Strictly come highbrow

Now it's the turn of opera and contemporary dance to get the reality treatment on prime-time TV
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The Independent Culture

While Simon Cowell continues his quest for world domination and prepares to invade America with The X Factor, in the UK, there's a different televisual trend afoot.

Last Saturday, on prime-time BBC, viewers were introduced to the Rambert Dance Company, the biggest name in contemporary dance, more often found at Sadler's Wells than in a studio. Its moment in the spotlight was followed, last night on ITV, by the prime-time debut of opera singer Rolando Villazon, widely regarded as one of the finest tenors in the world.

For the next five or six weeks, the early evening weekend television schedules will be dominated by two art forms – contemporary dance and opera – which traditionally have been largely ignored by programmers. So You Think You Can Dance? is an American import, though the brainchild of two Brits – entertainment mogul Simon Fuller and Nigel Lythgoe, a choreographer turned television producer better known as "Nasty Nigel" on the Popstars judging panel. "It came out of Simon saying, 'we're very successful with American Idol, we should do it with dance'," says Lythgoe. "And I said, 'No, it will never work'." Now six series in Stateside, its first season was rated most watched of the summer and some 16 million votes were cast in the final.

On the BBC, with Lythgoe installed as chief judge and Arlene Phillips as his sidekick, each week unknown hopefuls – from Alastair, a graduate of the Royal Ballet school and dancer with Matthew Bourne's Adventures in Motion Pictures, to Hayley, Italia Conti-trained choreographer to Take That – are tested on a range of dance styles. So ballet dancers are made to pop and lock as hip-hop soloists, while crunk champions kick up their heels Broadway style or try their hands at Bollywood in the hope of landing a prize of £100,000, the chance to dance in Hollywood and the vague honour of becoming "Britain's favourite dancer". So far, ratings have hovered around the seven to eight million mark and the stand-out moment has come from a Brazilian ballet dancer, Hugo Cortes, who gave a spellbinding audition, leaping and pirouetting about the stage in ballet shoes and little else before visa troubles scuppered his chances. "We're about as close to the arts in a mainstream show as you can get," says Lythgoe, with satisfaction.

Popstar to Operastar, on the other hand, has taken the more tried-and-tested route of using celebrities to lure viewers in as erstwhile pop and rock stars (from Blur's Alex James to Bernie Nolan) attempt to master opera's best-loved arias, under the watchful eyes of mentors Villazon and Katherine Jenkins.

It's not the first time that so-called highbrow art forms have been adapted for a mass, reality-television audience. In 2008, the BBC scored a ratings success with Maestro, which taught celebrities the dark arts of conducting an orchestra. There have been televised book clubs and attempts to find new playwriting talent (The Play's the Thing and last year's Theatre Live! on Sky Arts) and Charles Saatchi's search for the next big thing. There's even been a reality contest to find the best musical child prodigy. And next month, Sky Arts launches Virgin Virtuoso in which Bill Bailey, Imogen Stubbs and Keith Allen are among the famous faces attempting to paint like Canaletto, Constable and Turner.

Television executives can rarely be accused of failing to flog a horse until it's well and truly dead. But as the sitting-around-doing-nothing model championed by Big Brother enters its death throes, there's a new vigour around putting the performing arts on television. The success of Glee, a new American comedy series about a gang of nerdy talented starlets in a school singing club, is further evidence of the growing trend.

In the reality sphere, there's an attempt to please not only grazing viewers but also aficionados (or at least fans) of the art form. Popstar to Operastar is fronted by those unthreatening faces of classical music Myleene Klass and Jenkins, but it also has Villazon offering his expert advice. "We're ITV and we want to bring opera to the masses. We'll sprinkle in some lesser-known tracks, too," says Layla Smith, controller of entertainment at the channel. "There's definitely an appetite for opera music sung for the masses. The show does need to deliver something different. It can't be just another singing competition."

Meanwhile, the Strictly effect has been much documented with a renewed enthusiasm for ballroom dancing in town halls across the land, successive break-dancing winners (George Sampson and Diversity) on Britain's Got Talent and another new show, the Davina McCall-fronted Got to Dance! on Sky. The interesting thing about So You Think You Can Dance? is that when two couples were tasked with Strictly favourites such as the jive, their routines looked old and tired. They were duly voted in the bottom two.

The far less familiar worlds of lyrical hip-hop and contemporary, on the other hand, brought something fresh to the screen. "Contemporary dance is something new to TV on a Saturday night," squawked Phillips last Saturday as one couple completed a routine choreographed by the Rambert's artistic director Mark Baldwin. She was right to mark it out as a significant victory for the form. "For the American show, Fox originally said, 'We don't want ballet. Don't give us any ballet.' With 'contemporary' they didn't really realise what they were getting. We snuck it in," says Lythgoe. "It started off as 'lyrical' but they didn't like that title – they thought it might be too effeminate for the boys. And then we called it 'contemporary' and then we called it 'contemporary jazz'... In the meantime, Mia Michaels [the choreographer] was doing some of the most beautiful classically inspired work. On the television!"

Lythgoe has also proudly snuck Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and American Ballet Theater to perform on the results shows in America. It's a huge opportunity for exposure for the companies involved. "It was a bit of a leap of faith as you never know how you're going to be presented," says Baldwin. "But Rambert doesn't even have a low profile on television so it was an opportunity not to be missed."

And while those involved will inevitably be accused by purists of dumbing down their art form, the once strictly delineated boundaries in the dance world are blurring. "Without question, there's a certain amount of elitism still in the classical world," says Lythgoe. "But it's opening up. At the moment in the UK it's still formally trained vs the street kids. But the moment the brilliant street kids have had a little bit of formal training, it becomes extremely exciting."

"It's a way of showing we're part of a larger picture," agrees Baldwin. "Yes Rambert works with [the composer] Julian Anderson but why shouldn't I also work with Leona Lewis? It's not all pips and squeaks and beeps and blackouts and lunges – there's a whole world of different ideas in contemporary dance."

As with Maestro, the programme aims to demystify the art form. Choreographers – the Place Prize winner Rafael Bonachela and Frank Gatson Jr (the man behind Beyoncé's "Single Ladies" dance) are this week's stars – are encouraged to explain the ideas behind their dances. "It makes it more accessible," says Lythgoe. "And for as long as we can do that on mainstream television, I'm very, very grateful."

So You Think You Can Dance?, tonight, 6.30pm, BBC1; Popstar to Operastar, Fridays, 9pm, ITV