"Baryshnikov by Tharp, With American Ballet Theatre" is the rather arch title of the 60-minute public TV special that opens this year's "Dance in America" series at 9 tonight on Channel 26. In ballet, the names don't come bigger than Tharp and Baryshnikov, and the program finds them at the pinnacle of their careers, proving all over again the potency of their individual talents as well as the interpersonal chemistry that has increasingly enhanced their collaborations.
It's worth noting that these two are among the very few from the dance world who have made a genuine dent in the mass media. Baryshnikov, 36, artistic director and preeminent dancer of American Ballet Theatre, who's been featured in a number of network TV specials and the film "The Turning Point," is now finishing up a second Hollywood production, in which he costars with tap-dancer Gregory Hines. Tharp, 42, who's concocted several distinctive TV projects before this and has appeared with her own troupe on Broadway, choreographed the movie version of "Hair" in 1978, as well as the current attraction, "Amadeus."
They started from different, perhaps opposite, points, but their meeting in the middle has proven extremely fruitful for both. Baryshnikov fled westward from a burgeoning career in the Soviet Union's Kirov Ballet to become the foremost ballet dancer -- male or female -- of our times. Tharp began as an austere radical on the modern dance fringe and has ended up being asked to choreograph for the two colossi of American classical ballet -- ABT and the New York City Ballet.
*At bottom it's Tharp's success in revivifying classical dance, in giving it a contemporary American feel -- the way de Mille, Robbins and Balanchine did in periods past -- that's thrust her into the ballet limelight and matched her inevitably with the greatest living classical dancer.
It's been a two-way street, obviously. Baryshnikov has afforded Tharp the chance to work with unlimited technique and expressive flexibility, and he's also helped magnify her fame. On her part, Tharp has divined, in ways no other choreographer has equaled, the special genius of Baryshnikov's dancing -- she's taken all that virtuosic potential and found new forms worthy of its power. She's also brought forward the latent "Americanisms" in Baryshnikov's makeup -- his wit, his love for American pop culture, the inherent mixture in his personality of wide-eyed puppy, earnest, ardent romantic and smart aleck.
An air of chic smartiness, in fact, hovers around "Baryshnikov by Tharp" all the way through, threatening at moments to edge over into a cutesy affectation that is the program's least likable trait. There are, however, compensatory virtues by the dozen -- in the dancing, the choreography, and not least in videographic imagination. Tharp both codirected the program (with Don Mischer, who did "Motown 25," among other things), and coscripted it (with Peter Elbling).
The Tharpian touch is evident from the beginning -- this is more of a "show" than any "Dance in America" segment of the past. The first thing we see is Baryshnikov -- in sweater and slacks -- sitting on a giant letter A, like a child's toy block. He hops briskly down and declares, "A is for arabesque," demonstrating the position simultaneously. Thus commences the alphabetical conceit that serves as framing device for the whole program. The first letter, Baryshnikov tells us, stands also for attitude, assemble and, "most important of all, a lot of fun!"
Three Tharp ballets centering on Baryshnikov are performed -- the recent "The Little Ballet" (music by Glazunov) and "Sinatra Suite" and the older (1976) ABT staple "Push Comes to Shove" (music by Joseph Lamb and Haydn). Each is given a TV face lift, so to speak. The most purely classical, "The Little Ballet," gets a rosy background, flickering candles and some chiffon and garlands to point up its dreamlike quality, and the shooting and cutting make it seem more of a projection of Baryshnikov's fancy than ever -- a contemporary figure adrift in a 19th-century reverie. In "Sinatra Suite," Baryshnikov's hair is slicked back to accent the Cagney resemblance, and in the apache number, "That's Life," he chomps away at a stick of gum while tossing partner Elaine Kudo around like a rag doll. The bowler hat in "Push Comes to Shove" that's the focus of so much vaudeville business is beige, for some reason, rather than black as on stage, and audience laughter -- virtually indispensable to the ballet's comic effect -- invades the audio track.
"Push" is the least effective, because of its size and spread -- the complex ensembles of the second and last movement look chaotic on TV -- and "Sinatra Suite," essentially a duet and the strongest ballet of the three, comes off best. Baryshnikov gets some splendid help from other dancers, most particularly Kudo, but also Deirdre Carberry, Susan Jaffe and Robert La Fosse. Ultimately, though, this is a dazzling testimonial to the matchless purity, speed, and voltage of Baryshnikov, and you miss it at your peril.