All tutu wonderful

29th March 1996 at 00:00
Sadler's Wells dance theatre is to be reborn in a Pounds 30 million project.

This summer the unlovely 1930s building of the Sadler's Wells theatre in north London is due to be demolished. Thanks to a Pounds 30 million National Lottery grant, a new theatre focusing on dance should open in September 1998.

Ian Albery, chief executive of Sadler's Wells, hopes the Pounds 4 million needed to start the project will be released next month.

It is an ambitious scheme, but one he thinks would be dear to the heart of Lilian Baylis, the theatre's founder. She had a missionary zeal to promote high-quality theatre in the 1920s and 1930s, "at prices that artisans and labourers can afford".

Mr Albery continues her crusade. "We are about access. There are no privileged seats in this theatre - we don't charge high prices, as it would be against the objectives of our foundation." These include attracting new audiences, working with schools and the community, and developing new talent.

The site is of great historical significance, as the first theatre was built there in 1683, and five others have been constructed since then.

Sadler's Wells hopes to expand the already busy community and education programme in the new theatre. Sally Lewis, the education officer, reckons that the theatre reaches hundreds of schools nationwide. There are workshops, backstage tours, a youth dance company for 16 to 24-year-olds, and a teacher-training project, with Bretton Hall College of Leeds University, which has been piloted for two years.

"We are not in competition with teacher-training establishments - we want to supplement them, not supplant them. We're not a mad theatre company starting teaching," said Mr Albery.

He thought it was appropriate for Sadler's Wells "to go national" in its teacher training when it put in for its lottery bid, especially as there was a need for more in-service training when dance became part of the national curriculum. Courses include teaching dance for boys, using music technology, and stage lighting for schools. The partnership brings together the college's academic strengths and the theatre's professional expertise.

The level of commitment was high as more than 100 teachers took part in the pilot scheme, giving up Saturday mornings to take their courses, said Ms Lewis. The next step is to get the courses accredited by the college.

Apart from work with pupils and teachers, the community and education project runs a flourishing senior citizens' club and dance company, and a dance programme with a local school for deaf children.

The new theatre has been designed with the help of a disability committee. "If it's good for disabled people, it's good for everyone," said Ian Albery. The main house is intended to have the same capacity of 1,500 seats, but a better auditorium, while the Lilian Baylis studio theatre will cater for smaller companies and students.

He is concerned about lottery funding criteria and wants the Arts Council to have the same flexibility as the Sports Council. The Arts Council requires 25 per cent partnership funding for projects over Pounds 100,000. Originally, the Sports Council wanted 35 per cent, but has since relaxed the rules so that poorer areas only have to raise 10 per cent or even less.

"We can't raise 25 per cent easily. It's not impossible, but the council is setting us a higher mountain to climb than a royal or national institution, " he said.

Compared to other theatres, the funding for Sadler's Wells was "pathetically poor". It gets Pounds 120,000 from the London Arts Board - 4 per cent of its revenue - and Islington provides salaries for one-and-a-half teaching staff.

"We don't have a royal or national status, but we were the cradle for three national companies - the English National Opera, the Royal Ballet and the Birmingham Royal Ballet. And we create new audiences. Without the base the pyramid won't be so high. And that base shouldn't stop at Sadler's Wells, it should reach the schools. "

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