Choreographer Alwin Nikolais, 74, was awarded a National Medal of Arts by President Reagan last month. "Nik and Murray," airing on Channel 26 at 9 tonight in the PBS "American Masters" series, is a program about Nikolais and his longtime dance colleague and friend, Murray Louis.

The pity is that the 60-minute show by filmmaker Christian Blackwood is hardly likely to engage the interest of anyone not already familiar with Louis and Nikolais. Indeed, it could well send one scurrying across the dial in search of something less meandering and artsy.

The pity's all the greater because this is the first time the "American Masters" series -- purportedly concerned with "the creative arts" -- has turned its attention toward dance. It's a strangely self-defeating way of getting into the subject.

Despite the recent national award and other high honors, Nikolais isn't exactly a household name. A classic case of an American artist more devotedly appreciated abroad than in his own country, he's done much of his work during the past decade overseas, especially in France, where he's long been held in particularly high esteem.

The dance public in Washington can be excused for being largely ignorant of Nikolais' contributions -- his company hasn't been presented here in at least a decade, though in earlier times the troupe was a regular annual visitor.

Artistic fashions come and go and Nikolais has been out of vogue for a while now. Still, he's a true original, and one of the seminal figures of American modern dance. Starting in the early '50s, Nikolais established a theater of marvels, conjuring fantastic, futuristic visions from a matrix of dancing, electronic music, costumes, props and lighting, all of his own devising. Though the technology was often primitive by today's standards, many of the illusionistic effects of today's sci-fi movies or music videos look humdrum beside those of Nikolais' dances or film-dances (he was a pioneer in this realm, too, often in collaboration with cinematographer Ed Emshwiller).

One of the major defects of "Nik and Murray" is that it conveys so little sense of Nikolais' imaginative daring and brilliance. No one work is shown in its entirety, and the excerpts are fragmentary and in some cases indifferently photographed. As a consequence, a viewer is apt to come away with only the vaguest idea of Nikolais' artistic stature and historic importance.

The series is called "American Masters," but the program doesn't help us to understand what's distinctively American about Nikolais and Louis, or, for that matter, what makes them masters. Louis, a generation younger than Nikolais and most notable as an extraordinary performer, was the latter's prote'ge' and for many years the leading dancer of Nikolais' troupe. Later, Louis also began to choreograph and eventually formed his own independent company. Blackwood apparently wanted to make a film about the two of them that would focus as much on their personal relationship -- they've lived and worked together for decades -- as on their art, but the result falls short in both respects. The desultory visual style doesn't add to the attractiveness, nor does the intermittent posing of questions by an off-screen voice (presumably belonging to Blackwood) in a barely intelligible undertone -- it's almost as if Nikolais were being interrogated by a keeper or guard.

Trying to combine video portraiture or biography with artistic appreciation is no easy task, but there have to be better ways than this.