The sun is beaming across London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Next to West Ham’s London Stadium is the tangled red steel of the Orbit; nearby, a line of swan pedalos wait to be paddled up the River Lea. There are cranes everywhere, busy building. This is the view from the top-floor studios of a new theatre for dance, Sadler’s Wells Easta sister venue to the original Sadler’s Wells in Islington.
The O’Donnell + Tuomey-designed building has just celebrated its “topping out”, the completion of its concrete structure. It’s a significant milestone for Sadler’s Wells’ artistic director Sir Alistair Spalding, the wry, affable, recently knighted 64-year-old who is a driving force in UK dance. “This has been my mission all the time at Sadler’s Wells, to really put dance at the centre of cultural life in London,” he says. This new theatre is definitely in the cultural thick of things: due to open in November 2023, it is part of the £1.1bn East Bank project that includes a branch of the V&A, BBC studios and a vast new home for the London College of Fashion.
While on the current building site you can’t yet see the rusty-red Italian brick facade, the sawtooth roof or theatrically inspired lighting by designer Aideen Malone; even so, you can see its great potential. A huge, L-shaped foyer hugs the corner of the building across the bridge from Zaha Hadid’s curvaceous Aquatics centre, full-height windows inviting people in. There’ll be a movable stage for local dance companies to perform on, a bar and cafe. Spalding calls it “a people’s theatre”. “It’s not just about the art, it’s about who sees it,” he says, hoping that will include lots of people who haven’t yet discovered their love for dance. Young local people are already being invited to take part in workshops this summer to find dancers for the theatre’s opening show, Vicki Igbokwe’s Our Mighty Groove, about the power of the dancefloor.
Back in 2013, Spalding announced his desire to build a mid-scale venue and various developers got in touch, usually with offers to build a residential block with a theatre underground. The East Bank proposal offered much more, though; still, it’s had a few wobbles along the way, such as when it was realised that the residential towers that would have part-financed the site were going to interrupt a protected view of St Paul’s Cathedral from Richmond Hill on the opposite side of London. “That was nearly the end,” says Spalding. Then there was Covid, which delayed building work by about a year. And Brexit, with its resulting price increases for materials. Although the real Brexit impact is felt inside the theatre, where a new layer of admin and visas for touring shows means more costs and staff – the opposite of cutting red tape – plus switching to a European haulage firm because of cabotage laws. “If this soft power thing is going to work, you have to make it easy for people to travel around the world,” says Spalding.
The other major development that has happened in the last few years is the visibility of Black Lives Matter, giving Spalding and his colleagues the resolve to bring more focus to artists of colour. Sadler’s Wells East was already going to be the home of a hip-hop theatre academy, directed by Jonzi Dwho has been running the pioneering Breakin’ Convention festival at Sadler’s Wells since 2004. The two-year course for 16- to 19-year-olds will cover the full gamut of hip-hop arts (rap, DJing, beatmaking, graffiti) as well as dance. “Jonzi’s always said we have to up the skills of our dancers,” says Spalding, and this is how they’re going to do it, taking hip-hop seriously as a theatrical art form at an international level. They’ll also be working with local organisation East London Dance – who have just opened their own smart building in Stratford – on a project developing hip-hop dance producers, to help get those dancers on stage.
Sadler’s Wells East will also house a school for early-career choreographers, similar to the Belgian school PARTS, but with a broader, global aesthetic. Sadler’s Wells has long been more than just a venue presenting work, but the new space will enable them to take a more active role in shaping artists. “Choreography, the art of making dance, needs the same attention as the technical training of a dancer,” says Spalding, “and that’s what we’re about.” There will be six studios and a vast stage matching its Islington sibling in size, with seating for 550. That means a home for more regional and international artists, longer runs for shows that can’t sell out the 1,500-seater Islington theatre (thus more chance for word-of-mouth growth) and more family-oriented work.
There are still a few things to iron out, such as how to deal with the football crowds on West Ham match days, but Spalding’s ambition is unwaning. “It’s the time for dance,” he says.