Dance: Sadler's Wells is just swell

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The Independent Culture
Rambert Dance Company

Sadler's Wells, N1

It happened. They made it. The new Sadler's Wells opened on time. And London's theatrical landscape, as of last Monday, is changed for good. In the face of nay-sayers and gloom-mongers, and some unaccountably spiteful press, the curtain rose on the first major project to be funded by the National Lottery. And it's magnificent. The deed is greater than the word.

There were hiccups, of course. Not least the 20-minute delay on Monday's preview night as the suits from Islington Council - armed with notebooks and, more worryingly, hard hats - took a lengthy tour of the facilities before granting an entertainment licence (without which bewildered patrons were not only prevented from entering the auditorium, but also from having a drink at the bar. By Tuesday's gala opening, attended by the great, the good and the Blairs, there were still a disconcerting number of bare cables poking from the foyer ceiling. But as Ian Albery, Sadler's Wells's chief executive, pointed out with cheerful reasonableness: "The essentials are a theatre, performers, and an audience. These we have."

Yet as Gerry Robinson of the Arts Council said, it's been Albery's "unbelievable unreasonableness that has made this miracle happen". The businessman in Albery saw that the old Wells was not only dilapidated, but unviable. The gambler in Albery leapt in with the first Lottery bid. But it was a wild-eyed visionary who decided to use the money to knock it all down and start again, designing the brief for a theatre as well-equipped as any in the world. Of course the money is not nearly enough. Of course the builders will be in for a while yet. But he did it: the sixth and most ambitious theatre on this historic site is up and running.

The new Wells is handsomely functional and not a bit posh - as befits a place dedicated to the Vic-Wells founder Lilian Baylis, who envisioned "tickets affordable by artisans and labourers". The foyer spaces, formerly stuffy and cramped, are airy, blond-wooded and welcoming. Inside, for all its hi-tech reflective panelling and expandable-retractable walls and ceiling, the auditorium feels eerily like the old Wells. But the rake is steep, the sightlines clear from wherever you sit, the leg-room improved. Tall folk no longer go home with the imprint of a 20p piece in the flesh of their knees: they've done away with those silly (and useless) binoculars on the seat-backs.

Overall there is an air of expectant purposefulness about the place. It's an art-house, specifically a dance-house, and it was right that Rambert, a company with a foot in Britain's theatrical past as well as its future, was first to tread the vast new stage before the international big shots move in. Yet the programme Rambert offered - three pieces from the backlist, plus a premiere - was mistakenly low-key. Here was an audience of well-wishers itching for a cue to throw their hats into the air. What Rambert gave them was its regular serious, searching work; beautifully done, but nothing to bring the house down.

The opener, No More Play by Jiri Kylian, was particularly shadowy and obscure. To be fair, it worked better on Monday's audience than on Tuesday's fidgety guest-list, who were there to see the theatre not the show. But a piece that uses the silences in a work of early Webern as much as the music's insubstantial tremblings needs to establish rapt attention or it fails. There were ravishing moments, such as when music and bodies froze, or when a line of seated dancers tipped backwards over the edge of the stage like folded paper. But the best thing it did was test the new acoustic: the subtleties of muted Webern, in the hands of Rambert's pit band the London Musici, registered beautifully.

Petite Mort, a companion piece by Kylian, was more the thing for a gala crowd, though few picked up the double-entendre of the title, which is French slang for orgasm, as well as the term for a fencing injury. Its corset-trussed dancers, its swishing, gleaming fencing foils, and its score of sublime Mozart adagios make a sexy frame for a series of elegantly masochistic duets. But Kylian's piquant humour at the expense of blade- flexing masculinity went for nought in both performances I saw.

More disappointing still was the new work by Christopher Bruce, which uses a cloyingly folksy, cod-celtic violin concerto by Dave Heath to create Four Scenes in a child's day, from waking to sleeping, dawn to dusk, taking in premonitions of adulthood and crabbed old age along the way. It looked delicious, with Es Devlin's boiled-sweet coloured costumes vibrant against heathery, scribbly backcloths, but the choreography was too slight to sustain its length. Apart from some nice observations of infants' sprawling sleep-habits, there was heavy reliance on cliche in the preenings and confrontations of adolescence, and in Bruce's relentless hopscotch image of childhood itself.

It was left to the final number to prove Rambert's reputation for substance as well as style. Too late in a long evening, the 20-year-old classic Airs, by the American Paul Taylor, took us into the rare upper atmosphere of theatre-dance, a place of gracious physical discourse and refined pleasure. It was an adroit choice. In its Elysian closing moments, palms serenely uppermost, the dancers appear to be saying: "We give you this theatre. We give you ... Sadler's Wells." Thanks, Mr Albery.

Sadler's Wells, N1 (0171 863 8000).