The chances are that more and more of the dance we'll see in the next decade will be on television.
There is an alarming economic squeeze on live production. Meanwhile, there is an increasing appetite of television (in all its forms) for diversionary program material. Thus the tube would seem to be an ever more logical outlet for dance performances.
It is all the more important, then, to nourish awareness of the effects -- both adverse and advantageous -- the transcribing medium can have upon choreographic art.
The problems are much to the point now as -- over the past few weeks and in coming ones -- TV is treating us to a mini-orgy of dance programs. Already broadcast have been a repeat of Dick Cavett's two-part session with hoofer Honi Coles and his confreres from the Copasetics, and a pair of specials with WNET/13 on Fred Astaire. Tonight, WNET/13 airs a "Gala of Stars" taped last month at the Metropolitan Opera House and hosted by Beverly Sills -- among those involved will be ballet luminaries Alexander Godunov, Natalia Makarova and Peter Martins. On two successive Friday evenings starting this week, Channel 26 will show a pair of Camera Three shows produced in conjunction with the American Dance Machine ensemble, highlighting the work of Paul Draper in the first and popular dance forms in the second, entitled "From the Ballroom to Broadway and Back."
The only contribution from commercial sources during this period was the brief, wretchedly produced duet performed by Alexander Godunov and Cynthia Gregory as one of the "acts" on NBC's new "The Big Show" a few weeks back.Incidentally -- though perhaps not entirely coincidentally -- this week will also see the premiere locally of the Herbert Ross film, "Nijinsky."
Note that most of these programs deal with vernacular dance, perhaps a straw in gathering winds. The resurgence of tap dance, the fluorishing of dance musicals and the fad for big bands would seem to be focusing the spotlight in this direction for a while to come. Note too that with a few exceptions these programs are essentially "documentaries," recording, transmitting and to one extent or another "explaining" historical dance phenomena.
What is striking on seeing all of them in a row is that within their diversity of content and approach, these programs display a veritable lexicon of the uses, misuses and abuses of video in treating dance.
The two programs on Fred Astaire had built-in insurance from the start -- how wrong can you go when you're showing mainly prime clips from the film career of the incomparable Fred? In 1973, the Lincoln Center Film Society honored Astaire with superb, one-night-only screening of 30 choice Astaire dance numbers, each complete, from the roughly 200 he did in movies. Ever since, dance fans, film fans and the still more broadly inclusive band of Astaire devotees have been hoping means could be found to capture a similar survey in more permanent, disseminable form.
That's more or less what these two programs accomplish -- the first, "Puttin' on His Top Hat," for the years of Ginger Rogers partnership, the second, "Change Partners and Dance," for the ensuing ear -- and whatever the present restrictions may be on repeat airings, they are "in the can" for good, to be seen by potential future millions. Moreover, though there are fewer numbers than in the Lincoln Center tribute, can though not all are shown complete, and though one may rue certain omissions -- nothing, for instance, from "Easter Parade" (with Judy Garland) and nothing from "The Band Wagon" (with Cyd Charisse) -- the air time was necessarily limited (60 minutes for each show) and one can hardly quibble with such generally excellent excerpting.
The ancillary aspects of the shows, however -- the narration and commentaries -- are less satisfying.
Here was a chance to shed some real light on the secrets of Astaire's mastery -- of choreography, of dancing, of conveying dance on film -- but instead what we get is an excess of encominiums and a minimum of enlightenment. iIt's wonderful to hear Rudolf Nureyev telling us that Astaire was "the greatest dancer in American history" and Jerome Robbins saying that "he infused our souls with the visions that he made," but it would have been still more wonderful if the commentaries had dwelt more often on the specific qualities that constituted Astaire's genius.
It's true that we're given a fair notion of Astaire's cinematic methods -- the single-take whole-figure approach that eschewed needless cuts and avoided fracturing closeups. But in one crucial case, the commentary itself becomes obtrusive, breaking into the flow of the most sublime of Astaire-Rogers duets, the little Depression playlet they enact with the effect of a Liebestod to Irving Berlin's "Let's Face the Music and Dance," in "Follow the Fleet."
In any case, there's scarcely any attempt to answer such natural and obvious questions as what it was about the two of them that made the Astaire-Rogers partnership so special.
What turns out to be highly instructive, however, is seeing the Astaire clips against the background of the shows on Honi Coles and the black hoofers, on Paul Draper -- who cultivatated an entirely different sort of fusion of tap with classical dancing from Astaire -- and on popular dancing in the second American Dance Machine-Camera Three program. Astaire's achievement, in both dance and film, becomes all the more awesome from the perspective offered by these comparisons. One sees at a glance, as it were, how thoroughly Astaire differed from the hoofers, whose art he assimilated and transmuted; from other innovators like Draper, whose premise was basically balletic; and from the common run of ballroom virtuosos, who are like him only in the sense that a speedboat is like a schooner.
It becomes apparent, too, that the unique amalgam Astaire created from jazz tap footwork and rhythm, from ballrom steps and floor patterns, from mime and from balletic lyricism and elegance of carriage, exists solely on and through the film medium. Nothing like it was ever seen on any stage or can be, and even the allied medium of television can't do it justice -- as great a number as the "Bojangles of Harlem" solo from "Swing Time" is halved in impact by the diminished scale of TV, and the loss of the dream aura of a darkened movie house. In short, Astaire fabricated a wholly individual, unduplicatable genre of dance or, more accurately, of "cinedance," at least in the great routines of the first half of his career.
Cavett's two shows with Honi Coles and the Copasetics are well worth repeated viewings. Cavett manages to be "educational," getting the hoofers to illustrate such tap rudiments as timesteps and wings, without ever slowing the stream of comical banter at which his guests are as adept as he.
The programs also catch much of the personal warmth of the dancers, their feeling for the tradition they represent and the seesaw swings of their careers as outsiders in a white man's entertainments world.
The Camera Three segments, however, are almost disastrously ineffectual, given the richness of the subject matter they tackle. If one knows nothing about Paul Draper to start, one won't come out much the wiser after the first program's choppy, poorly shot half-hour, which spends most of his time showing us the 70-year-old dancer leading classes with the American Dance Machine ensemble, with singularly unilluminating commentary by Lee Theodore, the group's founder-director. The most compelling part is the finale, the rehearsal of a three-movement composition choreographed by Draper for the ADM, but a cramped studio and jumpy camerawork hardly facilitate appreciation.
Far more seriously flawed is the "From the Ballroom to Broadway and Back" program, which purports to demonstrate the connections between popular, social and ballroom forms on the one hand, and dancing in stage musicals on the other. In fact it does no such thing. The illustrations come mainly from three not particularly distinguised "dance teams," couples who do exhibition numbers, whose connection with social dancing is only vaguely explicated, and with musicals not at all. Though we're shown some specific steps -- the tango and the charleston, for example -- we get no hint of their origins or the era they typify, and as for Broadway, there's not a single dance from a specific musical on the entire confusingly organized program.
On the television horizon for coming months are a showing of "No Maps on My Taps," a reportedly excellent film on the lives and arts of black hoofers (scheduled for late April); a six-part series hosted by Dame Morgot Fonteyn called "The Magic of Dance," produced by the BBC and surveying high points in Western theatrical dance history; a Mikhail Baryshnikov-Liza Minnelli special on one of the commercial networks; and two more installments of "Dance in America," featuring the legacy of Katherine Dunham and the contemporary American avant-garde. It's this latter series, now in its fifth year with the help of funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and Exxon, that has given us all the most intelligent, insightful and artistically rewarding examples of dance via TV in recent years. It will be interesting to observe how nearly these other and future attempts approximate the high standards "Dance in America" has set.