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Bringing High Kicks to TV Audiences

'Dance in America' series on PBS celebrates 20 years of chronicling key developments in the art form

'Ours is not the first golden age of dance, but it is the first to be so widely recorded," says Judy Kinberg, producer of the "Dance in America" series of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS).

No better documentarian has existed over the past two decades than "Dance in America," a program that has chronicled many of the seminal moments in ballet and modern dance and made them accessible to virtually anyone with a television set.

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This evening, PBS will broadcast "A Renaissance Revisited," the 20th anniversary retrospective of the "Dance in America" series (check local PBS listings). It's a must-see for anyone who has even the slightest interest in the dance of our time.

The opening credits alone can induce goosebumps - Mikhail Baryshnikov soaring through the air in Balanchine's pivotal "The Prodigal Son," Caroline Adams hurling herself with total abandon into the arms of Elie Chaib in Paul Taylor's exuberant "Esplanade," Lynn Seymour strewing roses in Frederick Ashton's "Five Brahms Waltzes."

Produced and directed by Ms. Kinberg and hosted by actress and lifelong dance fan Joanne Woodward, the show makes no attempt to be comprehensive, but rather unfolds as a revue of highlights from the past 20 years. The show's creators have organized the program thematically rather than chronologically, focusing on pieces according to how they were primarily inspired - by story, music, or movement ideas.

Along the way, it manages to showcase the creative genius of choreographic masters such as George Balanchine, Martha Graham, and Paul Taylor, as well as the stunning virtuosity of a wide range of performers, from Baryshnikov to Gregory Hines.

Making dance accessible

The show opens with Balanchine's "The Prodigal Son," the 1929 ballet that immediately infused the art form with a contemporary sensibility. The performance highlights the artistry of a young Baryshnikov, soaring through the air in brilliant leaps and sailing through blistering turns. There are excerpts from Kurt Jooss's powerful political satire "The Green Table," Jerome Robbins's distinctly American "Fancy Free," Antony Tudor's emotional drama "Lilac Garden."

Mark Morris offers high contrast, juxtaposing the screwball "Dogtown" with the luminous "Gloria." Alvin Ailey's masterpiece "Revelations" is excerpted, as are bits by Merce Cunningham and Jerome Robbins. There's even a little a cappella tapping from Gregory Hines.

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Though the lack of a clear chronology keeps the perspective historically vague, mini interviews with choreographers help keep the show on track. The biggest complaint is that the show isn't longer, providing more spoken clues as to how these works and these choreographers fit into the big picture.

For many dance lovers, "Dance in America" has been an artistic lifeline, bringing the art form into our homes in the absence of readily accessible live performance. "Thousands of people have seen Balanchine ballets only on television," Kinberg says.

"Dance in America" began in response to a National Endowment for the Arts solicitation for proposals on a series to help document the rich outburst of dance activity that began in the 1960s. Jac Venza, the executive director of PBS's "Great Performances" series proposed "Dance in America," which initially had a mainly archival mission. "It's important to note that without the initiative of the NEA, none of this would have happened," Kinberg claims.

Over the past two decades, Kinberg as well as producers Merrill Brockway and Emile Ardolino have created 78 programs.

"In the beginning," Kinberg remembers, "we had a lot of trouble getting people in the dance community to participate. There was a feeling that television was not dance-friendly, and companies were very concerned that it might harm the box office. What we found was just the opposite.

"Bob Joffrey [head of the Joffrey Ballet], bless him, took a risk and did our first series, and his box office took a jump. Much later a survey was taken, and guess what? We found out that 59 percent of people going to see a company for the first time decided to buy tickets after seeing it first on television. Fifty-nine percent! So one of our greatest impacts has been in building an audience for live performance."

"Dance in America" also provides a context in which to view a work. "I always assume I am dealing with an audience that is intelligent but not necessarily informed," Kinberg explains. "The show can give information that gives dance a context, which you don't get in the theater, and that's important for bringing new audiences to dance."

Archival value

The cornerstone of the series has been a sense of collaboration with the choreographers. Some of the series have a historical perspective and provide a reference point for the works of choreographers who are no longer alive. Kinberg elaborates, "When you look at the ballets made with Balanchine, he was as involved in the process as we were.... You're seeing it as close as possible to how Balanchine wanted his dances to look, and historically that's very important, since ballet continues to grow and change."

As video became accessible to virtually any choreographer, the show's producers began to be less concerned with archival purposes and more interested in finding works that would benefit from television. "You can take advantage of things like close-ups, which can powerfully communicate things you often miss in a large theater. "

The medium itself is also challenging choreographers to think more inventively about what they do. For next year's "The Wrecker's Ball," Paul Taylor radically reconceived three of his works for TV, framing them within one uniform space.

The program has been instrumental to performers as well as choreographers, both by inspiring many to study dance and by offering documentation of their efforts. Kinberg recalls, "When we screened 'A Renaissance Revisited' a couple of weeks ago at Lincoln Center, many, many dancers came. Lila York (choreographer and former Paul Taylor principal) came up and said, 'Thank you so much. There is my dancing preserved on tape. People can see I was part of this wonderful period of dance.' Of course, it's only an indication of their dancing - it's not definitive, but it's all that's left except what we carry in our memories."

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