A short history of dance at The Old Vic


This article was written by Anne Langford for the Jekyll and Hyde Education Pack.

When most people think about The Old Vic they think about the theatrical productions and incredible actors who have had memorable experiences over the last 198 years. Very few people know about the pivotal role that The Old Vic played in the development of dance in the UK. Sadler’s Wells, The Royal Ballet, The Royal Ballet School and Birmingham Royal Ballet can all trace their roots back to this theatre and the extraordinary passion of Lilian Baylis.

In 1879 the building had been a theatre for about 60 years, albeit with a troubled existence. The social reformer Emma Cons re-opened the building as The Royal Victoria Hall and Coffee Tavern. Emma dropped the word theatre because of its unsavoury associations and hosted concerts, films, lectures and variety shows with the intention of educating and improving the lives of the local, predominantly impoverished, community. She created a cheap and decent place of amusement on strict temperance lines, no alcohol could be bought or consumed in the building. In 1898 her niece, Lilian Baylis, began working for her as a manager and when Emma died in 1912, Lilian was named as the lessee for the building. She obtained a theatre licence and set about turning the building into The Old Vic we know and love today. Lilian was passionate about theatre, opera and dance and became one of the greatest theatre managers in Britain, striving to make the performing arts accessible to all.

As The Old Vic flourished Lilian acquired a rather run down and disreputable theatre in North London, called Sadler’s Wells. In 1925 she began fundraising to rebuild the theatre to create a sister theatre to The Old Vic. In 1928 Lilian interviewed Ninette de Valois, an English dancer who had trained and danced in Europe with the celebrated Ballets Russes. After the interview Baylis secretary, recorded her as saying: Miss de Valois is going to run her school with the Vic and when we have Sadler’s Wells shell run a whole time ballet company for us. Not only did Lilian and Ninette achieve this, they went on to do so much more.

Ninette wanted to create a repertory ballet company of the calibre she had worked with in Europe but dancing in a new, uniquely English style. Starting with a small company of just six dancers and with Ninette acting as the lead dancer and choreographer, their first The Company performance was at The Old Vic on 5 May 1931. Sadler’s Wells had reopened under Lilians leadership in January of 1931 and for a time the Vic-Wells Ballet company, the predecessor of The Royal Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet, worked between both theatres. Ninette opened the Sadler’s Wells Ballet School in the newly opened theatre and this became the forerunner to The Royal Ballet School.

One of Ninettes most famous ballets and the oldest ballet in The Royal Ballet repertoire, Job, had its first public performance on 22 September 1931 at The Old Vic. As the first ballet to be produced by an entirely British creative team, Job is considered to be a crucial work in the development of British ballet. From 1935 Lilian focused the dance performances at Sadler’s Wells and in 1939 The Old Vic lost its formal connection to the dance school and companies as it focused almost exclusively on theatrical productions.

On 4 September 2000 groundbreaking British dance returned to The Old Vic with the London premiere of Matthew Bourne’s company, Adventures in Motion Pictures The Car Man: An Auto-Erotic Thriller. Its interesting to note that here again we see a very British remake of a Russian classic ballet, and just to keep the great Lilian Baylis happy, a reference to her beloved opera. The music for The Car Man is based on the Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin’s Bolshoi Ballet version of Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen. The story is loosely based on James M Cains novel The Postman Always Rings Twice, completely different from the story of the opera but with the same themes of lust, passion, murder and revenge. The production has gone on to tour internationally and been turned into an exciting film.

The first season with Matthew Warchus as Artistic Director saw dance establish itself back on the programme of The Old Vic. Inspired by Lilian Baylis’ eclectic programming of dance, opera, theatre and variety and by a sign she kept above her desk saying Dare, always dare!, Matthew has invited Drew McOnie to become an Associate Artist at the theatre. An inspiring and award winning young choreographer, who was mentored by Matthew Bourne, Drew was invited to create an entirely new dance work for The Old Vic, the first one in over 70 years. Drew is passionate about creating accessible and exciting dance that everyone can enjoy much like Lilian Baylis was. His work on Jekyll & Hyde in 2016 was a revival of a grand old tradition of the very best of British dance.

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