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Post Brexit, Sadler’s Wells Dances On The Edge Of Uncertainty

Dancers during the dress rehearsal for Commedia performed by Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company at Sadler's Wells on September 24, 2008 in London, England. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
Dancers during the dress rehearsal for Commedia performed by Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company at Sadler's Wells on September 24, 2008 in London, England. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

A survey of Britain’s Creative Industries Federation showed that 96 percent if its members favored remaining in the European Union. So now that U.K. voters have decided to leave, how are British cultural institutions responding?

Robin Young talks to Alistair Spalding, chief executive and artistic director of the famed Sadler’s Well’s Theater in London, which calls itself the world’s top venue for dance.

Interview Highlights: Alistair Spalding

What’s been the mood in the cultural community?

I want to say terrible. It’s bad. It’s very depressing, it’s scary. There’s a lot of anger, a lot of confusion. We’re in a very dark place I’d have to say.

On why there’s concern among the community about leaving the EU:

Yes, there’s something called the Culture Europe fund and we’ve been successful in a couple of joint bids in that program. So the last five years we’ve had about half a million Euros out of that, and of course we’re now going to now be disqualified from any further applications to that project. So yeah, fiscal problem on that front but also we won’t be so connected with our European colleagues because these were very imaginative programs looking at audience development, how we work better to make a cohesive society, these sort of things. It wasn’t just the money, it was the way we connected with people across the water.

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On how open borders have affected dance companies:

Yeah, it’s both ways. Dance obviously is an international language, you know people cross borders because there’s no language involved. So dance companies here are multinational. We are bringing companies from Europe and the rest of the world all the time. So the ease of cross border traveling is a key part of our existence. So suddenly we’re going to be plunged into a lot more bureaucracy and I think a lot of talented dancers won’t be able to come and settle in the U.K.

On how much a roadblocks international dancers could face:

Obviously if they’re just visiting to perform then that’s another level of bureaucracy. But what I’m really talking about is people who want to live and work for a dance company in the U.K. and vice-versa because as I say there’s an exchange of skills between Europe and the U.K. And that’s going to be much more difficult because then you have to apply for leave to remain as you would do if you were coming from any other part of the world.

Then you have things like the falling pound, fears of a recession. I’m imagining people who are depending on people’s discretionary dollars has you worried as well.

Yeah, Sadler’s Wells has an unusual model for the U.K., so we only get 9 percent of our money from the state. So the rest is self-generated and 70 percent of that is ticket sales. So if people start and there’s a recession and people start worrying again about their pennies in their pockets they may decide not to come to a dance performance and of course that affects us quite badly.

On what fundraising might look like:

Every time there’s a kind of downturn in the market all of the corporates just stop giving. They stop investing in our things but they definitely stop giving. That’s an important, usually for us, we’re in the middle of a big project to build a third theater out where the Olympics took place in Stratford in 2012. And that has $150 million target for fundraising as a whole project. So it’s not great news on that front because you know people are just going to be a bit more careful invest in and give to.

What do you say to people who think this is a smaller deal–why should we care about whether dancers can cross the border freely?

Yeah of course there are lots of people who are going to be worried and their lives are going to be affected. My view is that culture is an incredibly important part of our way of life and particularly in the U.K. because we’re very good at it, and it goes beyond the stage. It goes into the work we do with communities and education. I think that particularly in difficult times we actually bring a sense of balance to the world and a way of thinking about things which hopefully is an enlightened one. So I think a society without a strong cultural offer is a very, very poor one.

On the contrast between the Office of Culture, Media and Sport voting to leave and 96 percent of artists voting to remain:

It doesn’t quite fit those two things does it. I mean I know our secretary was for Brexit. It’s clear that’s what’s happened here that we amongst our colleagues and particularly in London have one view of life, and there’s a very different view in other parts of the country. The challenge now is to bring people to understand why they were so worried about being in the EU, why they were so worried about immigration, what their concerns are. I think arts have a part to play now in trying to heal some of the terrible rifts. I don’t know if you really understand how much debate and anger there is here. It’s incredible. And you will have read there’s been an increase in hate crimes against foreigners and this is not something we do not want to go back to. This has whiffs of the 1930s, and so I think it really is important. And frankly we don’t have a political leadership at the moment. The Labour party is in disarray as well as the conservatives. So it’s even more important for the arts to sort of step in and say, we might be a minor part in all of this but we must also try and bring people together.

On sharing their dance with other parts of the country:

We already take our work around the country. We’re in Doncaster, which is another area where there was a Brexit vote. I’m afraid that however much we do in terms of touring around and showing work it clearly wasn’t enough to convince people. We need to keep doing it but we need to understand what exactly the limits of that are. You know, Sunderland. It has a theater. It has a good, strong cultural offer. But still it’s very poor, and they need jobs and they need some kind of meaning back in their lives. This is a big issue for politicians now. I think there will be a lot of work coming out of this, to express what people are feeling.

Guest

Alistair Spalding, chief executive and artistic director of the famed Sadler’s Well’s Theater.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.