THE DOCUMENTARY "American Ballet Theatre: A History"

WHEN | WHERE Friday at 9 p.m. on WNET/13

WHAT IT'S ABOUT As American Ballet Theatre celebrates its 75th anniversary with its annual spring-summer season at the Metropolitan Opera House, PBS' "American Masters" series opens up the party with a documentary by Ric Burns. But how, we initially wondered, can anyone -- even this gold-standard documentarian -- do justice in a mere 90 minutes to the long, rich, inevitably prickly ups and downs and ups of the country's leading classical and mixed-repertory dance institution?

Now wonder this: Although this promises to be the story of ABT, its leaders, stars and choreographers, we soon learn that its subtitle, "A History," refers almost as much to the whole history of ballet. For nearly half the show, this is an illustrated basic philosophical and social history of dance -- from Louis XIV to Peter the Great to Mikhail Baryshnikov -- with lecture-demonstrations about the five ballet positions, the definition of abstract ballet, the allure of the 19th century Romantic heroine and, oh yes, the ephemeral quality of dancing.

MY SAY With all the important things to say about Ballet Theatre (the American was added for an international tour sponsored by the Air Force in the '50s), surely the topic deserves more than this selective soft-focus overview and every poetic cliche ever uttered about the art form.

Highlights are interviews with Kevin McKenzie, artistic director since 1992, and Alicia Alonso, the longtime ABT dancer and founder of the National Ballet of Cuba. Also noteworthy are archival clips of the late Frederic Franklin describing the opening-night impact of Agnes de Mille's 1942 "Rodeo" and the late critic Clive Barnes' memory of seeing Jerome Robbins' homegrown American "Fancy Free" at London's Covent Garden just after World War II. And how illuminating to watch Nora Kaye in Antony Tudor's 1942 "Pillar of Fire," then see Gillian Murphy take the role today.

But so many, many important dancers are ignored and much specific detail is omitted in favor of a generic world history of ballet lesson. New HD dance sequences are beautiful, but do so many really have to be in extreme slow motion? If they ran a little faster, we might have been able to see a lot more dance.

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GRADE B-