Public television's much-esteemed "Dance in America" series has broken through to a new level of achievement with its latest endeavor, a 90-minute tribute to the legendary Vaslav Nijinky featuring dancer Rudolf Nureyev and the Joffrey Ballet, which airs locally on Channel 26 tonight at 8.

The program accomplishes what Herbert Ross' feature film, "Nijinsky," tried but failed to do -- it evokes a real sense of Nijinsky as man, artist and legend, without resort to the bathetic fictions that so marred the movie. At the same time, the "Dance in America" show gives us complete, authentic and artistically conscientious performances of three major Nijinski vehicles: "Petrouchka," "Le Spectre de la Rose" and "L'Apres-midi d'un Faune." Perhaps most importantly, the production demonstrates resoundingly how effective television can be as a conveying medium for dance, given the proper means, resources, expertise and artistic imagination.

Dance on TV as we have mostly known it in the past has always seemed a compromise of one degree or another. It remains true, of course, that there are some features of live performance that video, by its very nature as a miniaturized, electronic, two-dimensional medium, has no way of compensating for -- the vibrancy of live dancing, the scale and magic of theater, the perception of volume and depth, among others. The triumph of this most recent "Dance in America" effort lies not only in the success with which it disguises such inherent limitations, but also in making the advantages of video work toward the enhancement of the dance experience -- the program allows us to see aspects of the dancing and choreography that no stage performance could bring to our eyes.

The program format is wonderfully effective in blending documentary material, commentary and performance into a coherent whole, without the jumpy, fragmented feeling that has sometimes blemished similar attempts of the past. Nureyev himself is the principal on-screen commentator, an ideal choice, since we get the benefits not only of his personal empathy with Nijinsky and his roles, but also his uniquely pungent dance intelligence. The background narration by Dale Harris is admirably pithy and accurate, and the supplementary records of Nijinsky's career, including celebrated photographs, films, caricatures and quotations (from e.g., Stravinsky, Cocteau, Rodin and others), along with Paul Jacobs' fine piano backdrop, help to weave a vivid portrait of the great virtuoso and his brilliant tragic career.

Using the most up-to-date video recording, lighting and editing techniques, the "Dance in America" producers give us an exceptionally compelling version of Fokine's "Petrouchka," not only in the bustle, swirl and color of the crowd scenes, but in the more intimate sections which reveal for us the acrid pathos of the clown-protagonist. "Spectre" is filmed in a simpler, more conventional style, as befits its vignette form, but here too the sense of atmosphere and subtle visual detail is outstanding. Nureyev's performance in "Petrouchka" is the more convincing, not only by reason of his own affinity with the part, but also because Christian Holder, Denise Jackson and especially Gary Chryst (as the Old Showman) lend him sensitive assistance in the other principal roles; in "Spectre," however, Jackson lacks the fey delicacy the part of the dreaming girl calls for.

Nureyev's most extraordinary portrayal, however -- and the program's high point in performance -- comes with "The Afternoon of a Faun," which persuades us not only of Nureyev's sublimely insightful interpretive powers, but also of Nijinsky's still astonishing originality as a choreographer.

The Nijinsky tribute also shows "Dance in America's" teamwork of the first order; among the many who share credit, particular mention must go to Robert Joffrey. "Dance in America" director Emile Ardolino, video editor Girish Bhargave, and lighting and art director Ralph Holmes, whose reconstruction of the Bakst designs for "Faun" cannot be too highly praised.

As a postscript, viewers should take note that at 11:15 tonight, Channel 26 will also be showing a documentary from Sweden on Nijinsky's life which contains, among other things, an exceedingly rare filmed interview with the dancer's widow, Romola, as well as previously unseen materials from her private memorabilia.