traditions” on January 26, 6pm at Friedrichstadt-Palast.

How do you balance creating a fresh programme with the over 300-year-history of Sadler’s Wells?

In the hallway near the stage door here, there are portraits of all the great and good. You feel the weight of history. But I think what you have to do is recognise that long history and then put it to one side. In a way, the history of Sadler’s Wells is about the new. The moments when it’s been the strongest are when it was doing new work in opera and ballet in the 1930s and 1940s. You think of history as this conservative thing, that things were different in the past. But things were also quite radical in the past. It’s good to remember that. So that’s what I thought when I took over in 2004 – let’s continue making new things.

You once said, “Dance is for everyone.” What do you mean?

The history of Sadler’s Wells is that it started as a music hall, as a space of entertainment. And something in our DNA has always been about that. Our most famous former director, Lillian Baylis, was famous for saying that she wanted to bring great art to the artisans of Islington – the working class, not just the middle or upper classes. Frankly, there’s a commercial imperative here too. We only get 10 percent of our money as subsidy. The biggest share, 70 percent, is ticket sales. That also encourages us to be wide in our appeal rather than narrow.

How can you then tell if something will be commercially successful?

We produce two kinds of work. The things which are more predictable are the artists that we have a built-in audience for. So if you take the Pina Bauschs and Anne Teresa de Keersmaekers – they have an audience and they will come. The productions which are more risky are actually the commercial ones. We have great successes but then very big failures. Anybody can bet completely wrong on programming a commercial production. Otherwise all these theatre producers would be rich men, but they’re not. It’s very hard. It’s not like producing a blockbuster film, where it’s more of a formula. There’s no successful formula for theatre, really.

Yeah. I remember Spiderman: Turn off the Dark in New York, which by every account should have been a huge success, but of course it was a comical failure.

Yeah, you can put the dream team together with proven subject matter, and think “This is absolutely cast iron.” But it’s just not the case. And then you have incredible surprises, like War Horse, a small-scale experiment with this South African puppet company, becoming this worldwide hit. It’s kept the National Theatre going for many years. So everyone keeps saying, “Can you not create a War Horse?” and I say, “If I could, I would be on an island in the Caribbean right now!”

How do you create a balance between these West End-style shows and the less commercial work?

It’s a very unusual model for the theatre, to have the very commercial and the non-commercial sides right alongside each other. But we make it work. We’re just about to finish an eight week season with Matthew Bourne, who is one of our main choreographers here. His work sits nicely between the art and the commerce: it fits within our mission exactly, but it’s very successful commercially.

One of the other themes of the panel is the relationship between theatre and changing society. Matthew Bourne’s adaptation of Swan Lake, which replaces the lead female role and corps de ballet with men, might be a good example of that.

In his version of Swan Lake, yes, it’s about a relationship between two men, and all that that implies. In a way, this is how art and culture do change popular perceptions – when he made that piece it was very controversial, and it wasn’t something that family audiences would come to. And now, 20 years later, no one even thinks of the idea that the central relationship is a homosexual one.

It’s become canonical, in fact.

I always say to people, it’s pretty weird for a man to fall in love with a swan anyway, in the original. It’s not particularly a natural occurrence.

Can you give another example of how dance responds to politics?

One doesn’t normally think of dance as a form that engages with the detail of politics on a daily basis. But dance does engage with wider cultural issues. For example, our associate artist Akram Khan is a second-generation [immigrant], from a Bangladeshi mother and father. So he feels a little bit out of place here in London, but he also feels totally out of place when he goes back to Bangladesh. And that clearly comes through in the work. His dance performances are often about this sort of displacement. But the positive side of that is that he’s motivated to think about cultural identity in a new way, and include dance styles from both cultures in his work. By its nature, dance does cross cultural and language barriers: it’s something that joins people rather than separates them.

PALAST-TALK: Theatre and Society in the UK and Germany, Tue, Jan 26, 18:00 | Friedrichstadt-Palast (La Diva Lounge), Friedrichstr. 107, Mitte, U-Bhf Friedrichstr.