PBS leads viewers down unusual paths

Experimental video and performance art have been getting a lot of press lately, and audiences have been growing. So it's not surprising to see television plugging into the trend, with some success. The weekly PBS series Alive From Off Center is entering its second season with a varied selection of offbeat programming. Much of it involves collaborations between video artists and progressive performers from the worlds of music, dance, and theater. (The season premi`ere airs Monday, June 30, at 10 p.m. EDT, but viewers should check local listings.)

Is a show like ``Alive From Off Center'' up your alley? If you aren't sure, the first entry in the series should let you know, since it's a sampler of the video-art form. It starts with a brief fantasy called ``Luminare,'' by John Sanborn and Dean Winkler, a couple of computer-art wizards. Although one portion seems to involve a guided tour of a stylized museum, most of the action is abstract and allusive -- dealing in pure form and motion, without a story or characters (in a traditional sense, at least) for the spectator to latch onto.

This isn't what most TV viewers are used to, but it's really no more radical than a piece of music with no lyrics or ``program'' to explain the composer's thoughts. ``Luminare'' is visual music, as rhythmic and harmonious as a song, and perfectly matched with a pulsing ``minimalist'' score by Daniel Lentz.

Next comes a short and ingenious work by Doug Hall, a video artist with strong political interests. As the sole performer in ``These Are the Rules,'' he stands in a cavernous room and tells us what ``the rules'' are -- examples being ``Take a shower at least once a day'' and ``Don't talk with your mouth full of food,'' among others. His instructions are punctuated with shots of a gloved fist hitting a table. This chilling and sardonic commentary on social indoctrination is inexplicably introduced as a ``comedy'' by host Susan Stamberg.

It's followed by a real comedy, though: ``The Sound of Defiance,'' in which Teddy Dibble turns a single word into a scathing satire of self-important TV dramatics. The program then draws to a close with an anticlimactic work called ``Jump,'' a ``hysterical bourr'ee'' choreographed by Phillipe Decoufl'e and directed by Charles Atlas, a former Merce Cunningham associate.

``Alive From Off Center'' takes a different tack in Program No. 2, presenting a single work: ``Sister Suzie Cinema,'' billed as a ``doo-wop opera,'' by Lee Breuer, who wrote the extended poem that serves as a script.

The subjects of this nostalgic flight are movies and music, which come gently together in images of a rock group harmonizing in a vast, empty theater and later singing on the wing of a high-flying airplane. The mood is delicate and romantic. Yet the work has a serious dimension, too, representing a significant step in Breuer's ongoing attempt to fuse aspects of black ``popular'' culture (like doo-wop) and white ``traditional'' culture (like cinema) into a new and eloquent whole. Captured on video by John Sanborn, the show works as well on TV as it did on the New York stage. The music, by Bob Telson, is sung by the 14-Karat Soul quintet.

The next ``Alive'' program features several perform ers associated with the Brooklyn Academy of Music's celebrated ``Next Wave'' series. ``Rotary Action'' is a dance that explores the working relationship of Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane, as they perform their choreography to music by Peter Gordon and his rollicking Love of Life Orchestra. ``Fire, Light, Sticks'' is an elegant juggling act by Michael Moschen, accompanied by David van Tieghem's electronic music. In the TV version directed by Skip Blumberg, this routine works better than it did on stage, since video improves the visibility of an all-important prop (a crystal ball) and enhances the effect of burning torches swirling through the air.

Later installments of ``Alive From Off Center'' promise all sorts of experiences. Among them are ``Mt. Fuji,'' by Ko Hakajima of Japan, with striking juxtapositions of two- and three-dimensional planes; ``Hyster Pulsatu,'' by Jaap Drupsteen of the Netherlands, a quirky pastiche of music, mime, and computer effects; and specially produced works by humorist William Wegman, filmmaker Jonathan Demme, dancer Trisha Brown, and multimedia artist Laurie Anderson.

It's encouraging to see the resources of PBS put at the service of such unusual artists, even if the works chosen for broadcast tend to be a bit on the tame side. It's also good to see audiences responding with enough interest to launch ``Alive From Off Center'' into its second season -- especially at a time when video art's cinematic cousin, so-called experimental film, is suffering from an appalling lack of attention and understanding. Here's hoping the show stays alive for a long time to come, and finds the boldness to move ever further from the ``center'' that conventional TV already monopolizes.

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