From his ballets to his Broadway musicals, Jerome Robbins has revealed a genius for creating hybrid dance vocabularies that abstract the essence of a given milieu--real or imaginary.
Thus on the PBS "Dance in America" series tonight (8 p.m. on Channel 24; 9 on Channels 28 and 15), two Robbins ballets choreographed 40 years apart depend equally on his brilliant transformation of demi-caractere conventions for purposes of atmospheric group portraiture.
Taped last year in performances by New York City Ballet at Lincoln Center, the hourlong telecast couples Robbins' first, most familiar ballet, "Fancy Free" (to music by Bernstein), with a recent novelty: "Antique Epigraphs" (to Debussy).
Dominated by exuberant sailors and punchy pop-dance elements, "Fancy Free" is just as male in orientation as the intimate, lyric "Antique Epigraphs" is female. Yet, curiously, the former ballet belongs as much to women dancers as the latter in these performances.
Compared to their far more assured counterparts in the Dance Theatre of Harlem staging, the bland NYCB sailors (Kipling Houston, Jean-Pierre Frohlich and the late Joseph Duell) look uncomfortable switching between mime and dance, between classical and jitterbug steps, between dance-as-characterization and dance-as-display.
But, despite their limited opportunities, Lourdes Lopez, Stephanie Saland and Florence Fitzgerald strongly anchor the ballet in its proper era and sensibility.
Inspired by ancient sculpture, "Antique Epigraphs" exploits frieze-like lineups and archaic profile positions for eight women, sustaining a supple muscularity and a moonstruck mood.
Saland and Kyra Nichols are remarkable in solos contrasting tense, hieratic, Grecian-urn poses with passages demanding mercurial fluidity and refined classical technique. In less prominent roles, Maria Calegari and Simone Schumacher grace the intricate interplay with a capable mini-corps.
For once, TV actually enhances theater choreography. If Robbins fashioned flattened dance-reliefs, director Emile Ardolino frames the cast against a blue background in a way that makes the whole ballet look frescoed on the picture tube.