THE MORAL of this story is that television conquers all, even the most reluctant of dragons.
Among the major figures of the dance world, many of whom have stubbornly resisted the encroachment of video, the most obstinate has been Jerome Robbins, the celebrated choreographer whose artistic turf extends from the likes of "West Side Story" to "The Goldberg Variations" and other masterworks he's created for the New York City Ballet.
But even his capitulation to TV is now complete, witnessed by the coming 90-minute NBC special this Wednesday evening, "Live From Studio 8H: An Evening With Jerome Robbins," which will present five of his ballets, in whole or in part, as performed by some three dozen members of the New York City Ballet, including nine distinguished principals.
Signs of Robbins' weakening were apparent over a year ago, when he permitted a few of his Chopin dances -- including one newly created for the occasion -- to be included in the historic "Baryshnikov at the White House" taping for public TV. Then, this past February, he allowed the prestigious PBS series, "Dance in America," to record his "Other Dances" as half of the "Two Duets" program aired that month, with Baryshnikov partnering Natalia Makarova.
Both were taped before live audiences prior to broadcast, and the final shows mixed rehearsal footage with takes from the performances. This week's special is Robbins' first "on location" live broadcast -- and for commercial television to boot.
"I'm very happy NBC is taking a slice of prime time for this show," Robbins said in a recent interview, "but there's no question that televising dance is not the same thing as live performance.
"If one is going to have dance on TV -- and I'm all in favor of trying to reach as broad an audience as possible, which is what television can do -- then I much prefer the idea of seeing a live performance as it's happening, rather than something taped in a studio beforehand. It's like a sporting event -- if you know it's live, you keep the thrill and hazard, and the sense that exceptional things may happen that won't be edited out."
What's so striking about Robbins' endorsement of the NBC project is the extent of his concessions to the medium. He's working with producers and a director with whom he's never worked before, and who have had little or no experience with dance (though all three have been heavily involved in music programs).
The program script is being written by Brendan Gill, noted author and New Yorker drama critic. Though he admires Gill's writing, Robbins has never worked previously with him either, and admits to an initial difference over approach which has been smoothed over. Though the dancers will be accompanied by the New York City Ballet Orchestra under the direction of Robert Irving, the audio track will be prerecorded for the actual performance.
New sets for the ballets have been designed specially for the TV presentation. Robbins had something to say about the design, and says he'll probably have some input into the shooting and editing. But he is also aquiescing in the ultimate decision-making prerogatives of the TV production people. "Sure, I'll be involved -- but I'm not a TV technician. I can suggest a camera angle or things of that sort, but Rodney Greenberg is the director of the show."
Robbins says also that even the selection of repertoire wasn't entirely his own. "We worked it out mutually. I don't usually like to excerpt my work, but we are on commercial TV. We're competing with station breaks and commercials, and it's simply not possible to get a really long stretch of time.
"I tried to make the selections convey the spirit of each whole work. And I also tried to pick things I thought would be most interesting for the viewers of NBC -- as opposed to the usual ballet audience -- to see. Most of them have some sort of narrative idea behind them, though I didn't set out with that in mind. It just happened."
For its part, NBC has not only given the choreographer as free a hand as possible but is also building a new dance floor (the old one was concrete) in Studio 8H for this special. Despite the risks and his erstwhile recalcitrance, Robbins seems genuinely optimistic about the whole thing. "I'm very excited about it. I think it's a very brave experiment for NBC -- and for us at the New York City Ballet as well. Both parties should learn a great deal from it."
That kind of optimism was not common in 1975, when the "Dance in America" series got going. A number of dance luminaries of the first rank were initially chary of participation, and had to be sedulously coaxed out of their fears. The first to "fall" was Martha Graham (perhaps the desire to be first had something to do with it), who collaborated with the "Dance America" producers in generating the series' first 90-minute program the first season -- Graham actually rechoreographed some of her work to suit the medium, and created a new opus just for the tube. The followed George Balanchine and shortly thereafter Paul Taylor in the third, 1977-78 season.
These choreographers and others had two major reservations about the televising of dance. One was the dread of collapsing life-size, three-dimensional dance movement onto the small, flat TV screen, with an inevitably resultant distortion of depth, scale and spatial proportion. The other was apprehension over having to relinquish artistic control -- at least in part -- to television directors and technicians who would be responsible for shooting, framing, lighting and editing the final product. Paul Taylor once said that he "wasn't about to just shove my choreography under the door and let them have their way with it." Such fears, and others, were eventually assuaged by convincing the choreogrtaphers that the making of the DIA programs would be a fully collaborative process, in which the wishes of the dance artists would be the paramount factor.
To the above reservations, Jerome Robbins -- who remained unconvinced -- added another: his feeling that the artificial, "canned" atmosphere of a TV studio taping would rob dance performance of life-giving spontaneity.
(In earlier years, Robbins himself had worked with the television medium, directing and choreographing the "Ford 50th Anniversary Show" in 1953, and an Emmy Award-winning adaptation of his own Broadway staging of "Peter Pan" in 1955.)
The NBC show Wednesday night, from 9:30 to 11 on Channel 4 locally, will include excerpts from "Fancy Free," "The Concert" (the "Mistake Waltz" section) and "Dances at a Gathering," as well as all of "Afternoon of a Faun" and "The Cage." The New York City Ballet principals involved are Ib Andersen, Bart Cook, Sean Lavery, Patricia McBride, Helgi Tomasson and Heather Watts. Alvin Cooperman and Judity DePaul are the producers.
The NBC show is probably the most venturesome instance to come along thus far of a commercial network taking a flyer on a serious American choreographer of classical ballet in prime time. Given this circumstance, and Robbins' intrepid "conversion," it's clearer than ever that for better or worse the art of dance is going to have a lot of television in its future.