Arts: The once and future theatre

Sadler's Wells reopens with a piece specially commissioned for the new theatre by one of ballet's keenest directors.
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The Independent Culture
ISLINGTON BOROUGH Council took a vote on whether or not to give pounds 1,000 to the new Sadler's Wells. The vote was 40 to 21 against, on the grounds that "children already learnt enough Shakespeare at school". That was back in 1929, when Lilian Baylis was drumming up support for the fifth theatre on the Islington site.

When the house finally reopened on 6 January 1931, the cast of Twelfth Night included John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson. Gielgud wasn't impressed: "We all detested Sadler's Wells when it was first opened. The auditorium looked like a denuded wedding-cake, and the acoustics were dreadful."

He was quite right. The confused acoustics of FGM Chancellor's modest structure were singularly unsuited to straight theatre, and the Wells, which had for so much of its history lacked a licence to perform plays at all, began to focus on opera and dance, providing the seedbed for both the English National Opera and the Royal Ballet. Over the years, the house came to specialise more in dance of every kind. When the new Sadler's Wells opens for business tonight, it will be with Christopher Bruce's Rambert, heralding a new era of dance in London.

Wait a minute. Weren't the Royal Opera down for a piece of all this? Indeed they were. Sadler's Wells didn't in fact want opera, but the Arts Council strong-armed them into helping out the Royal Opera after the (mis)management's spectacular failure to make provision for Covent Garden's two-year closure period. The board's 11th-hour decision to shut down the Opera for the whole of 1999 meant welshing on their Islington booking. Now the well behaved Wells, as if handcuffed to a drowning man, is set the grim task of filling 25 weeks with virtually no notice.

But, first things first. Would it be finished on time? Mischievous rumours that the place was still a building site were laid to rest at Saturday's cheerily informal open day. Everything is on schedule for tonight's performance - but it has been touch and go. When Rambert went along for rehearsals last week they went straight back home until the heating was fixed (dancers, like tropical fish, demand a minimum of 66 degrees, to keep their muscles warm and safe).

It's nice and warm back at Rambert's base in Chiswick, but you can still hurt yourself. When I interviewed Christopher Bruce last week, he was sporting a large ice-pack, having torn a cartilage in his knee. Although he hasn't performed since 1988, the 53-year-old artistic director still takes classes ("Well, half a class") every day, and choreographs his works with his own body. He winces ruefully as he hoists his leg up on to a chair. "Thank goodness I'd nearly finished the piece."

The work in question is being made specially for the opening. Choreographers are surprisingly accommodating when it comes to crafting pieces d'occasion, and Bruce is no stranger to writing to order. He has twice made works to commemorate Rambert anniversaries (Girl with Straw Hat in 1976, and Quicksilver in 1996), and finds the process strangely enjoyable: "I find it frustrating and difficult, but it's a very useful discipline to do it occasionally. It gives me a peg for my work, and that can be a great core of strength. It's too easy sometimes to set off at a tangent. I often detect a lack of raison d'etre in work I see."

Four Scenes is thematically pegged to the Wells, but anyone hoping for a pas de deux between Baylis and Gielgud will be disappointed: "It's a work in its own right," Bruce insists. Sometimes an occasion piece, like a souffle, doesn't survive reheating. The mixture of sentiment and goodwill in the gala audience can distort the work's merits and tempt the choreographer to dish it up again (Wayne Sleep's Tribute to Diana is a good example of this). But true quality, such as Ashton's sublime Birthday Offering, can live on in the repertoire. Bruce's previous party pieces have often enjoyed an independent existence. The trick is not to be too cloyingly specific: "I like ambiguity. That's what dance is so good at doing: conveying different ideas simultaneously". Bruce has anchored Four Scenes in the idea of the life cycle. "It seemed to me that regeneration was important. Becoming a grandfather [of Max, 20 months] makes you quite reflective, and that came alongside the regeneration of Sadler's Wells. The two themes linked up nicely."

And he can hardly wait. Bruce made some of his earliest appearances as a Rambert dancer at the Wells, but although he is happy to reminisce about watching Lucette Aldous flirt her way through Don Quichotte in 1962, it is the spirit of the Wells that inspires his affection, not the grotty, rat-infested structure itself. That spirit endures. The Rambert dancers were astonished to discover that, for all the smell of freshly-sliced carpet, the new building felt strangely like the old one, because the performer faces an auditorium whose friendly dimensions are virtually unaltered.

The big changes are all on the stage itself where dancers can now stretch awake in 15 square metres of hi-tech space. Much of Bruce's recent work has been made in large theatres abroad, and although big hits such as his Rolling Stones' ballet Rooster have survived being crammed on to narrow stages, they look far better with room to breathe.

Bruce's mouth begins to water, relishing the prospect of all that clean, flexible space specially built with dance in mind: "When the dancers can really move it looks wonderful. There's the possibility of using the Wells in several different ways. We need Sadler's Wells. London needs it. The arts need it. Dance needs it."

Rambert open Sadler's Wells, London EC1 tonight, and perform to 17 October. They return 10-14 November with Bruce's `Cruel Garden'. Call 0171-863 8000