With Honors

On the forge that is 'Juilliard,' PBS show us young talent being steeled for the life of performers.

TV Previews

January 29, 2003|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

A documentary does not have to be flawless to be moving, wise and well worth your time. Juilliard, an inspired exploration of America's premier performing arts institution from PBS' American Masters series, is a case in point.

Part love song to great teaching, and part backstage look at an educational rite of passage to the American stage, Juilliard sounds notes too seldom heard these days as it celebrates excellence, discipline and moments of artistic transcendence from classroom to the concert hall.

Filmmaker Maro Chermayeff skillfully combines interviews from teachers and graduates who form a virtual who's who of American performing arts with intimate and revealing images of life inside the trenches at Juilliard. The result: moments in which you become so lost in the anecdotes or performances that you forget you are watching a film.

You will see a young dancer, Abdur-Rahim Jackson, in the rehearsal hall. Even in this drab setting, his muscular grace and majesty seem to jump off the screen, leaving you breathless. Then you hear the head of the dance faculty question whether Jackson will graduate; he and others on the faculty are skeptical of Jackson's commitment. "We keep asking them for total investment of self," says instructor Benjamin Harkarvy. "And I think that is what eventually produces the performer who is deeply moving."

You hear Jackson in an interview saying there are days that he just doesn't feel like dancing.

I won't tell you how Jackson's story ends.

You'll also meet a young pianist, Elizabeth Morgan, whose achingly sweet touch at the keyboard will one day make audiences weep. Singer Sarah Wolfson's voice is sublime, but you wonder whether she has the inner steel that it takes to have a career like that of Juilliard graduate Leontyne Price.

Price is here in an interview, saying, "You come to understand, at Juilliard, your own talent."

Actress Patti LuPone is here to say talent is not enough: "You can have all the talent in the world, but I think it takes more than talent to survive a training at Juilliard and then maintain a career."

Chermayeff is honest enough to allow for different opinions rather than straight-jacketing all her words and pictures into a neat and false little package of easily understood ideas and themes. Juilliard challenges you to draw some conclusions on your own - as on the matter of race.

The film rightfully extols the excellence in performance for which Juilliard stands. But, historically, the standards by which that excellence has been judged have been based in European culture. You will hear an African-American graduate describe being cast in servant roles in theater productions - never romantic leads - during her years in the program. Her words are echoed by others.

But you'll also see faculty member Wynton Marsalis teach an African-American student how to "find" his voice on his instrument. It's marvelous, and you can feel the student's excitement as he strains to understand and then lock every precious word from Marsalis into his memory.

So, what's not to like about Juilliard?

Too much airtime is given to former students who have become television and film stars even when they have nothing to say. Val Kilmer, Bradley Whitford and, most of all, Kelsey Grammer, are here for the viewers they might attract not for any wisdom they have to impart. It's a compromise I wish Chermayeff had not made.

The filmmaker also from time to time loses the narrative thread of following a group of students through their time at Juilliard. The rich history with which she is working overwhelms her as a storyteller.

Still, Juilliard is a wonderful film, and a marvelous counterpoint to a vastly different vision of how one gets to be a great success as an American performer these days. You can dedicate your life to your talent, study and strive to be an artist. Or, you can become a contestant on Fox's American Idol and hope Rupert Murdoch's star-making machine chooses you to be its next product.

Juilliard

Where: WETA (Channel 26)

When: Tonight at 10

In brief: America's premier performing arts institution gets the star treatment it deserves.

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