'Reflecting on the Pioneering Role of 'Great Performances'

For 25 years, PBS's "Great Performances" has been a beacon of artistic light in what many consider the very black hole of prime-time television. While a plethora of sitcoms and shoot'em-ups have come and gone, "Great Performances" has been a consistently compelling and often inspiring venue for excellence in the fine arts, reaching millions of viewers who might not have access to live performances and garnering nearly 50 Emmy Awards in the process.

From the beginning, the driving force behind "Great Performances" has been producer Jac Venza, director of cultural and arts programs for Thirteen/WNET, New York's PBS affiliate. "Great Performances" evolved out of a small dance series Mr. Venza produced in PBS's early days. Expanded to include music and drama, the program transformed the way television related to the performing arts.

Prior to "Great Performances," most ballet dancers or classical musicians on television were just one of the live acts on any number of variety shows. "They had 20 minutes to block their act, then they had to go out and do it in front of a live television audience," Venza remembers.

"Great Performances" took care to treat the performers as valued collaborators. "We gave them a much greater share of the creative transition of their material to television," he explains. "It made a huge impression that they were treated like first-class citizens."

In the first seasons, Leonard Bernstein became the show's unofficial music host, winning the show's first Emmy Awards for "Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic." Other music and dance luminaries quickly jumped on the bandwagon - Beverly Sills, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Joan Sutherland, Luciano Pavarotti.

Over the years, music programming has ranged from the landmark presentation of Wagner's "Ring" cycle to pop and jazz luminaries, such as Liza Minnelli, Miles Davis, and Wynton Marsalis.

For choreographers, the program offered the first concerted opportunity to preserve their work in a way that went beyond a static proscenium presentation. Paul Taylor began to use the camera as a choreographic element, completely changing an audience's perception of his work.

Archivally, programs with dance masters such as George Balanchine and Martha Graham provide invaluable historical insight. "We did these programs when they were alive," Venza says proudly. "They are records of evidence showing how they really wanted their dancers to move."

In drama, Sir Laurence Olivier, Meryl Streep, Michelle Pfeiffer, Kenneth Branagh, Robin Williams, and Kevin Kline are just a few of the performers who have brought their talents to the small screen. Playwrights whose works have come to life on the show range from Shakespeare to Wendy Wasserstein.

The show has also focused on the process of making new works, especially in music theater, where TV rights to complete shows take years to become available. For example, the recent "Creating Ragtime" gave a sneak peek behind the scenes of one of the hottest shows now on Broadway.

Venza is credited with keeping the show on the air through numerous funding crises and changing regimes, though the show is down to 18 performances a year from a peak of 35.

Coming highlights include an American Ballet Theatre gala (May 27), created especially for the television series; next season's "Hymn: Remembering Alvin Ailey," a commission partnering Judith Jamison, Anna Deavere Smith, and Orlando Bagwell; and three one-act operas commissioned for the New York City Opera (probably for 2000).

* Fans of the show shouldn't miss Bay Books' newly released 'Great Performances: A Celebration' ($24.95), a lavish tribute and chronicle of the program's impact.

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