Sadler’s Sampled, a new two week festival commencing this weekend, is in many ways like the venue itself – its programme considers dance in the widest possible way and delivers a diverse and eclectic programme that faces up Rosas against hip-hop and mashes Sadler’s Wells co-productions with tango lessons open to the public. Alistair Spalding, Sadler’s Wells’ Artistic Director and Chief Executive offers a no nonsense answer to the question of how one of Europe’s best known dance venues manages to give such a wide curating spectrum a joining thread: ‘Our mission is to present the best work that is available in every genre of dance and also to produce new work that stretches the boundaries of the form.’
For all its artistic unity, Sampled’s programme comes divided into four sections that show just how difficult it can be to blurb-up venue’s far reaching interests. Entitled ‘Made at Sadler’s Wells’, ‘Rosas’, ‘Sampled’, and ‘Hofesh Shechter’ these glimpses into curating arcs are a reflection of the festival’s history and some of Sadler’s Wells’ superstars in equal measure. Tagged as a dance-gig, Political Mother is making a comeback to London, after a pretty glorious stint in Derry (rumor has it almost 5% of the city’s population saw the show – a feat not many contemporary dance pieces can claim); Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s Drumming is promising to be an aesthetic opposite, at least if Steve Reich’s involvement is anything to go by.
The festival opens with a two day event celebrating the venue’s decisions to go out of the restrictions of a receiving house, a development Spalding was instrumental in. Finally the actual ‘Sampled’ weekend is a silent dedication to how it all started; much like previous years’ showcases it offers bites of everything dance from Stuttgart Ballet to the Tango World Champions. With ticket prices set at ‘quite affordable’ and an array of talks, free classes and films surrounding the main events, the festival is obviously out to defy the ‘niche’ label planted on contemporary dance. Spalding admits that aside from keeping up with high standards, Sampled also serves up a double bait for the audience: ‘We are trying to do two things with this festival – firstly find work that fits the proms environment (we take most of the seats out of the stalls), such as Hofesh Shechter’s Political Mother: The Choreographer’s Cut and Rosas’ Drumming. We also want to attract new people to the theatre for the festival and so we have two evenings of mixed bills.’
Under Spalding Sadler’s Wells has managed to be a rare beast – a strictly speaking non-commercial venue that contributes in no small part to its own budget. From the outside it seems the recipe is a fairly to the point equation that factors in both what can bring the profit in and what needs to be there regardless of the turnover. In practice this means that European shows that might be harder to sell won’t be pushed out: ‘We generally enjoy the more entertaining end of things in the UK – so a lot of the more ‘serious’ European work is a challenge, but there is definitely an audience for it, so we will keep doing it’; it also means however there is a greater awareness and honesty about how the venue can sustain itself: ‘It’s quite simple – there are some shows that make us money – mostly at Christmas and in the summer and also at the Peacock Theatre; added to this we get commercial income from the theatre, the bars and from fundraising.’
As blunt as Spalding makes it out to be, this kind of successful equilibrium is a trick that most struggle to pull off – including perhaps many a government. Tellingly, the day prior to our conversation was marked by numerous photos of the handful of MPs who thought it relevant to attend the debate on arts. Last year, the same bunch unravelled plans for a new EBacc syllabus, which left out dance, drama and arts out of the core subjects: at the time Spalding was one of the most prominent in the opposition to the proposal. His concern with the fundamental cuts and changes continues to be directed not at the mainstream, but at those who might be up and coming – both on the fringe and in ballet classes: ‘It’s getting more and more difficult – my worry is not for large organisations like ours but smaller younger companies who are going to find it difficult to survive. Unless young people have access to dance and the arts in general they won’t go on to explore it in future, and we may find ourselves without the great talent that we currently enjoy.’
Sadler’s Sampled is runs from 22nd June to 7th July.