Sadler's Wells reopens tonight as a dance theatre for the millennium: a slightly bizarre mix of state-of-the-art technology, special access provision including free bus rides to the theatre, and an interval bar selling yuppie-style bottles of Sadler's Wells own water at pounds 4.50 a swig.
The opening has not taken place without last-minute drama. Last night's preview performance preceding tonight's official first night was delayed because Islington Council did not grant an entertainment licence until just after the official start time of 7.30. The curtain eventually went up 30 minutes late when Ian Albery, Sadler's Wells Director, came on stage clutching the licence to huge applause from the 1,500-strong audience.
The pounds 48m redevelopment of the theatre has doubled the size of the stage. The computer-controlled stage-flying machinery can lower a backdrop in four seconds "and halt it on the top of an egg without breaking it"; and eye-catching perforated panelling has been installed on the sides of the auditorium to enable companies to change the colour and atmosphere of the auditorium in keeping with the production - in A Midsummer Night's Dream, for example, the panels would take on images from the forest.
The new Sadler's Wells has also done away with what it considers to be "intimidating jargon". The box office has been renamed the ticket office. The dress circle and balcony become circle one and circle two. The stalls - well, unfortunately they could not think of another name for those.
But while the stage and auditorium are being hugely praised by companies such as Ballet Rambert, which opens the theatre officially tonight, there are equally eye-catching improvements in the enlarged glass and concrete foyer.
Beneath the exhibitions by contemporary prize-winning artists, dance patrons can drink genuine Sadler's Wells water, still or sparkling.
The water, which takes 10 years to reach the theatre from the Chilterns, is obtained from directly under the theatre via a 200-metre bore hole. It retails at pounds 2.50 a half-litre and pounds 4.50 a litre, and was pronounced "lovely" by builders still doing last-minute work on the foyer yesterday.
This marks a definite improvement on the time, 300 years ago, when Dick Sadler marketed the water from the well on his land and inadvertently killed a few customers because it retained impurities. But even then, enough customers were satisfied for Sadler to build his "musick hall", whose main purpose was to entertain people coming to London to taste the water.
Another Nineties version of a 17th-century pastime involves peering down the original well - now at the side of the new foyer and previously, though few realised it, beneath a carpet in the stalls.
As part of the emphasis on improving access to the arts, the new Sadler's Wells theatre has made its row of seats for disabled patrons the best row in the house - in the middle of the stalls. It is also refunding the bus fares of patrons. On the day of the performance any individual who presents their single-fare bus ticket to the ticket office will have the cost refunded along with the return journey fare.
There are, unfortunately, no plans to extend the scheme to car, train and taxi transport.
"It's wonderful, simply the best place in London for middle-scale companies to perform dance," said Christopher Bruce, the head of Rambert Dance Company, yesterday.
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