It's not as famous as the Eurovision Song Contest; it's not the butt of jokes about nul points and about how Europe has strangely expanded to include Israel. But the Eurovision Young Dancers competition has been going since 1985, through upheavals in television here and abroad. Past winners have gone on to reach the peak of their profession, such as the kamikaze-stepper Tetsuya Kumakawa, Zenaida Yanowsky of the Royal Ballet and Agnès Letestu, now an étoile at the Paris Opera Ballet.
The Eurovision Young Dancers was founded by the European Broadcasting Union as a companion to the Eurovision Young Musicians, with which it alternates. This year is the dancers' turn, and 22 contestants from 17 countries have arrived in London – it's the city's first time as host. The Royal Opera House, co-producer with the BBC, is providing free use of its Linbury theatre and studios and is therefore currently swarming with the Kirov Ballet, halfway through their season, and the electronics, technicians and slightly jittery 14- to 19-year-old hopefuls of the Eurovision mob.
That both the music and dance competitions have escaped the notoriety of the Eurovision Song Contest is a reflection of both their strength – they avoid tackiness – and their weakness. The viewing figures may be huge by performing arts standards – the 1999 Young Dancers in Lyons achieved about 10 million – but they are pretty paltry by television's. It's a measure of the competition's consequent weak clout that this year's broadcaster, the BBC, will be not be transmitting live on its own channels, although just under half of the other countries receiving the transmission will.
Even so, the BBC's executive producer Bob Lockyer has pulled out all the stops to present the event, filming the first round (held yesterday), tomorrow's final and aspects of backstage activity for a series of programmes. Deborah Bull, Royal Ballet principal and indefatigable personality, will go into her Terry Wogan mode, compering with the contemporary choreographer Wayne McGregor. But she'll be one up on Terry Wogan in the final, when she makes a quick change into her leotard to dance an extract from McGregor's Symbiont(s) during the pause for the jury to deliberate.
The British entrant is Jamie Bond, chosen in a preliminary heat out of 13 candidates from schools round the UK. (Each country decides on its selection process.) An 18-year old from Leigh-on-Sea in Essex, Jamie Bond comes from a dance background – his mother teaches ballet – and is in his penultimate year at the Royal Ballet School. His eye-catching name echoes both Ian Fleming's "Bond, James Bond" and Jamie Bell, the star of Billy Elliot. It was the 007 connection that helped inspire Chase Case, his contemporary dance solo commissioned from Didy Veldman, whose imminent A Streetcar Named Desire for Northern Ballet Theatre is intended to repeat the success of her Carmen. Set to a score by an American, Michael Daugherty, Chase Case evokes a chase and an FBI agent. Bond likes jumping – "I'm happiest in the air" – and this was a reason for choosing an athletic theme. "I tried to suss out his good points," says Veldman, "and put those in. I felt it was important to make him move and cover space and show what he's capable of. But I also found that he's a very smooth and supple mover, which I wasn't expecting from a student." And she was keen that the choreography should have some drama. "It should enable him to create a proper role, take on a character."
Jamie Bond will also dance a classical solo, Siegfried's variation from Swan Lake Act Three, and if he gets through to the final, he will be asked to present just one of the two. The rules are remarkably fluid. The contestants, they stipulate, must perform choreography lasting from three to seven minutes, which can consist of one or two sequences. The style can be classical or contemporary, including forms like hip-hop and jazz (but not folk dance). Original choreography is recommended for at least part of each entry, although that hasn't stopped East European representatives like Latvia's Anna Novikova from offering two Petipa extracts. And the contestants can enter as soloists, or as a pas de deux couple – an option that five of the countries having taken up.
So how do you compare apples and pears? A soloist with a couple? Veldman's Chase Case with Fokine's Les Sylphides (Slovenia)? "The jurors," says Bob Lockyer, "will be making their decision over several viewings – the first round, the rehearsal of the final and the final itself, so it's not an instant decision." The freelance director Maina Gielgud, one of the two British jurors (the other is Matthew Bourne of Adventures in Motion Pictures) says that "theoretically, we're not judging the choreography," although she can see that the choreography might have an influence. She is hoping that the three winners will stand out clearly. "I'll be looking for that spark, but if there are a lot of good dancers, it will be difficult."
What is the value of such competitions? The prize money isn't going to make anybody rich, although £5,000 (first prize) is always welcome. Exposure to watching promoters or agents is more important in music, where concert engagements are the norm. Dancers, however, need to belong to companies, where employment is through auditions. So past winners would have got to where they are now without the Eurovision contest, although it can be a short cut, by prompting invitations to audition. But it is not, as they say, the winning, it is the taking part that is important. Johanna Nuutinen from Finland is relishing the whole experience. "You meet new people, you make new contacts and you get to know yourself better as well. You get a chance to learn how to handle the pressure and nerves."
But perhaps even more important is that it brings dance into the homes of the general public. Packaged in the form of a competition, injected with the buzz of suspense, warmed with human interest, the Eurovision format gives dance that extra, alluring dimension. That is, in the present media climate, what television controllers deem necessary to make programmes extra-palatable. They want cookery spiced up with pretty locations and fat women on a motorcycle; they want gardening jollied up with surprise makeovers of people's backyards. At its worse, and most frequent, the actual subject gets trivialised. But the Eurovision format has so far managed to avoid the danger and promises to flag up dance as a young, vibrant and modern art.
'Let the Contest Begin', Saturday 23 June at 7.30pm; 'The First Round', Saturday 23 June at 8pm; 'The Final', Sunday 24 June at 8pm, all on BBC Knowledge.
'Eurovision Young Dancer', an overview of the entire event, Saturday 14 July at 7.20pm on BBC2
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