Rambert's dancers make great leap forward with move to £16.5m home in cultural quarter

The leading touring dance company is heading for a new home. By Louise Jury

So perhaps it is only proper that, nearly 80 years after the Warsaw-born ballerina established what is Britain's oldest dance company, it is finally about to set up home close to all three of these cultural icons.

After years in cramped accommodation in Chiswick, west London, the Rambert Dance Company has announced plans for a new £16.5m headquarters behind the National Theatre on Upper Ground in Lambeth, south London.

It will be in a cultural quarter that, apart from the National's three stages, includes the South Bank Centre and Tate Modern, and will be just across the river from the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square and the Royal Ballet's home at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden.

In the new building, to be designed by the architectural firm of Allies and Morrison, even the two smaller rehearsal studios will be larger than the current spaces. And the main studio will be larger than that at Sadler's Wells dance theatre, also not far away across the river.

Although the Rambert will remain a touring company, this development means it will have space to nurture and present new work. Body conditioning and physiotherapy facilities will be built and be made available to Britain's 2012 Olympic team.

The site will be designed to continue and expand the ideas of Marie Rambert, who began presenting dance to the British public in 1926, five years before the Royal Ballet. Her aim was simple: to replicate the creative triangle of choreographer, composer and designer that had been at the core of the dance work of the Ballet Russes, led by Serge Diaghilev with whom she had worked in Paris before the war.

Fresh from a stint in Geneva studying eurhythmics, which associated music-learning with rhythmic movement, Diaghilev had engaged her in 1912 to help Vaslav Nijinsky with his radical choreography of Le Sacre du Printemps, set to the riot-inducing score of Igor Stravinsky.

When war broke out in 1914, Rambert emigrated to England and began by teaching eurhythmics to the children of smart society. Within a few years she had founded a ballet school and in 1926, her own company. Its first work, A Tragedy of Fashion, was choreographed by Frederick Ashton, then a 21-year-old dancer.

Ashton, who went on to become a founder of the Royal Ballet, was to be the first in a series of choreographers fostered by Ballet Rambert, including Antony Tudor, Christopher Bruce, Richard Alston, Michael Clark and Siobhan Davies. Several of them founded their own companies in turn. "I wasn't so much a mother as a midwife," Rambert herself said in 1976 of her nurturing talents.

Creating new work alongside preserving the old was a tenet of the Rambert faith. "We shall preserve old ballets and we shall create new works..." she declared in 1931. The company's mission was restated in 1966 as being: "To encourage the production of new works by both new and established choreographers; and to preserve as far as possible the master-works which constitute the Ballet Rambert's artistic heritage."

Yet, while the company has long taught classical ballet and modern dance, it is contemporary work for which it is now best known. "Ballet" was dropped from its formal title several years ago. Its ensemble of 22 dancers reaches more than 50,000 people a year in tours throughout the UK and overseas.

Demand for contemporary dance has risen 9 per cent a year for the past three years, according to Mark Baldwin, the company's artistic director, and the company is expanding to meet that demand. "As the UK's flagship touring modern-dance company, we have a responsibility to find new ways for audiences to experience dance," he said. "If this is the cultural heartland of creative Britain, creative London, it's a very powerful place for us to be ... We're not just a little conservatoire in Chiswick. We're in the middle of the city where people can visit us."

Coin Street Community Builders has donated the plot of land, worth £5m. The Arts Council of England, the London Development Agency and Rambert supporters have given £7m, leaving £9.5m to be raised. The company hopes to move into the new building in 2008.

Company stars

FREDERICK ASHTON

The most influential British choreographer of the 20th century, Ashton was one of Marie Rambert's earliest pupils. His choreography established both a permanent, recognisable English style and repertory for The Royal Ballet.

MICHAEL CLARK

Scottish-born Clark joined Rambert in 1979. By the age of 20 he was the resident choreographer at London's Riverside Studios. He then founded his own successful company.

SIOBHAN DAVIES

Found acclaim as an associate choreographer with the Rambert from 1988. Later establishing her own dance company.

CHRISTOPHER BRUCE

Joined Rambert in 1963, and was one of the last significant choreographers to have been personally nurtured by Marie Rambert.

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