"From China to US, a 90-minute PBS special at 9 tonight on Channel 26 and other public television stations, brings the color, novelty, exotic enchantment and kinetic exhilaration of the Performing Arts Company of the People's Republic of China into American homes - but at a price.
The price is that several of the innumerable thumbs in public broadcasting have interceded in an effort to mitigate and mangle a performance fo music, mime, dance and acrobatics that is otherwise sheer magic. The bungling begins with the time period chosen-too late for many children would enjoy and benefit from the experience. A spokesman for Channel 26 says no repeats of the program at an earlier hour are planned.
Worse, the exuberance and majesty of the performance have been compromised by the usual unnecessary television embellishments which come under the terms "production," "post-production" and "packaging." The program has been busily directed by Brian Large and ove-produced by Cyrus H. Bharucha and Mark Lowry; the creative decisions they made, such as opening with a grab-bag teaser of snippets to snare audiences, are the kind made naively have hoped for something better.
The Chinese performers are sparkling, wizardly and ingenuous, but they are not allowed to reach us directly. Large is the kind of director who repeatedly cuts to a different camera in the middle of a dance step and thereby violates the integrity of the movement, giving viewers a disjointed misrepresentation of what happens onstage. He should get out of television. They should all get out of television.
Ninety minutes is too short a time for this much entertainment, anyway; to prove it, the producers try to capsulize the numbers they omitted in a hasty montage at the end of the program. Of course they could have saved time by eliminating their nagging old old ham of a "host," Alvin Epstein of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. What we never ever need in television, especially public, is a frisky interlocutor materializing after a number to exclaim, "Wasn't that exciting?" or to promise us that this will be "an all-star show."
Barbara Field's gush-prone script also requires that Epstein hail this cultural exchange as a harbinger of peace on earth for all time to come-"the end of a beginning of a beautiful friendship." The political judgment is premature and naive.
The Performing Arts Company was taped last summer in Minneapolis by station KTCA there. After taping was completed, the station went to the lavish expense of sending all the raw material to Los Angeles and post-production at the prestigious Compact Video studios, which can only be rented for a minimum of $325 per hour.
This enabled the director to play with effects and grimmicks that for the most part impede rather than enhance the performance. But he probably had great fun doing it.
For all the thick-headedness that plagues the program,it still amounts to a revelation and a privilege. The 90 minutes begin with a certified humdinger, The Red Ribbon Dance, and continue with an assortment of regional ceremonies, musical numbers and abbreviated pageants. This will be as close and extended a look at the Performing Arts Company as many of us have ever had, and it seems unthinkable not to be impresses and immersed.
"Sure as daylight," and "bold as winter," to pluck two choice silly similes from the script, "The Sacketts," a four-hour NBC Western movie, is a satisfying heap o' nothin'. The film airs in two-hour clumps tonight and tomorrow night at 9 on Channel 4.
The Jim Byrnes screenplay was adapted from two of the 74 novels Louis L'Amour wrote about the old West, and a revisionist visit this definitely is not, though it may qualify as a reactionary revision of revisionism. There's talk of "herd cutters," "sodbusters," "punching cattle" and even a perty "yaller-haired girl" along the cliche trail traveled by the three Sackett brothers - Tyrell, Orrin and Tell, played by likeably grungy Jeff Osterhage, Tom Selleck and Sam Elliott.
As if to emphasize that this trip West will not so much rely on as wallow in Western movie precedents, the cast also includes such affable and mellowing old varmints as Glenn Ford (as "ramrod" Tom Sunday), Ben Johnson, Jack Elam, Gilbert Roland and Slim Pickens. If only Walter Huston could have dropped by to give us a dance. The story seems made up entirely of incidentals, which follow one another along like the obedient cattle, and the wide open spaces are not so much vast stretches of land as vast stretches of film in which nothing happens. And yet the charming old codgers give the work an air of homey respectability, and somehow it's reassuring to hear again such immortal lines as "Don't pay him no nevermind" and "Shut yer mouth boy and draw."
Ford recites Tennyson on the trail and Johnson, from a nearby horse, remarks, "Ain't that perty?" And in some odd way, it is. But perhaps the cagiest scene-stealer of the lot is on hand for only the first 10 minutes or so - Mercedes McCambridge, a sight for sore eyes as old Maw Sackett, who tells her three boys to head west - to go on and git. In "The Sacketts," the gitting is surprisingly, and perhaps inexplicably, good. CAPTION: Picture, "Militiawomen of the Grasslands," a contemporary Mongolian dance