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Arts on TV get a lift from new KLRU shows

Jeanne Claire Van Ryzin, Seeing Things

Staff Writer
Austin 360
PBS' Great Performances will present 'Miami City Ballet Dances Balanchine & Tharp' on Oct. 28 on Austin's KLRU.

The clutter of cable channels these days begs for our attention with a flurry of niche-interest shows. (TLC has three different series devoted to cakes, no less.)

But no matter your cable package, try channel surfing for fine arts programming and see what you find.

Bravo long ago abandoned its original arts-oriented mission and now spins out series after series on dysfunctional so-called housewives. And though A&E once broadcast operas from the Met, the only so-called music you're likely to hear on that channel is the howling screams of "Dog the Bounty Hunter."

Decades ago — long before cable — PBS was the original network that brought the fine arts into American living rooms. And the network continues to do so.

Beginning Friday, PBS kicks off its Fall Festival with two months of weekly programming that features the national-caliber ballet, theater and opera performances typical of the network's long-standing "Great Performances" and "American Masters" series. But now those series incorporate a much wider definition of the arts and one more appropriate to our inclusive times.

"Give Me the Banjo" explores the roots of American music through the quintessentially American instrument. "Women Who Rock" celebrates notable female musicmakers from Bessie Smith to native Texan Janis Joplin to Lady Gaga. And on Oct. 21, "Pearl Jam Twenty" honors the definitive indie band on its 20th anniversary with never-before-seen footage.

Local PBS affiliate KLRU carries the arts baton with plenty of Austin-centric verve, too.

In tandem with each of the PBS specials, KLRU — which has 1.5 million viewers in the Central Texas region — will present three-minute segments, each on some facet of the local arts scene. Getting the star treatment are, among other events, the University of Texas' Landmarks public art program and a preview of next month's East Austin Studio Tour.

And KLRU producers continue their locally focused "Arts in Context" series (formerly called "In Context") with a lineup that includes an episode this week on Austin's spoken word scene and features the Austin Neo Soul team that placed in the 2010 National Poetry Slam. Next week it's a celebration of the city's jazz scene with pianist James Polk and vocalist Pam Hart. (Episodes of "Arts in Context" vary from 30 minutes to an hour, depending on the topic.)

"The Art of Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead)," which runs on Oct. 27, trains the camera lens on San Antonio artists — particularly the dance collective Urban 15 — and how the deeply religious Day of the Dead event has now morphed into a much broader artistic happening beyond its Mexican Catholic beginnings.

Producer Lauren Burton recently took over the helm of the "Arts in Context" series after the Emmy award-winning Dutch Rall left to pursue independent work.

Burton says her goal is to feature not only the larger cultural groups many folks might already know about but also Austin's alternative and DIY happenings. On her slate are episodes about the East Austin-centered Trouble Puppet Theater and the performance arts celebration, Fusebox Festival. Hill Country Art Deco architecture, Ballet Austin's "Light: The Holocaust and Humanity Project" and the Central Texas conjunto music scene make Burton's list.

Last weekend, Burton spent Saturday night live-taping Austin Classical Guitar Society's "Austin Pictures" concert at ACL Live, the new home to the network's famed "Austin City Limits" series.

"I think it was the first time (we had) classical music in the Moody Theatre," says Burton.

Last year, KLRU received a $25,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to continue the "Arts in Context" series.

Dovetailing with "Arts in Context," the station made forays into developing online content with its "KLRU Collective" website, www.klru.org/collective. Any staff KLRU staff member — regardless of filmmaking abilities — was invited to take a pocket-size video camera and shoot a few minutes of any cultural event or artist of interest. The venture turned up an eclectic mix including the O. Henry Pun-Off, Austin Fashion Week, the South Asian New Year Festival and the Austin Yard Art Tour. And though shot on handheld cameras, the quality of the short videos is surprisingly good.

In fact, the "Collective" initiative proved so popular that KLRU has used the videos for interstitial material between on-air programs. And the station is planning to create a 30-minute special, a "best of" KLRU Collective to be aired some time in 2012.

"It's about whatever we can do to promote participation in the arts in Austin," says Burton.

jvanryzin@statesman.com; 445-3699