For years, "Great Performances" has been the most staid of the staid PBS shows, rarely venturing beyond the traditional canon of the higher arts as it brought opera, ballet and stage productions to television.
But no more. Tonight at 9 o'clock on Maryland Public Broadcasting, channels 22 and 67, this series presents an hour on dance, not of the Bolshoi and Kirov, but of M.C. Hammer and Paula Abdul. "Everybody Dance Now" is a stirring tribute to the real stars of music videos, the dancers.
But this is not some cheap, exploitative sellout to popular taste. No, this documentary, produced by Margaret Selby and written by Jennifer Dunn, is an insightful exploration of popular culture.
As it celebrates the fact that an exciting, energetic, infectious form of dance has arisen from the streets and become a major choreographic force, it helps you to understand where that dance came from so that you will look at music videos with more appreciative, sophisticated eyes.
That's not to say that "Everybody Dance Now" digresses into a didactic diatribe about the differences between hip-hop and popping, or vogueing and breaking. Oh, you might pick up some of that stuff if you listen, but that's not the point. The point is that these people sure can dance even if they're not doing it at the Kennedy Center or on Broadway.
The hour begins with a brief historical overview, mainly from author/critic Nelson George, which demonstrates that among its many innovations, rock 'n' roll brought in a new phenomenon -- singers who were also expected to dance.
Whether it was Elvis' swinging hips or the Motown groups' smooth moves, rock performers broke down the barriers between singers and dancers. Nightclub acts had done it before, but no one expected a Frank Sinatra to be strutting his stuff the way Mick Jagger would a couple of decades later.
Not surprisingly, the roots of the current dance styles are traced to the godfather of soul, James Brown, whose gritty, improvisational moves presaged the street break dancers of the 1970s.
"Everybody Dance Now" showcases the behind-the-scenes *T types who have helped shape current dance, from Cholly Atkins, who choreographed many of the Motown routines in the '60s, and Michael Kidd, of "Guys and Dolls" fame, who was hired by Janet Jackson for a recent video, to Michael Peters, who changed the face of music videos with his choreography of Michael Jackson's "Beat It," and Rosie Perez, the choreographer for "In Living Color" who stumbled onto a new style of dancing as she tried to combine her street moves with the classic training of the show's Fly Girls.
Martin Scorsese talks about directing Michael Jackson's "Bad," and the film that accompanies his commentary lets you un
derstand and appreciate the role of a director. When M.C. Hammer talks about the necessity of being involved in the editing process, you can see in the video the importance of how the film is cut.
Atkins complains that too many of the videos just show snippets of the dance, don't let you see the whole moves, and that's evident in some of Paula Abdul's videos.
Throughout the hour, "Everybody Dance Now" lets you appreciate the immense talent of all these underappreciated background dancers in the videos. As one dancer-turned-choreographer notes, they often have to work in far from ideal conditions, on cement or concrete, in rain or smoke or whatever else the director thinks will make the video look good, all for little pay and no recognition.
But next time you see a Janet Jackson video, notice how the background dancers are much better than the star. Same for Madonna. M.C. Hammer can clearly dance, and, of course, so can Michael Jackson. Indeed, he's so electrifying it's hard to pay attention to the extras.
The superb talent of the video dancers makes it more and more difficult for live performances to match the audiences' expectations. Singing while performing some of this difficult choreography becomes extremely difficult, if not impossible.
The result is pre-recorded music, lip-synched, as is thought to be the case during Madonna's last tour. Or, ultimately, simply a couple of dancers faking it while someone else does the singing, like Milli Vanilli.
Ironically, then, the increased emphasis on dance that has arisen from music videos may make it impossible for rock stars to do both, to sing and dance, putting up a wall between the music and the dancer that rock music was originally responsible for tearing down.