Sadler’s Wells Theatre is a performing arts venue located in Rosebery Avenue, Islington famous primarily for its dance both ballet and contemporary dance.
The present day theatre is the sixth on the site since 1683. It consists of two performance spaces: a 1,500 seat main auditorium and the Lilian Baylis Studio, so named after the proprietor of the theatre in 1925.
Sadler’s Wells is one of the United Kingdom’s foremost dance venues and producing houses, with a number of associated artists and companies who produce original works for the theatre. Sadler’s Wells is also responsible for the management of the Peacock Theatre in the West End.
Sadler’s Wells First theatre
Richard Sadler opened a “Music House” in 1683, the second public theatre opened in London after the Restoration. The name Sadler’s Wells originates from his name and the rediscovery of monastic springs on the property. By 1711, Sadler’s Wells popularity had waned and by the mid-18th century, the existence of two “Theatres Royal” – in Covent Garden and Drury Lane – severely limited the ability of other London theatres to perform any drama combined with music, and. Sadler’s Wells continued its downward spiral.
Sadler’s Wells Second and third theatre
Since the Theatres Royal confined themselves to operating during the autumn and winter, Sadler’s Wells filled the gap in the entertainment market with its summer season, traditionally launched on Easter Monday. Thomas Rosoman, manager from 1746 to 1771, established the Wells’s pedigree for opera production and oversaw the construction of a new stone theatre, in just seven weeks – at a cost of £4,225; it opened in April 1765.
During the early years of the 19th century, many famous actors appeared at the theatre, including Edmund Kean, as well as popular comedians such as Joseph Grimaldi who for all his gifts as a dramatic actor, is best remembered as the creator of “Joey the Clown” complete with the rouge half-moons on either cheek.
With the construction of a large water tank, an Aquatic Theatre was used to stage extravagant naval melodramas, such as The Siege of Gibraltar. The theatre also presented successful adaptations of popular Dickens novels of the time, such as A Christmas Carol, The Old Curiosity Shop, which ran during January 1841.
The passing of the Theatres Act 1843 broke the duopoly in drama of the Theatres Royal and actor-manager Samuel Phelps was able to introduce a programme of Shakespeare to Sadler’s Wells. The productions included: Macbeth (1844), Antony and Cleopatra (1849) and Pericles (1854).
However, in latter part of the 19th century the theatre declined until, by 1875, plans to turn it into a bath house were proposed and, for a while, the new craze of roller skating was catered to, as the theatre was converted into a roller-skating rink and later a prize fight arena. The theatre was condemned as a dangerous structure in 1878.
Sadler’s Wells Fourth theatre
After re-opening as a theatre in 1879, it became a music hall and featured performers including Marie Lloyd and Roy Redgrave, founder of the theatrical Redgrave acting dynasty.
In 1896, the theatre was converted into a cinema. After a succession of management changes in the 20th century, the theatre became increasingly run-down and closed in 1915.
Sadler’s Wells Fifth theatre
By 1925 the proprietor of the Old Vic theatre, Lilian Baylis felt that her opera and drama productions needed to expand. In that year. she invited the Duke of Devonshire to make a public appeal for funds to set up a charitable foundation to buy Sadler’s Wells for the nation. The appeal committee included such diverse and influential figures as Winston Churchill, Stanley Baldwin, and Sir Thomas Beecham. Enough money was raised for Lilian Baylis to acquire the freehold.
Lilian Baylis began collaborating with the ballet teacher Ninette de Valois, a former dancer with Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, to form a repertory ballet company and school. So in 1931 when Sadler’s Wells was reopened, de Valois was allocated rehearsal rooms in the theatre and established the Sadler’s Wells Ballet School and the Vic-Wells Ballet.
The first principal dancers of the Vic-Wells ballet were Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin and the founder choreographer was Frederick Ashton, all three having been working with the Ballet Club of Marie Rambert.
Designed by F.G.M. Chancellor of Matcham & Co, the new theatre opened in 1931 with a production of Twelfth Night and a cast headed by Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud.
By 1933/34 season the drama company under Tyrone Guthrie included a range of acting talent including Charles Laughton, Peggy Ashcroft, Flora Robson, Marius Goring and James Mason.
The two theatres originally offered alternating programmes of drama and opera. However, it made commercial and practical sense to divide the programme so The Old Vic became the drama house whilst Sadler’s Wells focused on opera and dance.
From 1940, while the theatre was closed during the Second World War, the ballet company toured throughout the country, and on its return changed its name to the Sadler’s Wells Ballet. Similarly, the opera company toured to return as Sadler’s Wells Opera Company, and it reopened the theatre with Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes.
In 1946, with the re-opening of the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, the ballet company was invited to become the resident company there. De Valois decided that a second company was needed to continue ballet performances at Sadler’s Wells, and so the Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet was formed, with John Field as artistic director. The Sadler’s Wells company later relocated to Covent Garden, where it was incorporated into the Royal Ballet’s charter in 1956, becoming The Royal Ballet Touring Company. After a number of years as a touring group, it returned to Sadler’s Wells in 1976, becoming the Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet. In 1987, the Birmingham Hippodrome and Birmingham City Council invited Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet to re-locate to Birmingham. It did so in 1990 and changed its name to Birmingham Royal Ballet. Since the departure of the company, there has not been a resident ballet company at Sadler’s Wells.
The opera company moved out of Sadler’s Wells Theatre to the London Coliseum in 1968 and was later renamed English National Opera. Sadler’s Wells Theatre then became a temporary home both for foreign companies and those within the UK looking for a London venue.
Throughout the 1970s a rich diversity of attractions appeared at Sadler’s Wells, productions ranged from Handel Opera to the Black Theatre of Prague, to the Netherlands Dance Theatre with its controversial nudity. Also appearing during this period were Marcel Marceau, the Kabuki Theatre, the Dance Theatre of Harlem and the Kodo Drummers from Japan. A disadvantage of such a diverse programme was that it prevented the theatre from having a consistent public image.
Briefly in the 1980s, the theatre established the New Sadler’s Wells Opera company to play Gilbert and Sullivan operas and other light opera.
The first performances of Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, which uniquely included an all-male cast of swans, took place in 1995, before embarking on a UK tour then playing in the West End.
The Lilian Baylis Theatre opened in October 1988 and it appeared that a permanent theatre company might emerge, but this was limited by funding difficulties.
In 1994 Ian Albery became chief executive of Sadler’s Wells and presided over the planning and eventual rebuilding of the theatre. On 30 June 1996, the last performance was given at the old theatre before being demolished.
Sadler’s Wells Sixth theatre
The current theatre opened in 1998 with a performance by Rambert Dance Company of Iolanthe. The £54 million project was one of the first projects to receive funding from the National Lottery, which contributed £42 million.
The new design gave a stage which was wider and deeper and able to accommodate much larger companies and productions than the one it replaced. A new layout to the auditorium accommodated more seats. An extension at the side of the building provided a new ticket office and foyers rising to the full height of the theatre, provided easier audience access to all levels and included bars, cafes and exhibition spaces. As well as the 1,500 seat main auditorium, Sadler’s Wells also manages the Peacock Theatre near the Aldwych in central London.
The rebuilt Sadler’s Wells theatre retains access to the remains of the historic wells that still lie beneath the theatre.
In 2001, Sadler’s Wells joined in collaboration with the Random Dance director Wayne McGregor.
Ian Albery was succeeded in 2002 by Jean Luc Choplin, who had at one time worked with Rudolf Nureyev as a managing director of the Paris Opera Ballet. Under the artistic directorship of Alistair Spalding since 2004, Sadler’s Wells has expanded to become a production house as well as a performing auditorium hosting performances by visiting companies from the UK and around the world.
In 2005 Spalding announced five associate artists: Balletboyz Michael Nunn and William Trevitt, Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures, Akram Khan, Jonzi D and Wayne McGregor.
Since then 11 further artists have been announced, bringing the total of Associates to 16: Russell Maliphant (2005), Sylvie Guillem (2006), Jasmin Vardimon (2006), Christopher Wheeldon (2007), Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui (2008), Hofesh Shechter (2008), Michael Hulls (2010), Kate Prince (2010), Nitin Sawhney (2010), Michael Keegan-Dolan (2012) and Crystal Pite (2013).
Breakin’ Convention, the International Festival of hip hop dance theatre has been produced annually by Sadler’s Wells since 2004.
Zero degrees, a collaboration between dance artists Akram Khan and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, visual artist Antony Gormley and composer Nitin Sawhney and PUSH, a programme of work made by Russell Maliphant for himself and Sylvie Guillem, are two of the award-winning productions to emerge from the new Sadler’s Wells.
- Birmingham Royal Ballet: Shakespeare Triple Bill (10 – 11 October 2016), please click here
- Birmingham Royal Ballet: The Tempest (13 – 15 October 2016), please click here