The Place Prize, Robin Howard Dance Theatre, London

Europe's biggest prize for choreography is judged not by a panel of experts, but by newcomers to the art form. No wonder the standard is so variable

It's not about the winning, or even the taking part.

It's the chance of making a proper professional job of it that draws choreographers to the Place Prize. The usual snag with competitions is financial. Your future Wayne McGregors rarely have the means to light, design and soundtrack a public performance, still less persuade equally hard-up colleagues to rehearse the work for weeks, on the far-off chance that it might bag a money prize so they can all be paid.

Thanks to sponsorship by Bloomberg, the biennial Place Prize can select entries at the ideas stage and put up the resources to make them happen. Now the four finalists of the 2010-11 edition have entered the last stage – a run of 10 public performances at the end of which a judging panel, drawn from the wider arts sphere, but not dance – will decide who is to receive the £25,000. There's also a nightly Audience Prize of £1,000 to be played for, giving rise to a double-whammy of layman opinion. You have to wonder why The Place is so wary of dance professionals' expertise.

I knew from the first minute of Ben Duke and Raquel Meseguer's It Needs Horses that it was odds-on to win the audience vote. The lights go up on a circus ring containing a down-in-the-mouth, bowler-hatted ringmaster (Chris Evans) and a trapeze artist (Anna Finkel) in bedraggled feathers and not much else. From her wordless gibbering we gather the flying lady has suddenly lost her head for heights, mid-act, so she and her co-performer must madly improvise: juggling invisible balls, riding an invisible unicycle, mud-wrestling without the mud, and descending into ever seedier attempts to keep their audience.

Perhaps it doesn't matter that an entry for a dance prize contains very little dancing. A more compelling reason for this piece not to win is that the comedy repeatedly falls flat, reliant as it is on embarrassment. Even less likely to get my personal vote was Begin to Begin: A Piece About Dead Ends, by Eva Recacha. She'd hit on using the folk song "Michael Finnegan", with its circular pay-off "Poor old Michael Finnegan begin again ...", as the basis of a lugubrious trio in which, at each return of a repeated sequence, a different dancer took the part of the old man's corpse. It felt like an academic exercise.

More intriguing and atmospheric was Cameo by Riccardo Buscarini and Antonio de la Fe Guedes. With more than a nod to Hitchcock, two men and a woman in cocktail dress prowl around each other, a whisky decanter and a pair of leather club sofas in a sinister prelude to a murder. Michael Mannion's lighting provides much of the suspense, framing objects or individuals as if appointing blame. The soundtrack is good, too (Alberto Ruiz Soler), with its classic tropes of ticking clocks and ruminating scrapes of cello. And I loved the way the protagonists scooted nervily about, often in reverse, narrowly avoiding collision (and the woman in high heels, too). Ultimately, though, I felt short-changed: it had seemed a plot was on offer that didn't transpire.

Fidelity Project, the final item, was conceived by its performers, Freddie Opoku-Addaie and Frauke Requardt. They make an odd couple – he small and wiry, Ghanaian and shod in red socks, she big and tough, Germanic and mini-skirted – but their relationship is transfixing. After wheeling on a mobile popcorn stall and setting it to heat, they engage in a physical banter that's the dance equivalent of scissors, paper, stone. Each constantly tries to nobble the other, their poking, punching, goosing and attempted trip-ups met with matching gleeful guile. This energetic to and fro is at once intimate and innocent, simple and clever, and reaches its playful climax just as the corn starts to pop, erupting like fireworks.

When it came to voting using the hand-held gadget provided, I had no hesitation in keying in No 4, though it was the makers of the grisly circus duet that went home with that night's £1,000. But did any of these four efforts raise the bar for contemporary dance? I can't honestly say they did.

To Sat (020-7121 1100)

Next Week:

Jenny Gilbert sees if the Russians can summon the heady spirit of 1911 in the Diaghilev Festival, at the Coliseum

Dance Choice

The Royal Ballet's version got there first, but Scottish Ballet's Alice is hot on its tail. With choreography by Ashley Page, music by Robert Moran, and designs by Antony McDonald, it promises a bold take on Lewis Carroll's 1865 children's story. At Glasgow's Theatre Royal from Tue to Sat, then touring to Edinburgh, Inverness, Cardiff and Aberdeen.

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