Sadlerís Wells: the reopening season 1998-99
Sadlerís Wells has now closed until mid September, after a monthís residency by the Royal Ballet brought the 98-99 season in the rebuilt house to an upbeat close. Itís been quite a rollercoaster of a year, with a number of artistic highs, and a number of lows - not necessarily on stage, but in terms of events which threatened both Sadlerís and the future of dance in the UK.
Anyone who has ever had the builders in can sympathise with Sadlerís to an extent. Weíve all heard the promises how it will yes, definitely, without fail, be finished next week, only to be confronted with the reality of more concrete and plaster about the place. But Sadlerís had taken our bookings and our money so my sympathy was somewhat limited: it was the managementís responsibility to deliver. It was only at 8pm on the first night in October, half an hour after the scheduled start, that the theatre got its license after passing safety checks at the last minute.
It was all right on the night but only just, and one does hope that the Royal Opera House has learned something from this near fiasco. All credit to the Rambert dancers for being prepared to rehearse wearing dust masks in a building site, but the Sadlerís management shouldnít have put them through that. It was an evening that was memorable for all the wrong reasons. The biggest round of applause I remember was for the announcement that, now the licence had been granted, the bars could be opened. The builders were optimistically supposed to be finished by Christmas: in spring they were still there.
It wasnít the only cliff-hanger. The Royal were in the middle of their autumn season at Sadlerís when funding issues and the future of the company reached crisis point. At the time it seemed anything might be possible - total collapse, a breakaway from the Royal Opera. By the time the Royal returned in summer, looking rather more relaxed, things appeared to be on a much more even keel. But I donít think anyone can afford to be complacent yet.
Sadlerís had a number of teething problems, but eventually settled down. The box office staff seemed to be having titanic initial struggles with getting the computerised ticketing system to actually print tickets, but now seemed to have mastered it. Many people have reported difficulties in getting through by phone to book, and it is difficult when booking opens. But the box office staff are very pleasant and helpful when you get hold of them, and staff in general there seem eager to please, with the exception of some rather casual and uninterested bar staff.
On the plus side, the rebuilt Sadlerís works really well as a dance house, and itís been interesting to see different companies exploiting its capabilities. The panels at the side of the auditorium and the curtain can be illuminated in different colours: NBT opted for a lurid red, naturally enough, for their production of Dracula: cool blues were a more frequent choice.
The stage is a generous size: a little smaller than the Coliseum but about the same width as the Royal Opera House. The company which seemed to make the most dramatic use of the space was Ballet Frankfurt: they stripped out everything in the stage space and left a vast echoing void. It seemed as if they were dancing inside a cathedral. The Royal, on the other hand, didnít seem to make the best use of the space we know is there: the cottages in the set for Giselle were positioned so far forward that the dance space was quite noticeably restricted. The space for the orchestra pit and the seating in the stalls is variable: anything from a full size orchestra or no pit at all can be accommodated quite neatly. Extra seating was included for Ballet Frankfurt and others, while NDT positioned drummers at the side of the stalls to accompany one of their works.
Lots of features about the new building are excellent. The sight lines are generally very good, though at the back of the stalls the view of the stage is rather letter-box like. The seats at the side of the first and second circle are OK (the stools are rather hard on the back), and they are usually quite cheap (7.50 GBP). There is plenty of space to move about at the intervals, and enough bars to make the prospect of getting a drink more likely. Itís all very light and airy, all glass and pale wood: the staircase is already showing signs of considerable wear and tear.
Thereís still a few niggles though: the air conditioning is welcome, but itís only in the auditorium itself: the other areas inside can get very hot in summer. But on the ground floor, the wide open doors means that in winter it can be quite cold down there. However there is one thing which I cam commend wholeheartedly: uniquely in London theatres, they have managed to install enough ladies loos. Anguished queuing is now a thing of the past. For this relief, much thanks.
The first season has been remarkably successful, all the more so when you consider what we got was by no means what was planned. The Royal Opera, to save money, cancelled their slots which were intended to cover most of May and June. Sadlerís were able to do some imaginative reprogramming in a great hurry - it was dance rather than opera fans who benefited, with Northern Ballet Theatre, Scottish Ballet, White Oak and NDT among those who filled the gap. (Yes, there were opera visitors too, not covered here)
Sadlerís has had a really strong group of visiting foreign companies this season : Ballett Frankfurt, Pina Bausch, Pacific North West Ballet, Nederlands Dance Theatre, White Oak Dance Project, Meryl Tankard. In addition there has been some of the more exotic type of companies, which I always (fairly or not) associated with the old Sadlerís Wells - Sankai Juku , Cloud Gate Theatre of Taiwan. The old theatre would never have accommodated many of these: everyone has their personal preferences (for me, NDT were most impressive, White Oak a bit of a let down), but overall the line up was impressive, and we look forward to more companies here in the future - San Fransisco Ballet this October for instance.
Not that Sadlerís has neglected British dance either. It has become the London home for Rambert. The company opened the theatre, and were the first to revisit it in November with a triumphant run of Cruel Garden, and returned again in summer. There have been opportunities for other companies too - Birmingham Royal Ballet (nee Sadlerís Wells Royal Ballet) returned to its old home, and NBT and Scottish Ballet made their first visit to London for many years. This is a pleasant development, as Arts Council funding has kept the companies rather rigidly demarcated in their own areas in the past: not much point in trying to build an audience for dance if no one else can tour to exploit it. For the most part houses when I attended seemed fairly full, with the exception of Scottish Ballet, where ticket sales seemed quite disappointing.
Sadlerís seem to have policy of keeping basic ticket prices down to reasonable levels, but any incidental expenses soon mount up. Top ticket price for the RB season was 36 GBP. White Oak have the dubious honour of the most expensive top price tickets at 40 GBP. (Dubious because it was a short programme with very little Baryshnikov in it). If you book by phone, thereís quite a hefty booking fee of 1.85 per lot of tickets sent out. Sadlerís will swap your tickets for another performance - but they charge a hefty 3.70 per ticket for doing it. Costs of food and drink are really quite steep, and programmes can also be expensive. (And they donít stock Losely ice cream any more. Shame !) However, there is a very good Friends of Sadlerís scheme which provides discounts for multiple bookings. (Covent Garden take note. They wonít though, will they ?).
There are still occasional hints of funding problems at Sadlerís. The Royal Opera cancellation must have hit very hard, even though some compensation was paid. The Studio theatre is still not yet open, six months or so after the planned date, and appeals for funds continue. Sadlerís is still ambitiously running programmes at the Peacock in the West End as well as in Islington. The result for us has been a varied and exciting choice of dance - I hope the management can continue with their eclectic programming and still keep solvent. Thereís lots to look forward to later this year, including Siobhan Davies, Mark Morris, San Fransisco Ballet and the return of Rambert.