- Swan Lake | Birmingham Royal Ballet | The Lowry [Lyric Theatre] | 4-7 March
|Photo by Felix Clay|
It is with deep sadness that Sadler’s Wells has entered a consultation process with our permanent and fixed term staff, following the devastating impact of the coronavirus crisis on our operations, the continued closure of our theatres and ongoing uncertainty about when we may be able to reopen fully.
During this period, Sadler’s Wells will consult with all permanent and fixed term staff on proposed organisational change and efficiency measures. These proposals could put 51 permanent or fixed term roles at risk of redundancy or layoff, which represents 26% of our permanent and fixed term workforce. This is in addition to other measures we have and are taking to reduce cost in this time.
This process will be very difficult for all members of the Sadler’s Wells community. The decision to enter a consultation process has been incredibly hard to make, and one which the organisation has done all it can to avoid.
There has been a string of similar announcements in recent weeks - Northampton's leading venue Royal & Derngate put out a similar announcement yesterday. Our theatres are in a desperate dance to save themselves from collapsing entirely, sacrificing jobs and the resilience and talent that will enable the creative and commercial recovery that still seems out of sight beyond the horizon.
But Sadler's Wells is personal.
I have no connection with Sadler's Wells beyond an emotional one as someone who loves dance and who never feels more alive than when travelling to London to go to Sadler's Wells to see some amazing dance - and I go there for the things I must see, that I am unlikely to get the opportunity to see otherwise. I have wasted far too many years thinking that going to see shows in London isn't practical but recently have become all too aware that time was running out . I didn't realise there was less time than I thought as I now helplessly witness my entire cultural existence faced with the threat of being wiped out entirely. But I am also fearful for my friends - and those I do not know but admire beyond words - who work in dance: dancers, choreographers, designers, musicians, all the 'invisible' army (and sometimes it's a tiny army) of people who make dance and every other kind of theatre happen.
I'm sure Sadler's Wells will survive - just as I am sure that some theatres will not - but the cost is terrible and painful to endure.
These are very uncertain times for dance, with companies not able to perform to audiences in theatres for the foreseeable future. By the time the government announced the possibility of outdoor performances most companies were left with insufficient time to do anything about it, especially if they didn't already have plans to perform in this way. Companies have responded in different ways to the possibilities of digital performance by either making recorded live work available, creating filmed dance - often socially isolated and from dancers' homes - or through live online activities. But making money through digital is problematic and reliant on generosity from audiences used to paying for live performance but not for watching on the TV, computer, tablet or phone screen.
One can only imagine the parlous financial state companies are now finding themselves in, with no income from performing and limited opportunities to even work together to keep technical skills at their peak or to make work that is more than improvised or choreographed via Zoom. Although some companies seem to be back in their studios now. But to what end?
There are virtually no tours in the calendar. 2020 looks to have been entirely wiped out. 2021 looks either provisional or an optimistic leap of faith. There is now the added difficulty that theatres are starting to totter on the edge of financial collapse and starting the painful process of letting staff go and restructuring in order to keep the business afloat and the building able to eventually reopen. There are many venues from small to medium to large that regularly programme dance that are looking in peril. One or two have already gone or are threatening that they cannot continue without further financial support.
There is perhaps the next inevitable question of what theatres are going to do when they are able to reopen and start to re-programme. Their reserves are gone. Their business plans and financial stability are in ruins. Their expertise and resilience may be diminished through redundancy. It seems obvious that theatres are going to be ... risk averse in the first months, even years. Especially if audience capacities are reduced in the short to medium to long-term. The need to break even and do better than break even will be crucial. Will theatres need to be ruthless? To prioritise shows that are guaranteed - or at least more likely - to put bums on socially-distanced seats.
Is this the next threat to dance? Weakened and diminished dance companies trying to sell work to wakened and diminished theatres that need to sell tickets. I have every confidence in the creativity of the dance community and this feels like an opportunity to be bold and innovative. But the larger dance audience is not necessarily so receptive to that (which always surprises me). Dance audiences have been unmistakably shrinking in recent years in any case, especially outside of London. If theatres are looking wobbly there are opportunities to create sited work in libraries, galleries, museums and public spaces etc. but the generatable income for these are much less or non-existence (beyond commission funding).
Are we facing a watershed moment for British dance?
By way of 'evidence': two of the UK's best-established medium-sized dance companies. Phoenix Dance Theatre and National Dance Company Wales. Both have been. let's say, creatively inconsistent in recent years. They are both companies I have watched numerous times and both impressed me on my first encounters and both now appear to be a bit hit and miss. Neither appear regularly in Manchester so going to see them takes some effort and additional expense for me. Both are presently without Artistic Directors (which usually also means a resident choreographer, in addition to any guest choreographers invited in).
Phoenix's Sharon Watson left to take up a new post heading NSCD, and NDCWales's Fearghus Ó Conchúir departed after a short two-year tenure during which his focus appeared to be more on community projects than the stage. NDCWales's website now lists only five dancers - several fewr than the last time I saw the company. Phoenix appear to have five plus a guest and two apprentices. Now I confess there is a generous helping of assumption and supposition. But I don't think either looks in a strong position at the moment considering the challenges ahead.
And then there's Brexit.