"The Magic Dance" -- it's a seductive title, and it applies, albeit with many qualifications, to the new television series under this rubric that begins airing tonight on public television (9 to 10 p.m. on Channel 26). Dame Margot Fonteyn is the series host, the on-screen narrator, an occasional performing participant (on prerecorded film) and in some respects, the main attraction. At 63, the renowned British ballerina -- long since assured a place in ballet's eternal hall of fame -- no longer dances, but her beauty and charisma remain undimmed.
As a series of six hour-long segments covering a wide spectrum of dance phenomena, the BBC-produced program is one of the most ambitious dance projects ever to hit the screen, but it's also essentially coffee-table TV--long on star cameos, pictorial variety and chatty, entertaining commentary, but short on durable substance, insight, and memorable performances, at least in this first hour. The book of the same name by Dame Margot is also a coffee-table affair, but more expansive and penetrating by far than the necessarily compressed TV equivalent. Actually, the TV series came first, in 1979, and the book grew out of it, directly afterward. Both seem aimed at an audience of novice enthusiasts, for the most part, though the book has gems to interest even the specialist. On TV, "The Magic of Dance" appears to be seeking a lower common denominator, and the time compression factor gives the first installment a spotty, desultory feeling.
Fonteyn is quick to point out in her opening remarks that the series is not intended as a history of dance, but rather a series of personal reflections. Indeed, despite the breadth of material, a more accurate title would have been "The Magic of Ballet," for that, inevitably, is where Dame Margot's focus rests. It's a nice touch to open with Dame Margot revisiting Shanghai, where she spent a number of her youthful years with her family, and to indicate from the start -- with footage of modern-day Chinese doing their daily tai chi in the streets -- that the universe of dance reaches far beyond the conventional borders of Western classical ballet. But thereafter the references to other realms -- social dance, folk dance, popular dance, ethnic dance, and so on -- tend to be perfunctory or superficial or both.
And as history, the program is not infrequently murky or misleading. In one instance, Dame Margot helps perpetuate the ill-begotten myth that Fred Astaire was somehow the culmination of the jazz tap genre; she even says she thinks of jazz dancing as "the true American national dancing," without acknowledging the seminal and immense role played by American blacks in the gestation and development of the form. To illustrate jazz tap, she calls upon Sammy Davis Jr., to be sure, a well-known figure, but scarcely in the league of the great jazz tap artists -- someone like Honi Coles, who happens to be extremely articulate on the subject as well as a genuine master, would have served the purpose more effectively.
Among the opening hour's other dance illustrations, only a few seem adequate to the functions they're supposed to fulfill. Natalia Makarova dancing the Adagio from Act II of "Swan Lake," with Michel Denard as her rather blank partner, provides a wonderfully fluid, eloquent and stylistically matchless example of 19th-century imperial classicism at its height. Rudolph Nureyev, filmed at age 26 in 1964 in his thrilling prime, partnering a rejuvenated Fonteyn in the "Corsaire" pas de deux, shows us indeed the brilliance, virtuosity and pagan rapture that were to transform the Western image of the male ballet dancer -- which is one of Fonteyn's major themes in this first program. The brief excerpt from the Russian film of "Romeo and Juliet" with Ulanova also marks moments of greatness.
But the remaining examples are thin stuff -- a mediocre Roland Petit number in tribute to Astaire, in place of a clip from an Astaire film; Sammy Davis Jr.'s routine tap bits; a beautifully danced but choreographically thin piece called "The Greatest," to exemplify the vitality of the Dance Theatre of Harlem; Nureyev going expressionist in Glen Tetley's pretentious "Pierrot Lunaire"; and the pas de deux from "The Sleeping Beauty," with Nureyev, who is excellent, partnering Lynn Seymour, a first-rate dancer who looks leaden in this excerpt. Aurora in "Sleeping Beauty" was perhaps the most magical of Fonteyn vehicles; why an older film of her in this role wasn't used in this spot defies understanding.
Since the dance illustrations come from varying sources, some newly minted and others from various archives, the film quality and expertise is uneven. There are some splendid moments in the interview passages, as when Nureyev, asked about his parents' attitude toward his desire to dance as a child, exclaims: "Gosh, I was beaten for it -- for going to dance class." In segments to follow, an impressive list of dance notables will make appearances, including, for example, Mikhail Baryshnikov partnering Dame Margot in "Spectre de la Rose" (program No. 3), as well as input from such ballet luminaries as Ivan Nagy, Kyra Nijinsky (daughter of Vaslav) and the late Dame Marie Rambert. Patricia Foy produced and directed the series.