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Sadler's Wells Theatre exterior
New beginnings sometimes happen quietly and sometimes they are announced.

On Monday, 7th March 2005 the new director of Sadler’s Wells, Alistair Spalding, decided the time had come to make a splash.

You’ve got the National Theatre for drama, English National Opera for opera and I want Sadler’s Wells to perform the same function for contemporary dance.

With those words, he inaugurated a new chapter in the history of London’s second oldest theatre: its transformation into a contemporary dance house.

Sadler’s Wells was not born of an artistic impulse but the discovery of a mineral spring in 1683. Richard Sadler built a music house around the spring to rival the already fashionable Tunbridge and Epsom wells. By the beginning of the 18th century, visitors to Sadler’s Wells could see entertainments that included jugglers, tumblers, ropedancers, ballad singers, wrestlers, fighters, dancing dogs and even a singing duck.

In 1765 Thomas Rosoman had the theatre rebuilt for the first time so that it could mount high-calibre opera productions. However, it wasn’t long before the beer brewed from the spring waters became the primary attraction. By 1801, although a young actor called Edmund Kean and the great clown, Grimaldi, had both appeared on its stage, Sadler’s Wells had become more famous for incidents, both devised (spectacular sea battles) and accidental (a terrible stampede in which 18 people died) than for work of merit. In the 1830s Dickens wrote: “The theatre was in the condition of being entirely delivered over to as ruffianly an audience as London could shake together…Fights took place anywhere, at every period of the performance.”

Matters improved in 1843 with the passing of a parliamentary act which enabled the actor-manager, Samuel Phelps, to present a famous run of Shakespeare. But after he left in 1862, the theatre once more sank into the doldrums, suffering conversion into a skating rink and then a cinema. In 1914 the Daily Chronicle’s theatre critic, S.R. Littlewood, described it as “a poor, wounded old playhouse” and in 1915, it closed its doors.

It took another decade for the most significant figure in the modern history of Sadler’s Wells to enter the picture. Since 1898, Lilian Baylis had been presenting drama and opera at the Old Vic at popular prices. Motivated by a profound belief that great art should belong to everybody, in 1925 she began fundraising to rebuild Sadler’s Wells so that the people of north London could enjoy the same opportunities as those in the south.

Then Baylis met Ninette de Valois, a striking young Irish woman who deeply impressed her. After their interview, Baylis’s secretary, recorded her saying: “Miss de Valois is going to run her school with the Vic and when we have Sadler’s Wells she’ll run a wholetime ballet company for us.” The fact that it all came to pass says much about the abilities of both women.

De Valois was formally hired in 1928 and the fifth Sadler’s Wells, designed by the prolific theatre architect Frank Matcham, opened on 6th January 1931 with John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson in Twelfth Night. For four years, drama productions, opera and ballet shuttled between the Old Vic and Sadler’s Wells until Baylis decided to dedicate Sadler’s Wells to opera and ballet for eight months of the year and give the Vic-Wells Ballet a permanent base. The new season opened on 27th September 1935 to great acclaim with one critic noting “the splendid dancing of the young newcomer Miss Margot Fonteyn, who has a compelling personality and exceptional gifts, though only just 16.”

Whilst opera continued to be important (Peter Grimes premiered at the Wells in 1945), it was in this period that Sadler’s Wells became most strongly associated with dance. It was where De Valois founded British ballet here and built both a company of dancers and a repertory that included her own works and those of Frederick Ashton and Robert Helpmann. She also founded a school which remained throughout World War II, when the theatre was itself acting as a refuge for the homeless.

At the end of the war, De Valois took her fledging ballet company to Covent Garden to become the Royal Ballet. However, her touring ballet company, known first as the Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet, then the Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet, remained until 1955 and returned from 1970 to 1990 before moving permanently to Birmingham to become the Birmingham Royal Ballet.

By the 1970s Sadler’s Wells’ dance programme had diversified considerably. Alongside Rambert Dance and London Contemporary Dance, who briefly held residencies here, a great variety of touring and commercial work was also presented. However audiences began to drift away.

When Ian Albery took over as chief executive in 1994 it was clear that redefinition was needed. He led the campaign to transform Sadler’s Wells into a purpose-built dance theatre. During the two-year rebuild, Sadler’s Wells decamped to Holborn’s Peacock Theatre which it has continued to programme ever since.

The rebuilt theatre opened in October 1998 with a design that still incorporates the skeleton of Frank Matcham’s 1931 theatre, which in turn contained bricks from the Victorian playhouse. It has an expanded 15m² sprung stage, a welcoming 1,500 seat auditorium, and a glass-fronted foyer that captures Lilian Baylis’ belief that theatre should embrace everyone. Here no-one enters the “gods” through a separate entrance. There are also three rehearsal studios and the smaller 200-seat Lilian Baylis studio theatre for the development and presentation of small-scale work.

But even with the new facilities, it took some time to establish the theatre as a force for dance. After a thrilling opening season, which included performances by Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal, William Forsythe’s ground-breaking Ballett Frankfurt, and Rambert Dance, it once again struggled to find its voice and its audience.

Alistair Spalding took up the challenge to turn things around in 2004. He decided that Sadler’s Wells had been at its best when it had had resident companies and new works being created within its walls. This vision paved the way for an increasing number of Associate Artists and for companies producing work in the building. Today Sadler’s Wells not only promotes but also commissions and produces outstanding dance. It reflects the best of its history while looking defiantly and brightly towards the future.

Sarah Crompton