The party line on the Royal Ballet's occupation of Labatt's Apollo in Hammersmith is that the season represents "A Huge Opportunity". This is Marketing-speak for "A Huge Problem". When pressed on this point, Anthony Russell Roberts, the company's administrative director, will go so far as to admit that the enforced stay in the outer reaches of West London constitutes "A challenge", which roughly translates as "A Headache". Spoilt for so many years by inhabiting a gilded Opera House in the heart of London, the company is now roughing it in a venue more usually associated with rock musicians in a location known principally for its flyover. The Royal Ballet's director, Sir Anthony Dowell, may talk excitedly of new audiences but he wouldn't be doing that if he wasn't seriously afraid that he had temporarily lost the old one.

But where else were the Royal Ballet to go? By pinning their hopes upon getting a purpose-built theatre on London's South Bank, they missed the chance of getting the Lyceum, the Coliseum or even the Royal Albert Hall. You can't stage ballet just anywhere. You need a big stage, a decent orchestra pit and enough seats to pay the bills. Labatt's Apollo does all that. What it doesn't do is provide any of the glamour people tend to demand from a night out at the ballet.

Traditionally, going to the opera and ballet is as much a social experience as an artistic one. The world's great opera houses were designed to display the audience as well as the artists, and the view of the stage was often sacrificed so that people could get a good dekko at one another. In Victorian theatre design, the perfect compromise was reached by Frank Matcham, who built or rebuilt over 150 theatres between 1879 and 1912. Although his trademark canti- levered tiers were largely a practical solution to the problem of getting as many seats as possible into a small site, his theatres are now revered for their mixture of grandeur and intimacy. His masterpiece was the London Coliseum and there isn't a ballet director who doesn't adore it for its wide 49 foot stage, its perfectly raked stalls and its attractive public spaces.

Its biggest fan is, of course, Derek Deane, whose English National Ballet now has its London home there. "The Coliseum ispossibly the best theatre in Britain for dance. It's the size of the stage, the size of the auditorium - big but not vast. It has grandeur but it isn't over-gilded". Deane is still pinching himself in happy disbelief at having finally got shot of the charmless Royal Festival Hall - which will now be having the Royal Ballet to stay this Christmas instead. "The Coliseum has a completely different audience atmosphere to the more tea-and-coffee orientation at the Festival Hall. The Coliseum's a proper theatre with a proper bar. People are in close proximity to each other throughout the evening, they aren't wandering off to buy books in the interval."

Getting the audience in the right mood is vital to creating atmosphere. Anthony Dowell remembers with horror the cramped foyer of the old Sadler's Wells, where the three queues for box-office, cloakroom and bar converged in one smokey space. He looks forward with satisfaction to the changes to be made at Covent Garden, with vast new spaces for the public to promenade. "It sets the audience up if they're comfortable when they come in." The Royal Ballet are painfully conscious of this and the previously unwelcoming Labatt's Apollo has been tarted up in anticipation of the company's arrival - rather as businesses install new facilities when the Queen Mother pops by. Anthony Russell Roberts switches his hard sell mode into overdrive: "There's been some unkind press comment about Hammersmith but it's been so much developed since it had one-night stands with rock stars. They've spent over pounds 100,000 on a pit, they've remodelled the forecourt and there's a magnificent battery of new lavatories. Public perception is never easy to change but it can be done". Maybe. But it's got to be done to the tune of 3,500 seats a night for four weeks. Covent Garden had barely 2,000 and that wasn't always sold out. "It really is an opportunity," he says, doggedly.

The public's idea of what is and what isn't a ballet house is certainly very rigid. Harold King, of City Ballet of London, remembers the trouble Australian Ballet had when they tried to fill the London Palladium. "They couldn't get an audience - even with Fonteyn. The public didn't want to see ballet at the Palladium, they associated it with Variety." King's own constituency tends to be smaller venues which are not always ideally equipped "The only time we perform in large-scale theatres is when we're abroad and the company dances much better. There are few middle-scale theatres that we go to that are more than adequate. Buxton Opera House [also Matcham] is a beautiful theatre but so small! Zoltan Solymosi did Corsaire with us there and it was absurd. He was bouncing off the proscenium arch - he got very bad tempered."

King's company's itinerant lifestyle makes extraordinary demands of his productions: "All our backcloths have got to be multi-purpose - from 48 feet to 18 feet. Size isn't the only problem. "The [now renovated] Kings Theatre in Southsea. It could have been nice but the sewers used to leak into the orchestra pit. The smell was absolutely awful. And that theatre in Gloucester! I remember the dancers were all doing class on stage and they were in the middle of their grands battements and someone shouted `There's a rat running up the aisle!'"

Vermin made regular appearances at the old Sadler's Wells, where I've certainly had mice run across my shoes in the dress circle and where rats were known to swim up into the lavatory bowls. You think that's bad? David Bintley once found a snake in his dressing-room at the Theatre Royal in Brighton.

Yet, for all their shortcomings, most directors prefer an old fleapit every time. Christopher Gable, whose Northern Ballet are about to tour a new version of Giselle, is a bit of a romantic - "I'm very old-fashioned, I'm a sucker for those Victorian red and gold things" - but really wants the best of both worlds: "The Sheffield Lyceum is one of my favourites because it's been very lovingly refurbished. It has all of the qualities of an up-to-date house yet it's still pretty." Gable has learned to make the best of things: "If the theatre's too small, I tell them it's their opportunity [that word again] to create an intimate, passionate experience; if it's too big, I tell them it's an opportunity to develop their body language."

Too much space in the auditorium is the enemy of atmosphere. Gable loathes playing outdoors. "Playing the Hollywood Bowl with Margot Fonteyn was probably the most miserable performance of my whole life. You pump out all that energy and it sails out over the Hollywood hills." Bintley is similarly agoraphobic: "I don't like too much air in a theatre. That's where Covent Garden has always fallen down for me. There's too much air above you. I never knew who was out there - if it was a keen, friendly audience or a bunch of ICI reps."

Anthony Dowell will have none of it. Big spaces may be intimidating but today's performers are dancing bigger. " Nowadays the energy level is different; everyone is stretching and travelling more." I put this to Christopher Gable, who is unconvinced: "This trend to greater and greater size of company and performing space is creating a far colder, more academic performance. You've got to be a Seymour or a Callas to fill those spaces. Technique isn't enough, it's just glorified gymnastics."

Ask the ballet directors to conceive their dream theatre and you get a varied response. The Derek Deane Memorial Theatre would be round the corner from the Coliseum on the present site of the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square. Harold King's barnstorming life has made his demands more modest. He wants central heating backstage and, as a 60 a day man, would allow smoking in the bars and dressing-rooms. "At the Orchard in Dartford it's absolutely ludicrous. The dancers come off stage and they've got to stand outside the stage door in costume freezing to death." Christopher Gable wants to be "smack bang in the middle of England where I'm accessible to everybody". Unlike his peers, he favours a raked stage. All covet the glorious new theatre at Glyndebourne but David Bintley more so than most: "I'm actually very happy here at the Birmigham Hippodrome but I would like a place where people made pilgrimage; there's something noble about that. Somewhere people have to fight to get to" - a bit like Hammersmith, really. Anthony Dowell remains heroic in defence of his autumn home "I like the place very much. It has great atmosphere. I'm just hoping that once people are in there they'll see. It ain't bad. It really isn't."

Royal Ballet, Labatt's Apollo (that's in Hammersmith) 24 Sept-18 Oct. Northern Ballet, Sheffield Lyceum 29 Sept-4 Oct and touring. City Ballet of London, Buxton Opera House 29 Sept-4 Oct and touring. Birmingham Royal Ballet, Birmingham Hippodrome 9-18 Oct & touring. English National Ballet, Mayflower Southampton 13-18 Oct and touring

Additional research by William Davies