Race, politics, disability – these are the issues a trio of emerging choreographers are pushing to the forefront at the iconic London dance space as it marks its 20th year. They tell Anna Winter how they’re shaking up Sadler’s Wells
In its rich four-century history, Sadler’s Wells has been a roller-skating rink, a music hall, a therapeutic spa and much besides. The Clerkenwell stage has seen talents from Edmund Kean and the great clown Grimaldi to ballerina Margot Fonteyn and a singing duck.
As it celebrates its most recent history, marking the 20th anniversary of its contemporary glass-fronted dance house – complete with 15-metre sprung stage in the 1,500-seat main auditorium – Sadler’s is looking to the future with a mixed bill of work, entitled Reckonings, from three emerging UK choreographers.
Bringing pieces to the main space at Rosebery Avenue are Julie Cunningham, Botis Seva and Alesandra Seutin; a trio of decidedly different artists.
Seutin, born in Zimbabwe and raised in Belgium, works with a hybrid style of contemporary and African movement. Dagenham-raised Seva pushes hip hop into experimental terrain, while Cunningham spent 13 distinguished years as a dancer for Merce Cunningham (no relation) and Michael Clark. Despite their divergent approaches, Cunningham says “it feels like we’re all investigating what it is to be here now, asking what the future is, how we got here and what matters”.
Born: Harare, 1980
Training: Trinity Laban, Middlesex University and with Germaine Acogny (known as the mother of contemporary African dance) at the Ecole des Sables in Senegal. Qualified as a teacher of Acogny technique.
• In 2007 set up Vocab Dance Company, fusing urban and contemporary dance with traditional African forms
• Continues to perform her solo show Ceci N’est Pas Noire (This Is Not Black) internationally
• Giant, depicting the Rwandan genocide, premiered in 2017
It was only pretty recently that what matters, in terms of dance, started gracing the Sadler’s stage in earnest. When chief executive Alistair Spalding took charge in 2004, audience numbers were at 65% capacity and the theatre was losing £50,000 a month. By the next year – while Sleeping Beauty on Ice played in the main house – Spalding set Sadler’s on an adventurous new course, announcing the appointment of five associate artists: Wayne McGregor, Jonzi D, Matthew Bourne, the BalletBoyz and Akram Khan.
His strategy turned the theatre from a receiving venue into a creative commissioner of new work. With game-changing productions like Khan and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Zero Degrees, made in collaboration with Antony Gormley and Nitin Sawhney, Sadler’s emerged as London’s premier dance house.
Though Sadler’s has added five female associate artists to that initial all-male roster, the issue of diversity in dance leadership remains pressing. It’s something felt by all three Reckonings creators.
“It’s taken a lot and a long time for female choreographers to be given opportunities to make work visibly and there’s still a long way to go,” says Cunningham. “A lot of work needs to be done to make racial diversity and disability more visible. I don’t see a lot of non-normative identities and ways of being in a more mainstream venue like the Sadler’s main stage.”
Cunningham’s work for Reckonings is based on Monique Wittig’s “obscure and out of print” novel The Lesbian Body. “It’s so strange. Really violent and tender and disgusting and beautiful – all of the things that we are, that we experience and move in between,” she says. “The text is very much about creating a language that is not patriarchal. I was interested in what would come out of that in movement and images, using the text as a structure and a score.”
Born: St Helens, Merseyside, year undisclosed
Training: Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance
• Danced in Koblenz, Germany, then joined Merce Cunningham’s company in New York, where she stayed for 10 years
• Joined Michael Clark’s company in London for three years
• Received the Leverhulme choreographic fellowship in 2016 and launched her own company in 2017, performing a double bill of work at the Barbican, including To Be Me, a retelling of the Tiresias myth set to Kate Tempest’s poetry
The artist emphasises that “I’m not going out of my way to explore gender in dance. It’s just that it’s visible because my work is non-normative. I don’t make duets for men and women where there are lifts and it’s all very nice.”
For Seutin, a night like Reckonings has been a long time coming. “I hope it’s not just a one-off. I’ve been in London 20 years and I’ve never seen anyone like me at Sadler’s for an evening with their name on it, in terms of a British-based, black female choreographer. It’s something I’ve always wanted but it made me think of all the Afro-Caribbean people in dance that came before me and plateaued and disappeared. I thought: ‘Ooh, maybe I’m starting to break the glass ceiling.’ ”
Her research led her to Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem Boy Breaking Glass, “about a boy who’s frustrated and breaks a police car window and the injustice of the fact that he’s breaking windows because he’s not breaking ceilings. It spurred the theme of my work and this idea of being free, to be what you want, when you want, expressing yourself boldly, without apology. I thought of self-actualisation of the black body first, but then about bodies in general, frustrated by barriers in their way.”
The perceived exclusivity of theatre – especially the modish high-mindedness of contemporary dance – is a social barrier that Sadler’s must still contend with. As Seva says: “The first time I came here I thought: ‘What the flip is happening?’ I was scared, it’s big and I’d never been into that kind of theatre before.” Even now, as a dance insider, he says: “I feel I have to keep kicking.” He recalls experiences “where you feel like you won’t be accepted, not just because of race but because of the aesthetic of your work. I’m still not sure where it sits”.
Born: South London, 1991
Training: With Avant Garde hip-hop company before setting up Far from the Norm
• In 2015, presented his own Wildcard evening of work at Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadler’s Wells
• In 2016, created TuTuMucky for Scottish Dance Theatre
• In 2018, appointed guest artistic director of the National Youth Dance Company
Race in dance should be spoken about, Seva continues. “I see everyone as equal but sometimes that’s not the way the world works. It’s already there before you’re on stage.” He mentions the assumptions people might make from the title of his Reckonings work, Black Dog. Rather than anything to do with race, it’s partly based on the late journalist Sally Brampton’s memoir of depression, Shoot the Damn Dog. “I’m motivated by politics, of course,” he says, “but I try not to absorb it too much, else I’d be ranting about Trump all day.”
For him, dance is a way to change the world in small increments. “Maybe I can give someone the seed of an idea, and it helps them. And they in turn help someone else.”
Seutin is more direct. “Life is political,” she says. “Sometimes even just being on stage is a political statement. I’m someone who is sensitive to anything unjust, who likes to speak about the truth, about things people don’t want to talk about. I don’t want to lecture but to offer an audience the chance to go and look for something I’ve mentioned.”
While Sadler’s prepares to expand its reach with a new mid-size theatre and a choreographic centre in Stratford, how do these artists envision the future of dance in the coming years? “I hope that artists can survive and stay in London because it’s very hard,” says Cunningham. “It constantly feels at a breaking point of ‘Can we stay here?’ But we can’t leave. What about all those empty flats? Can we move in?”
Seutin hopes Reckonings will help to open the highest echelons of the dance world to truly diverse artists. “If I had never seen the Alvin Ailey company in Belgium I would have stopped dancing, because I had a ballet teacher who was always hitting my bottom or telling me: ‘You have flat feet, you’ll never be a ballerina’,” she recalls. “Luckily I met a jazz teacher who was really open and took me to see Ailey. It was such a revelation – here are people like me who can dance at that level.”
She’s vehement about the importance and power of dance as a language that stretches across cultural divides. “Movement is for everyone. Movement is an expression of life and everyone should experience it and do it. And if they can do it well they deserve to be where they should be.” One of those places is most definitely Rosebery Avenue.
Reckonings runs at Sadler’s Wells, London, until October 13