The Vic-Wells Ballet

April 1931:  Irish ballerina Dame Ninette de Valois (1898 - 2001) (right) watching pupils at Sadler's Wells Ballet School, London, during a class.  (Photo by Sasha/Getty Images)

‘Let us remember with gratitude Miss Baylis, who believed in Miss de Valois, and Miss de Valois, who believed in herself.’

The Sunday Times

Ninnette de Valois came to The Old Vic in 1926 after having found early success with Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1923. She had established her own dance school, the Academy of Choreographic Art, and wanted to give her dancers professional experience. So she approached Lilian Baylis who was programming both opera and Shakespeare at The Old Vic. Lilian accepted and thus began the relationship which would last until Lilian’s death in 1937.

It had been a dream of Lilian’s to see the then-derelict Sadler’s Wells reopen. The Old Vic was full to the rafters and Lilian wanted to increase the programme across two theatre (despite the theatre itself being in desperate need of renovation). At the time, Sadler’s Wells was being offered for sale as the site of a factory but Lilian managed to raise the funds required to purchase the site, demolish it and rebuild.

‘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.’ Lilian Baylis

What begun as small ballet productions became the beginnings of The Royal Ballet when, in 1931, Sadler’s Wells was re-opened and Ninette was given rehearsal rooms: the Sadler’s Wells Ballet School and the Vic-Wells Ballet were born, with a company of just six dancers which included Alicia Markova, Margot Fonteyn and Lydia Lopokova, featuring Ninette de Valois as both leading dancing and choreographer.

For the next four years Ninette and her company flitted between Sadler’s Wells and The Old Vic, nurturing dancers like Margot Fonteyn, Frederick Ashton and Robert Helpmann with Constant Lambert as Musical Director before Lilian decided to give them a permanent base at Sadler’s for eight months out of the year. The theatre became increasingly associated with dance whilst The Old Vic retained its reputation for theatre. Ninette’s company was renamed the Sadler’s Wells Ballet in 1941 before taking up residence at the Royal Opera House 1946. It was granted a royal charter in 1956 and became recognised as Britain’s flagship company.