When I meet Sir Alistair Spalding for the first time, it’s in his small but airy office in the maze of corridors backstage at Sadler’s Wells. This month, the theatre is celebrating 25 years since its building reopened, after much needed renovations. Around that time, in 2004, Spalding was appointed Artistic Director and Chief Executive, a position which he has held ever since. During this period the theatre has presented 1,870 productions to audiences of almost seven million – staggering figures.

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Sir Alistair Spalding on the set of Sir Matthew Bourne's Nutcracker!
© Hugo Glendinning

Spalding didn’t start out in the world of dance. “I left school at 16, so I didn’t think I was going to be academically trained in anything. But I did eventually get a degree, not in dance but in linguistics and philosophy. I can remember coming to the old theatre at Sadler’s Wells and seeing Merce Cunningham, but that was only a brief experience.” The passion for dance would come later.

“My first job in culture was in The Hawth, Crawley, a local-authority built theatre. I was part of the team that opened it up. As well as having the main house, we also had studio space. We invited companies and one of the first to come was Matthew Bourne, with his group Adventures in Motion Pictures. That was the moment that I realised that dance was the thing I was most moved by. I was a latecomer at 30. It was a sort of sexy thing at the time. I found I was more interested in movement than text. I started to commission works in Crawley and then eventually moved to the Southbank to do programming there for dance.”

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Akram Khan in Desh
© Richard Haughton

I’m curious to know what he thinks makes for a good-selling production. Perhaps it’s impossible to answer such a broad question. “No it’s not – particularly here, because we are 70% reliant on box office. It’s part of the thing: people have to come. You can’t be too esoteric. There has to be a sense that the artists we invite, particularly the Associates, have a connection with the audience.” The first group of Associate Artists was appointed by Spalding in 2005, and these choreographers have formed the basis of much of the success the venue has seen since then.

“An example would be someone like Akram Khan, who had already been through a series of stages getting to where he is now. But someone like Sharon Eyal, I saw her work a few times and thought, that’s ready to be here now. She’s the sort of person who really hits a nerve with audiences,” Spalding says. “With Sadler’s Wells Debut, all the tickets were one price, £10, so people didn’t have to risk much to come. That’s when we started to build an audience for her in London. If we were doing it now, we’d start her off in Stratford, at Sadler’s Wells East, because it’s only 600 seats. It’s one of the reasons we’ve got that new venue, so there’s a stepping stone, instead of going straight into a 1500 seat theatre.”

When I suggest he has taken some big risks, with people like Alain Platel and his Les Ballets C de la B, he chuckles and says, “He was one end of the spectrum. It’s not huge, but there is an audience for that sort of work. People want to be challenged, or surprised, particularly with something like Wolf.” Platel’s extraordinary 2004 production used 14 live dogs on stage. “He is an exceptional theatre/dance-maker, with an international reputation. I first presented him on the roof at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, before I came to Sadler’s Wells. There are some artists I believe in, and I just follow them.”

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Monks of the Shaolin temple in Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Sutra
© Hugo Glendinning

“What’s behind everything that Alain does is deep, intense research, and loyalty to his performers. There’s a process. Most people think it’s about physical acumen, but I’m just as interested in the intellect behind the work. What’s going on and why are they making it? The most important thing is to see the work and talk to them, to get a sense of their integrity.”

Spalding is not only well-known for presenting new and unusual works, but for taking the classics and showing them in a different light. “When Tamara Rojo took over English National Ballet, she talked about commissioning Akram and others. It was taking ballet into a fresh place, intelligently. The ‘God’ for me is William Forsythe, who deconstructed everything and has come back, fully on point(e), if you like,” Spalding says. “In different ways, all the great choreographers have done that.”

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Pina Bausch’s The Rite of Spring
© Maarten Vanden Abeele

I’m keen to know if there have been disappointments or mistakes. “I’m not going to name names, but sometimes you can get a little bit seduced by fame,” Spalding tells me. “That’s only happened a couple of times. The audience is one thing but if you start there, you’re never going to win. You need to think who are the interesting artists to follow, and support them. When I started the Associate Artists, they were the people who were going to form the basis of this project. Matthew Bourne, Russell Maliphant, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui were a huge part of it and we have 17 now. It’s the artists who have made an offering which is consistent and developing – sometimes it’s a bumpy road – but eventually they’re the right ones and the audience see it,” Spalding says. “I often use the analogy of keeping a balloon up in the air. The job is to keep that balloon up and it will keep falling unless you are constantly paying attention to it.”

I want to know more about Sadler’s Wells East, which include new development schemes for young dancers and choreographers, the Hip Hop Theatre Academy and the Rose Choreographic School. “With the Rose Choreographic School, those people will have made a few pieces, but we’re getting them at a point where a little bit of input will make a difference. We’re finding them not through the conservatoires but earlier – people who may not have thought they could be dance makers.”

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Sylvie Guillem in Mats Ek’s Bye
© Bill Cooper

Sadler’s Wells East, which opens in 2024, has been ten years in the pipeline. Is Spalding relieved, ecstatic? “Exhausted more like! It was 2013 when I confirmed we would build a middle-scale theatre, so it will be 11 years since then when it opens.

“When I came here, I looked at when this place was most successful and it was when there was new work being made. The biggest moment was Lilian Baylis’s period. She encouraged new things to happen in opera and ballet. Because we’re not in the West End, people have to have a reason to come. Put creativity at the centre of the place, people will come.”

Best things he’s been involved with? He takes a huge breath. “I’m an advocate for dance and I promote it because I love it, but part of that is because it’s always been seen as being on the sidelines of things. The intention has been to make it mainstream, particularly with contemporary dance. I think I’m a good person to be doing that because I fell in love with it and I had no background or training. I want as many people as possible to experience what happened to me.”

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Sir Alistair Spalding
© Hugo Glendinning

I can’t imagine him ever retiring. “Ever since I started working in culture, it took over my whole life. Working in theatre is like that. I don’t regret it. I still have full energy for it. I don’t think about slowing down or anything. Mick Jagger came to the theatre on Friday – I’m not name dropping.” But if you’re going to drop a name, Jagger’s a good one. “We had a nice chat. In the weekend FT they were comparing Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. Jagger has kept up his energy. I’m a bit more of a Mick Jagger. He loves ballet and he goes a lot. My theory is that he is so successful because he dances through his concerts. It’s a physicality he’s got! My dad retired when he was in his late fifties. He worked in a steel foundry, but he then declined, because he didn’t have purpose.”

A final question – has anyone knocked his confidence? “The person who was always sceptical of me was Clement Crisp. He hated some of the stuff I did at the Southbank. In the end, he became my biggest fan. He didn’t like everything, but he loved the idea that we’d built this dance house. I often think about that as one of my biggest achievements, that I turned him around. At the time I felt really upset, with these horrible reviews. But after a while, with such a track record, it didn’t really bother me any more.”

See all upcoming performances at Sadler’s Wells.

Alistair Spalding’s book Welcome to the Arts: Dance is released in hardback on 26th October 2023, published by Big Picture Press.