A YOUNG dancer stands on stage, looking out in wonder at ``the prairie.'' She leaps into the air and kicks ecstatically in reaction to the vast terrain. She embraces the land with sweeping gestures. Before your eyes, she turns into the ``appetite for space'' that typifies the American pioneer spirit.
The dancer is the late Martha Graham, seen in an old clip from a dance called ``Frontier.'' It is one of many unforgettable images from an important documentary to be aired on PBS Friday, May 13, a 9 p.m. (check local listings).
``Martha Graham: The Dancer Revealed'' - an edition of ``American Masters'' marking the week of what would have been her 100th birthday - performs one of TV's major tasks: to show the general viewer aspects of cultural history of which they are the beneficiaries, even if unknowingly. No matter how unaware of the dance world viewers may be, they cannot come away from this program without recognizing Graham's role as one of a handful of our generation's most influential artists. If her dance style hasn't already made indelible images in your mind's eye, it will before the program is done. Watching it cannot replace having seen Graham or her successors on stage, but it can go far toward explaining the work and character of a woman whose impact on 20th-century culture is the equal of Picasso's or Stravinsky's.
Before Graham, ``serious'' dance meant ballet from Europe - ladies on their toes and swooping males in tights - or perhaps Ruth St. Denis and Isadora Duncan. Graham transformed the art, cutting a creatively disruptive swath through this pretty world. She found a language of movement that visualized the passion, rage, and ecstasy common to human experience. Her movements were protesting, visceral, lyrical - American yet universal. As Medea, for instance, Graham - seen in a clip - is brilliant and shattering as she writhes in a jealous rage at her faithless husband. Her body appears, almost literally, to be consumed with anguish. ``Every woman is a Medea,'' Graham says in an interview segment.
The show includes reminiscences and a thoughtfully delivered narration by the actor Claire Bloom. Graham's husband and colleague, Erick Hawkins, makes some of his first extended comments about their 12-year relationship. But what you'll remember are the dances, instantly meaningful even to the novice. Graham's physical genius ignites the screen in the show's old and not-so-old footage. Along with photos, they form a haunting visual obbligato to the narrative - a shadowy subtext of straining figures and outstretched arms.
The program correctly stresses the liberating effect of her work, how she introduced freedom of movement and intense personal expressivity that was picked up not just by dancers but by many actors. Yet when she and I spent an afternoon together in New York many years ago, this epoch-maker, this revolutionary, was rather disdainful of some people's notion that dance is pure giving of oneself.
``Dance is not, for me, self-expression,'' she said. ``It is an absolutely disciplined thing. It should be as free as it can be, but to just go out and throw yourself at an audience - no. You can feel like an angel, but if you have no vocabulary, you can go out on stage and fall flat on your face - and you'd deserve to.''
Before we met that day, Graham had told me that she'd be a little late for the interview and that a friend would greet me at the door of her apartment. The woman let me in and I sat with her in the living room for at least half an hour, waiting silently for Graham to arrive. Finally I heard pots rattling in the kitchen and asked, ``Is Miss Graham in there?''
``I am Miss Graham,'' the woman answered. I hadn't recognized her - with her hair wrapped in a towel. We both roared with laughter and spent the rest of the day on cordial terms. She took her art with deadly seriousness, but not always herself.