Watching dance on television can be a risky undertaking. Movement, for all its visceral charms, has a tendency to look flat and diluted on a TV screen. The performers whirl past like so many miniatures, the director opts for confusing cuts and close-ups, and one begins to wonder: "Is that really the masterpiece I bravoed in the theater?"

Choreographer Twyla Tharp is one artist bent on achieving detente between dance and video. For some time now, Tharp has immersed herself in the angles, pans, dissolves and fade-ins of the camera arts, and gone on to create several of the most innovative video dances in the medium's history. Her latest venture, "The Catherine Wheel," which airs tonight from 9 to 10:30 p.m. on Channel 26 as part of PBS' "Dance in America" series, is her most ambitious project to date. Originally an evening-length theater piece, "The Catherine Wheel" has been refashioned specifically for television. Tharp employs a wild assortment of spectacular visual techniques--animation, computer-generated figures, shadow play, reverse action--to aid in the telling of her complex dance epic about nuclear war, the nuclear family and many varieties of violence and upheaval.

Set to an original, thunderous score by David Byrne, the lead singer/composer of the Talking Heads (perhaps the most imaginative new wave band around), the dance grew out of Tharp's fascination with St. Catherine, a 4th-century martyr who was condemned to die on a spiked wheel.

"She wanted to be supranatural," the choreographer explains during an interview at the start of the "Great Performances" broadcast. On screen, St. Catherine appears as a computer-drawn bionic woman who serves a vision of perfection for the dance's central character, The Leader (Sara Rudner), and as a harbinger of overall destruction. The spiked wheel figures prominently as well: in Santo Loquasto's set of ascending and descending iron bars, wheels and spokes; in the way in which the dancers lift and rotate one another; and in the form of yet another recurring image--the pineapple.

Yes, pineapple. It is Tharp's contention that said fruit, cut open and examined from the inside, resembles a spiked wheel. In addition, the pineapple casts a "bomb shadow" and looks like a grenade, making it a first-rate symbol of malevolence and death. Pineapples lurk everywhere in this production--whirling through space in animated form, projected in shadows on a brightly lit backdrop, beaming light rays across the stage as they pass from one hand to another.

The most dastardly pineapple of all wreaks havoc with the lives of a most bizarre family: Mother (Jennifer Way), Father (Tom Rawe), Sister (Katie Glasner), Brother (Raymond Kurshals), Maid (Shelley Washington) and Pet (Christine Uchida). Dressed in layers of thrift shop garments, these characters vie for the possession of the evil fruit, which, once obtained, leads them to twist, kick, punch and grope their collective way through many scenes of stylized incest, violence, greed and other unpleasantness.

Even an artist as intelligent as Tharp cannot adequately capture the horrors of the nuclear age. Bombarded by symbols and cartoonish characters, the viewer suffers from sensory overload. "Take a look!" sings Byrne. "These people are savages!" Yet as the camera veers back and forth between The Leader and her punk chorus and the family's domestic wars, it is difficult to really look, let alone focus on it. Certain scenes possess an undeniable power--a brutal, contorted solo for The Maid comes immediately to mind--but the overall effect is one of exaggeration and chaos.

Two-thirds into the dance, Tharp abandons her narrative, message-making and doom-dealing for "The Golden Section," a dazzling swatch of pure, virtuosic movement. Clad in shimmering, metallic costumes, the company is finally allowed to engage in what it does best--leap, roll, take extreme physical risks, create emotionally charged relationships out of abstract dancing. This truly grand finale, together with Tharp's video techniques and Byrne's spare, wrenching music, make "The Catherine Wheel" worthwhile.