One of the greatest achievements in Sadler’s Wells history is its role in developing ballet in Britain.
The two ballet companies that were formerly resident at Sadler’s Wells became famous throughout Britain and the World: The Royal Ballet and the Birmingham Royal Ballet. In addition, what is now the Royal Ballet School was once located at Sadler’s Wells when it began to develop into the renowned ballet school it is today.
The woman responsible for these companies and the school was Ninette de Valois (1898-2001). Born in Ireland as Edris Stannus, she moved to England in 1905 and later trained as a professional ballet dancer, going on to enjoy a successful career. In 1926, she started a ballet school – the 'Academy of Choregraphic [sic] Art' with ambitions of using this to develop a ballet company.
Later in that year she met with Lilian Baylis who gave her a contract to teach drama students and arrange dances for a Shakespeare production. By this time Baylis had been planning the reconstruction of Sadler’s Wells and ballet became part of the plan for the new theatre. Ballet performances began to be shown at the Old Vic under de Valois' direction and the small company, which had now developed, undertook performances in Bournemouth during Christmas 1930 as the ‘Vic-Sadler’s Wells Opera Ballet’ (shortly before Sadler’s Wells had opened in January 1931).
Ballet at the time had developed very little in Britain and ballet performances were generally given by overseas companies. The exception to this were Marie Rambert’s ballet productions from 1926 onwards - this developed into the 'Ballet Club' (now the Rambert Dance Company) in 1930.
Following the opening of Sadler’s Wells, ballets were performed alternately at the Old Vic and Sadler’s Wells and the company became known as the Vic-Wells Ballet. The alternation of drama, ballet and opera between the two theatres was however abandoned in 1936. It was decided that Sadler’s Wells would focus on ballet and opera and the Old Vic was to present drama. The Vic-Wells name was still in use until 1939 when it became the Sadler’s Wells Ballet.
Ninette’s ballet school became a part of the new Sadler’s Wells set-up as the Vic-Wells Ballet School. It trained many of the dancers who would later join the company, including Margot Fonteyn who become the Well’s star dancer.
Sadler's Well Ballet became a great success and accepted as Britain’s major ballet company. The company - its dancers (such as Margot Fonteyn and Robert Helpmann) and creative team (including its leader Ninette, the composer Constant Lambert and choreographer Frederick Ashton) - became famous across the World. Their fame is reflected in the extensive collection of contemporary press-cuttings and books held in the Sadler's Wells Theatre Archive.
I look forward to writing further about the influential Ninette de Valois and ballet at Sadler’s Wells during and after the Second World War in future blogs.