The (Spectral) Lure of the Past: Sadler's Wells, capital and the institution of dance

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Sadler’s Wells, undeniably one of the world’s most commercially successful dance venues, also advertises itself as one of the oldest. Sadler’s Wells is “London’s Dance House Est. 1683.” The institution boasts historical ascendency and, I argue, ontological authority (“Sadler’s Wells is Dance”). Yet by its own admission, previous theatres standing roughly on the same site boasted a range of circus acts, grand opera, music, Shakespeare performance and film in the more than three hundred years of history preceding the current dance explosion. In slightly exaggerating its own dance history, gesturing expansively towards this motley performance history as signalling a past of dance, Sadler’s Wells conjures what I call its own spectral historicity, by which a dancing past haunts the present, inhabits this site. Sadler’s Wells, unlike Shakespeare’s Globe, for instance, foregoes any claims to historical reconstruction or reperformance, fetishizing instead the archaeological layers (literally, the wells) lying beneath it. Significantly dropping the ‘Theatre’ from ‘Sadler’s Wells Theatre’ to become again (merely) Sadler’s Wells, the millennial institution becomes itself through continual allusion to a semi-fictional (dance) history. In this sense conjuring the sort of spectrality Jacques Derrida, and Rebecca Schneider after him, claim characterizes late capitalism, Sadler’s Wells performs its own perpetual arrival at the end of history: a history that has absorbed and forestalled all other systems and genres. Instantiating thus the ultimate late capitalist art institution, Sadler’s Wells rebrands itself as being perpetually, inalienably, haunted by dance as such – a genre to which it is, ex post facto, host and heir.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)62-70
Issue number4
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 23 Sept 2015


  • dance
  • Sadler's Wells


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