Feature: Sadler's Wells Dance House

Tuesday 21 May 2013

Published by Oberon. RRP: £25 (Buy from Sadler’s Wells shop at £20)

Sarah Crompton, Arts Editor in Chief of the Daily Telegraph introduces her new book about Sadler’s Wells…

I feel I have spent a lot of my life in a seat at Sadler’s Wells so when I started to write a book about the theatre, it surprised me that the earliest programme I could find in my own collection only dated back to 1985, when I saw the Merce Cunningham Dance Company there.

What I chiefly remember was how hot it was in the gods, and how brown the theatre seemed. But it also felt like hallowed ground. If you are a dance fan, Sadler’s Wells is a theatre full of echoes. It was the place where Dame Ninette de Valois founded the company that went on to become the Royal Ballet, where she shaped English style, and created the works that form the basis of the repertoire and are still danced today.

When I started writing Sadler’s Wells:Dance House , it was those years that I principally thought of. I read, to get me in the mood, Lorna Hill’s Veronica of the Wells books, stories based on her daughter’s experiences at the Vic Wells school. These tales, full of temperamental teachers, jealous schoolmates, ironed grey tunics, dedication and sacrifice, filled a generation’s heads with dreams of dancing.

They probably caught, pretty well, the spirit that swept de Valois through the war until her fledgling company was ready to take up residence at Covent Garden. The touring company remained there, though, until 1955, and returned from 1970 to 1990, when it moved to Birmingham and became the Birmingham Royal Ballet. “Overshadowed to some extent from the beginning, Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet was in fact to prove the hidden strength of de Valois’ two organisations,” judged Kathrine Sorley Walker, de Valois’s biographer. “From this smaller group came an army of dance talent, as well as two major choreographers, Kenneth MacMillan and John Cranko.”

The theatre I was writing about was profoundly different in from that historic image. It was the sixth theatre built on the site, although the skeleton of Frank Matcham’s 1931 theatre (which itself contained bricks from its Victorian predecessor) was incorporated behind its new transparent façade. It was light, airy and welcoming.

But it shared one key characteristic with the theatre de Valois knew: it was full of creative vitality. In 2005, the artistic director Alistair Spalding announced his intention to turn the theatre into a place that would commission and champion new work, with its own group of associate artists. “Sadler’s Wells needed to have a focus and it needed to have a brand. I knew in my bones that to make it a creative dance house was the right thing to do,” he said.

He was right. It is the years since his announcement that my book is concerned with. I go behind the scenes with choreographers and creators such as Akram Khan, Russell Maliphant, Sylvie Guillem, Wayne McGregor, Matthew Bourne and Hofesh Shechter to reveal the way their ideas and imagination transformed the fortunes of the theatre, turning it into one of the most successful dance houses in the world.

I was lucky enough to spend time with them as they made new pieces; I talked to them about the impetus for their choreography, and the way in which working with Sadler’s Wells had allowed them freedom in which they could experiment and thrive. In turn, their work turned the theatre itself into a success story.

Between 2004 and 2012 its audience doubled, yet it has achieved such success by putting originality ahead of playing it safe, and it has been rewarded for its courage by box office success. Even in its more assertively “populist” venue, the Peacock, it has backed original material including the musical extravaganza Shoes. Its early investment in hip hop has been rewarded by its development as a commercial art form in shows such as Some Like It Hip Hop.

In its main house, it takes risks with new productions from its associate artists and guests. Many have been critical and commercial hits. Some have disappointed. But the vast majority were significant, talked about, and made dance seem important again.

Through all this the theatre has retained its capacity to surprise as well as delight. I will never forget the first night of Push, with its magical opening when Sylvie Guillem and Russell Maliphant travel through bands of light; or of William Forsythe’s Rearray in which Guillem and Nicholas Le Riche seemed to examine all the mysterious possibilities of dance itself. Guillem has been the person I have most loved watching at Sadler’s Wells.

But I have too many memories to recount or list. Sadler’s Wells is the place I go to see new dance. Sometimes I come away disappointed, but night after night, I have felt inspired and changed by what I have seen on stage. That is what my book celebrates.

Buy Sadler’s Wells: Dance House online

Sarah Crompton is the Arts Editor in Chief and dance critic of the Daily Telegraph

Congratulations to Lily Dettmer & Catherine Yau who each won a copy of the book in our recent competition. The answer to the question ‘Name the production featured on the cover of Sadler’s Wells Dance House is Sacred Monsters (featuring Sylvie Guillem &Akram Khan)

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