My theme – British theatre through the ages – has so far covered many forms of entertainment, but to date, I’ve omitted one key one: dance. So today, I’m off to Sadler’s Wells, home of ballet and dance.
However, given the theatre’s long history, dance is a relatively recent arrival at Sadler’s Wells. In fact there have been six theatres on the site holding that name.
Lets go back to 1683 when Richard Sadler made a discovery on his property. Two men digging on his land thought they’d struck gold – treasure. It wasn’t. They’d discovered a monastic spring. Rich in iron, it was claimed to have medicinal benefits for numerous conditions. Sadler, not wanting to miss out on a good thing, decided to build a ‘Musick House’ in conjunction with the amazing waters of the well – Sadler’s Wells was opened.
Water and music became the theme for the theatre because, unfortunately, Sadler was unable to turn his theatre into a patent theatre – that pesky theatres act again – and therefore couldn’t compete with the likes of Covent Garden and Drury Lane theatres and their dramatic performances. SW struggled, and wasn’t helped by its location – Clerkenwell, to the north of London, and not the West End.
A new stone theatre was built in seven weeks, opening in 1765 and pantomime was all the rage until in 1804, Charles Dibdin, manager, had a novel idea to attract audiences. The entire stage was replaced with a water tank with another on the roof. Water was pumped into the tank from a nearby river by twelve to fourteen men each day using a Archimedes wheel. The water tanks created a waterfall effect for backdrops, waves too if needed. So unbelievable was the sight of this aquatic theatre that people jumped into the somewhat filthy water to check it was real. By the time of the French wars, patriotic plays and pageants were popular and featured sea battles, live interpretations with ships built to precise scale.
Such entertainment couldn’t last in popularity – pony races drew the crowds away. There were no more burning volcanoes reflected off the water or sea creatures – shame.
The theatre put on other types of performances too. Edmund Kean appeared on stage as a child actor, so did Joseph Grimaldi, comedian and clown, who first appeared at SW at the tender age of two. Later, he witnessed pandemonium when a false fire alarm resulted in twenty-three people trampled to death. A very physical actor, he suffered numerous injuries and retired prematurely. The audiences throughout this time grew increasingly rowdy.
The end of the theatre act in 1843 broke the duopoly of the theatre royals in London and brought a spell of Shakespeare to Sadler’s Wells, then melodrama swung back into action, followed by more decline. Would Sadler’s Wells become a bath house? No, it became a roller skating rink and a prize fighter arena.
No ballet yet.
In 1879, the theatre was gutted and remodelled by none other than CJ Phipps (if you’ve been following my posts, you will known he crops up a lot!). SW reopened as a music hall and appearing on stage Roy Redgrave – introducing a long line of Redgrave actors.
1896 – a cinema.
1915 – rundown again, it closed.
The fifth incarnation of Sadler’s Wells began in 1925 when Lilian Baylis, proprietor of the Old Vic theatre claimed the place with the ambition of bringing opera and drama to the stage. She also collaborated with a ballet teacher, Ninette de Valois. She raised money with the help of Winston Churchill, C.K. Chesterton and Stanley Baldwin. The Sadler’s Wells ballet school opened in 1931, and performed at both the Old Vic and SW. The theatre was designed by … Matcham and Co.
The intention of Baylis was to alternate between ballet and opera, with a bit of drama too. Opening night was Twelfth Night with Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud.
Over the next few decades, ballet and opera moved around the venues in a complex relationship of companies, bouncing between Convent Garden, SW, Old Vic, and even the Birmingham Hippodrome. By 1968, the Sadler’s Wells Opera Company settled in the Coliseum theatre as the English National Opera and Sadler’s Wells theatre was used by visiting foreign companies. Still not quite the home of dance.
The sixth and current theatre replaced the previous one, which was considered plain and lacking wings, and bulldozed. The new theatre was opened in 1998 on the same location. But fear not, it’s still a listed building and it has the historic wells underneath it, and best of all, it’s all dance, dance, dance, and ballet.