Philip Barker ©insidethegames

When high priestess Katerina Lehou kindles the 2016 Olympic flame next Thursday, one person will be watching more intently than anyone else. Choreographer Artemis Ignatiou is responsible for every last detail of the flame lighting ceremony in Ancient Olympia.

The journey of what Baron Pierre de Coubertin called "The Fire of Olympia" has become one of the most recognisable Olympic symbols. It begins from the site of the Games of antiquity, a spectacular backdrop and an inspirational setting.

“The choreography for the lighting of the Olympic Flame is unlike any other work,” says Ignatiou.

“Ordinarily, I express my own inspiration and ideas for the needs of a specific play, but when choreographing for the Olympic Flame, I serve an idea which first belonged to my country Greece and now belongs to the whole world.”

Ignatiou has been an integral part of the flame lighting ceremony for almost 30 years.

Back in 1988, she was a dance student who responded to a call for performers to take part. The ceremony in Olympia was then organised by veteran choreographer Maria Hors. Ignatiou later became a dance teacher and choreographer herself. She was asked to assist Hors with the production of the 1992 ceremony and has been involved ever since. The pair were destined to work together for a decade.

Hors had been involved in the very first Olympic torch relay in 1936. Still a teenager, she had been invited to take part in the ritual by her teacher Koula Pratsika who lit the flame to be carried from Olympia to Berlin. A tradition was born.

This year marks the 80th anniversary of that first relay but Hors died last autumn at the age of 94, so for Ignatiou and many of her fellow performers, the ceremony will have a special poignancy.

Choreographer Artemis Ignatiou with her son Karolos on the hillside in Olympia
Choreographer Artemis Ignatiou with her son Karolos on the hillside in Olympia ©Philip Barker

Since taking over as the lead choreographer, Ignatiou has seen the ceremony become a major television spectacle. As many as 30 dancers now represent the priestesses and a group of young men also perform representing the "heralds". In the days of antiquity, they were responsible for taking news of the Games to each Greek city state. In recent years the heralds have danced alongside the priestesses in the Altis, the special area where the flame is actually ignited.

The priestesses are all drawn from the theatrical community in Greece and are chosen for their bearing and grace. All wear specially designed costumes based on those from ancient times.

"I have sole responsibility for the costumes, the sandals, even the hairstyles of the priestesses,” said Ignatiou.

“I choose the designer and work with them during the design and selection of material.

"I give instructions to the hairdresser and check all the girls one by one before the ceremony.”

This year, Ignatiou selected costumes designed by London born Eleni Kyriacou, once a pupil of Alexander McQueen. Woven in Merino wool, they appear a very pale turquoise but when the dancers are in motion, green and light blue pleats can be seen, reflecting the colours of the olive groves of Olympia and the seas which are an integral part of the Greek landscape.

’My primary goal was staying true to the ancient spirit, making the moment when the world is taken on a journey to the ancient site as enchanting as possible,’’ said Kyriacou.

The lighting ritual itself begins in the temple of the Goddess Hera. The ancient columns form a dramatic and appropriate backdrop for the moment when the flame is kindled in a parabolic bowl from the rays of the sun.

As the great moment approaches, the high priestess steps forward to offer a prayer to Apollo: “Let the sky, the earth, the sea and the winds sound, mountains fall silent, sounds and birdsong cease.

"Apollo, king of the sun and light, send your rays and light the sacred torch for the hospitable city of Rio de Janeiro, and you Zeus give peace to all peoples on earth and wreath the winners of the sacred race."

The flame is then lit by the high priestess from the rays of the sun in a reflective bowl using a special torch. Designed by Athenian silversmith Ilias Lalaounis, it is a representation of a column in the temple. It is deliberately distinct from the torches that will be used in the relay to Rio. Once lit the flame is placed in a small pot, or amphora, by a priestess known as the Estiada. She is joined by the other priestesses who begin a stately procession to the ancient stadium.

There is a brief pause as a small boy, known as the Amphithalis Pais, cuts an olive branch. It is laid down that both his parents must be alive. At ancient Greek weddings, the presence of such a child at the festivities was a good omen for a fruitful marriage. In 2008, Ignatiou watched proudly as her son Errikos took this role and younger brother Karolos did so in 2012.

For those watching in the ancient stadium, the first view of the procession and the flame comes when the priestesses appear on the brow of the hill. They perform their dance movements on what is a steep slope leading down to the site.

“The rehearsals on the hill in Olympia are very important for us,” said Ignatiou. "Firstly for technical reasons, since we rehearse mostly on the flat but we have to perform it on the slope of a hill.

"Secondly it is because that specific place has such energy. It is an energy which emerges from its great history."

The musical accompaniment has been composed by Yiannis Pseimadas who provided the music for the Lillehammer Youth Olympic lighting. The soundtrack has taken on ever greater importance in the last few years.

The cast are led through the olive groves at a lighting ceremony
The cast are led through the olive groves at a lighting ceremony ©Philip Barker

“I usually start the choreography without the music, then once we have the main part, I ask the composer to come and see a rehearsal,” said Ignatiou.

“After that, we work together in composing the music and finishing the choreography. The music is very important because I believe in the coexistence of dance and music.”

Television actress Lehou is the latest to perform the role of high priestess for a Summer Games. She also lit the flame for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi and for the Youth Olympic Games of Nanjing and Lillehammer. The other priestesses are also experienced dancers. They begin rehearsals twice a week almost a year before the ceremony. All take place under the very watchful eye of choreographer Ignatiou.

A few days before the lighting, the entire cast travel to Olympia and live together in the dormitories at the International Olympic Academy, a short distance from the ancient site.

“The emotions during the lighting ceremony are very powerful," Ignatiou said. "I have yet to take part in a ceremony as choreographer or as a priestess that all the participants, choreographer, priestesses, composer, don't burst into tears. There is a feeling of respect, a feeling of responsibility, a feeling of joy, of hope, that this time the message of peace will reach every corner of the world."

Live coverage on television means that organisers can leave nothing to chance.

They keep a constant eye on the weather forecast. In 2008, the timetable was changed at the very last minute because storms were forecast. The bad weather arrived only a few minutes after the lighting was complete.

In any event, the flames lit in rehearsal are always kept in reserve.

This was needed in 1956 for the flame to Melbourne and also in 2000 for Sydney. On neither occasion did the sun appear at the precise moment needed. This did not prove a bad omen. The 1956 and 2000 Games have both gone down in the history books as among the best ever seen.

Although the sky stayed blue in 2012, the reserve flame proved its worth when a freak gust blew it out. At the time it was being carried across the hill by Estiada, the role played by Nefeli Mastradi. She was not flustered and responded to the situation swiftly and gracefully.

Although the moment was caught by the all seeing eye of television, many in the stadium were unaware there had even been a problem.

The mishap was soon forgotten as the relay to London proved an outstanding success.

A musician plays as the group prepares to enter the stadium
A musician plays as the group prepares to enter the stadium ©Philip Barker

Now Rio becomes the first South American city to receive the Olympic flame. International Olympic Committee (IOC) member Carlos Nuzman carried the flame in Olympia four years ago in a special gesture to the 2016 host city but here, he will speak as leader of the Rio 2016 Organising Committee.

IOC President Thomas Bach will also be present to witness the moment when the first torchbearer Elefterios Petrounias, a world champion gymnast, steps forward to receive the flame.

He will leave the ancient stadium and pay a brief visit to the Coubertin grove. There he will pause for a few moments in homage to de Coubertin, the Frenchman who inspired the revival of the Olympic Games for modern times. Petrounias will then hand the torch to the first Brazilian torch bearer in the relay, double Olympic volleyball gold medallist Geovane Gávio.

He has been a torchbearer before, appropriately in the Athens 2004 relay when he took the flame in Rio. The cavalcade then passes through Olympia and by nightfall it will have arrived on the island of Zakynthos.

There will be no respite for Ignatiou and her team as the flame makes its way through Greece. They will continue rehearsals for the handover ceremony at the Panathinaiko Stadium in Athens on April 27.

This will be where the flame formally passes into Brazilian hands. It will also feature a rally for the Hellenic Olympic team led by a performance from singing star Sakis Rouvas, also presenter of the Greek X-Factor.

There are many who will feel that the flame ceremonies directed by Ignatiou have that X-factor quality in abundance.