(Lyndsey Winship’s article appeared in the Guardian, 6/26; via Pam Green.)
Due to open in Stratford next year, the sibling to the Islington institution will have a special emphasis on local talent, hip-hop and artists of colour
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 East, a 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