The rebuilding of Sadler’s Wells in the closing years of the last century was not universally popular. Many Islington residents were upset by losing the much-loved face of an old friend.   One resident of Arlington Way (the narrow road that runs alongside the site) told me that she cried when it was pulled down. That building was already the fifth theatre on the site since Richard Sadler opened his “Musick House” in 1683. The new theatre has little architectural merit but what takes place inside is an altogether different matter. 

Julie Cunningham's <i>m/y</i> © Johan Persson
Julie Cunningham's m/y
© Johan Persson

This ‘dance house’ for London – under the inspired leadership of Alistair Spalding, since 2004 – has become an innovative production house, as well as receiving incoming productions from the world’s great dance companies. To celebrate the twentieth anniversary of its reopening, Sadler’s Wells chose not to recall past achievements, but to look forward by selecting three emerging choreographers to present new work. This choice was also diverse: two are women and only one is white; and the opening piece is cited as being part of a ‘lesbian body of work’.  The mixed programme showed a mix of North American, African, Central European as well as British influences.

The innovative creativity of Julie Cunningham, Botis Seva and Alesandra Seutin shows that each is carving a distinctive niche in the crowded choreographic marketplace; but, in varying degrees, there is also evidence of inexperience. Each work is over-layered with ideas and only Seutin associates anything like a character arc in her thinking. There are too many ‘false endings’ where a work could – and in some cases, should – have finished. I have happily sat through three-and-a-half hours of a masterpiece by Pina Bausch (mostly in this same theatre over the past 20 years) but each of these works was several minutes too long with no notable enhancement gained from the extra effort.

Alesandra Seutin’s <i>Boy Breaking Glass</i> © Johan Persson
Alesandra Seutin’s Boy Breaking Glass
© Johan Persson
Both Cunningham and Seva employed six dancers (the former dancing in her own group). But, beyond that mathematical equality, they were two works that could not have been more different. Cunningham’s m/y was light, airy and performed by an all-woman sextet; Seva’s BLKDOG was dark, sinister and danced by what initially appeared (in the darkness) to be an all-male group, although one gradually came to realise that two women were amongst the androgynously-dressed enseble. The choice of enigmatic, non-literal titles identifies both Cunningham and Seva with the snapchat age. 

m/y resonates with work by the late Merce Cunningham, for whom the unrelated Julie danced in the last years of his company. A major part of the Cunningham legacy lies in new work made by people who absorbed his influences and that is very clear in the choreography of this other Cunningham. Julie’s work often references Merce's non-representational movement without being in any way derivative. There is unity and disunity; playfulness (skipping like children in a playground) and seriousness; discipline (one section approximated a formal lesson in advanced fencing footwork) and disorder; and above all there is a clear understanding of the attractive patterning of space, juxtaposing static design and moving bodies. Inspired by The Lesbian Body, an experimental novel by Monique Wittig, Cunningham’s extension of those ideas, played out to Neil Catchpole’s gently-glowing music, establishes a soft and tranquil feminine society of caring harmonies, romantic clinches and purple balls.  

Botis Seva <i>BLKDOG</i> © Johan Persson
Botis Seva BLKDOG
© Johan Persson
Seva’s BLKDOG continues his cutting-edge blend of hip-hop and contemporary dance; presenting a murky world, dimly and only partially lit but one that makes sense in relation to the material being performed. Seva was also inspired by literature – Sally Brompton’s memoir of depression, Shoot the Damn Dog – and his choreography, which expands the language of hip-hop, presents a litany of ideas that represent aspects of compulsion, addiction, despondency and coping. His six performers are tightly co-ordinated throughout in a piece that is both melancholic and uplifting with innovative choreographic motifs – for example, crouched, fast running steps on toes to illustrate childlike adults. Seva is a choreographer on the cusp of a new direction in the shifting sands of British contemporary dance and one likely to have a big following in its future.

Alesandra Seutin’s Boy Breaking Glass also came with literary inspiration, in the form of an eponymous poem, by Gwendolyn Brooks. In line with the overall flavour of the evening, Seutin interprets the boy breaking glass as a message about inequalities. Her work is perhaps the most complex, certainly in terms of a rich musical palette, accompanying spoken text (from the mellifluous voice of Randolph Matthews) with diverse African, diasporic and European themes; and her use of space displays a sound directorial awareness. The onstage musicians – placed on a platform behind the dancers – were outstanding.   

This wasn’t quite the end of the evening since there was a speech from Spalding, which deservedly paid tribute to his predecessor-but-one, Ian Albery (whose vision brought about the new theatre) and Roger Spence (project director for the rebuild); and a surprising ticker tape finale, appropriately to David Bowie’s Let’s Dance. It was a rousing culmination of this forward-looking celebration of the past.