NEA Arts Magazine

Caught in the Act

Great Performances Brings the Performing Arts into American Homes


Two actors and an actress in period costumes on stage

Kevin Kline, Jennifer Garner, and Daniel Sunjata star in Cyrano de Bergerac on the PBS series Great Performances, supported by the NEA. Photo by Joe Sinnott, WNET New York.

While most Americans weren't able to make it to New York's Richard Rodgers Theater to see Jennifer Garner's Broadway debut as Roxane to Kevin Kline's Cyrano in the 2007 production of Cyrano de Bergerac, they were able to catch Garner and Kline's performances for free when Cyrano premiered on PBS's Great Performances series in January 2009. For more than 35 years, Great Performances, produced by Thirteen/WNET with support from the NEA, has transformed American televisions into concert halls, dance theaters, and Broadway auditoriums, bringing works by Leonard Bernstein, Twyla Tharp, and Aaron Copland, to name a few, directly into American homes. The nation's longest continuously running arts program, Great Performances has garnered an impressive 61 Emmy Awards and a slew of other top honors.

When it launched in 1972, Great Performances spotlighted classical symphonic and opera performances as well as regional theater. Two years later, thanks to partnership funding from the NEA, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and Exxon, Dance in America debuted as a separate series that was ultimately folded into the Great Performances family while retaining its own branding. As Executive Producer David Horn explained, "With Great Performances, while we [feature] regional opera and theater and music organizations, it does take on an international aspect as well. But we still retain in our dance programming a primary focus on American dance companies, choreographers, and performers." Today, according to Horn, fans of Great Performances can expect to see "anything from modern drama to modern dance to classic ballet to musical theater. You name it, we do it on Great Performances."

Each Great Performances and Dance in America episode has an estimated cumulative reach of nearly three million viewers, or approximately 1,200 times the capacity of a large performing arts venue such as New York's Carnegie Hall. This reach is increased exponentially by the availability of selected clips and full episodes on the series' Web site, and the series' availability on DVD. The Web site also features lesson plans so teachers can integrate Great Performances video clips into their curricula.

Four dancers in native Hawaiian costumes pose on a lava flow

Hawaii's famed dance company Halau O Kekuhi performs at Volcanoes National Park in "Wolf Trap's Face of America," a Dance in America presentation.  Photo by Peter McBride, Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts

Horn maintained that it's the idea of access that fuels the program. "Over the years we've received a few emails from somebody, who ultimately became a performer, in a small town...or somewhere outside of one of the major cultural cities in this country, and the first time they saw a dance [performance], they saw an opera, they saw real theater, was on public television, usually Great Performances. And that inspired them to want to enter into a career as a performer, or in some other capacity in the arts. And that story gets repeated over and over again... Particularly with the cutbacks in arts funding over the last several years, I think that our service is even more important." Horn also credited Dance in America with being particularly important to conserving the nation's dance heritage by creating video archives that can be used to recreate future performances of work by masters like George Balanchine.

The Great Performances team delivers 14–16 new episodes each year, many in partnership with the nation's pre-eminent arts organizations, including the Metropolitan Opera, the Roundabout Theatre Company, and the Chicago Symphony. One 2008 show teamed Thirteen/WNET with theWolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts and the National Park Service. "Dance in America: Wolf Trap's Face of America" showcased Wolf Trap's commissions of dance makers, musicians, and performing artists from across the U.S. to create site-specific dance works at U.S. national parks, including Yosemite National Park, Coral Reef National Monument, and the Wright Brothers' National Memorial. Another recent episode, "Pavarotti: A Life in Seven Arias," was a retrospective of the tenor's life featuring rare, archival footage and interviews with Pavarotti's friends and colleagues.

Horn credits the NEA with helping to ensure the series' survival. "Once the NEA has given you a grant, it's like the seal of approval. It makes it so much easier to get other individuals and foundations on board. It's even more critical now because corporate funding has pretty much dried up for public television...It's also the thing that helps us maintain a strong focus on American performing artists and companies."

Despite the nation's economic woes, Horn remains optimistic about the future of Great Performances. "We hope that we'll be able to continue to leverage the grant that we get from the NEA to be able to get this important work that American companies are doing on television for the rest of the country to see. We really want to figure out a better way to get younger audiences to view the things that we do. We think there's a lot of vitality out there. We sense from the signals we're hearing that the new administration has committed to the culture and arts in this country, and we just hope to be part of that, as we have been for over three decades."