Wyeth art inspires drama

There’s an artistic line of progression, or maybe it’s a train of thought that leads the creative process. In the case of the one-act play “Nureyev’s Eyes,” that train runs through Wyeth country.

The play is based on the relationship between Jamie Wyeth and the dancer Rudolf Nureyev when the Chadds Ford painter was doing his studies of the famous Russian-born Nureyev during the mid-to-late 1970s.

The dancer inspired the painter, and the painter inspired the playwright David Rush. Bill Dawes and William Connell, the actors who bring the drama to life as Nureyev and Wyeth, had the chance to go backstage at the Brandywine River Museum of Art this past week to learn more about the relationship between the dancer and the painter.

Brandywine River Museum of Art Associate Curator Amanda Burdan shows Jamie Wyeth sketchbooks to actors William Connell, right, and Bill Dawes.

Brandywine River Museum of Art Associate Curator Amanda Burdan shows Jamie Wyeth sketchbooks to actors William Connell, right, and Bill Dawes.

The actors took time from the Delaware Theatre Company’s run of the play on Thursday to visit the museum and get a tour of the gallery where Wyeth’s Nureyev paintings are on display, as well as a chance to see the vault where more Wyeths are stored. They also saw Wyeth’s sketchbooks with original drawings of the dancer and the archive area filled with photos and other memorabilia, including Nureyev’s original French travel document from when he defected from the Soviet Union in 1961.

Connell, whose hair and facial expressions resemble Wyeth’s, was amazed when looking through the sketchbooks. “This is cool. This is so cool,” he said.

Dawes was a bit more playful. Wearing white cotton gloves to protect the documents, he jokingly said “oops,” pretending he had ripped out a few pages from the travel document.

According to Amanda Burdan, the museum’s associate curator, Wyeth bought many of Nureyev’s belongings, including papers and costumes, when they were auctioned off after the dancer’s death.

And it’s after that death in 1993 — and after the paintings were on display — when the story on how Jamie Wyeth’s work inspired the play begins.

The playwright was visiting the museum in 2010 when he saw Wyeth’s paintings hanging in the gallery. That art led him to write “Nureyev’s Eyes” long before he ever met Wyeth.

But, according to Burdan, the paintings themselves were not done until well after Nureyev died.

Actor William Connell, who portrays Jamie Wyeth, takes photos of some of Wyeth’s sketches of Rudolf Nureyev.

Actor William Connell, who portrays Jamie Wyeth, takes photos of some of Wyeth’s sketches of Rudolf Nureyev.

Burdan told the story during a Gallery Talk a day before the actors came to the museum.

The artist and the dancer got to know each other in the mid 1970s and Wyeth eventually talked Nureyev into letting him do some studies that would eventually become paintings. As someone who had studied anatomy, Wyeth spent a lot of time measuring Nureyev, the length of a forearm, the span of the hands, his feet, the angle of the head.

“There were a lot of measurements. Jamie would take the calipers and measure the calf, how long the big toe was, how long the neck is, how many eye widths there are across the face, or up and down the face,” she said. “The sketchbooks are filled with these basic building blocks.”

Burdan also likened the process of learning dance to that of painting.

“In ballet there are certain regimented things that happen. You do your barre work first. You do adagio. You do allegro…There are certain things that happen,” she said. “In painting, especially traditional, academic modes of painting, there’s a way that you learn. You begin with drawings of still life, of things that don’t move, blocks and cubes and cones. You move on to study the human form as a sculpture.”

But that was all drawing. There’s no painting until proficiency is reached in each previous stage, she said. That progression goes from drawing to crayon before using the full color palette.

“And that’s how Jamie Wyeth works,” Burdan told the Gallery Talk audience, which also included several ballet students from the Academy of International Ballet of Media.

Burdan pointed out several of Wyeth’s pieces that were done on cardboard with pencil and then with crayon that capture shadows and highlights. She said it’s simple, not fully composed.

“There were a lot of modeling sessions, a lot of time with Jamie following Nureyev around, visiting his ballet studio, being in the dressing room. These early works, especially in the ’70s, really represent the basics, the beginnings, the foundations and the building blocks of making the painting,” she said.

Bill Dawes examines Nureyev’s travel document after the dancer defected from the Soviet Union.

Bill Dawes examines Nureyev’s travel document the dancer used after defecting from the Soviet Union.

Burdan also explained that Wyeth used those building blocks as a virtual stand-in for Nureyev when the dancer wasn’t around, especially after his death. And he used the dancer’s costumes that he bought at auction to dress his painted figures, bringing to life the various characters that Nureyev danced.

Nureyev died in 1993 of complications from AIDS and Burdan thinks it was the costumes that had Wyeth return to the studies to do the paintings.

“Having the costumes around brought back the physical presence of the dancer to his studio, to his life. Suddenly we see a flourish, a flurry of all these Nureyev works coming back…in full costume,” Burdan said.

Wyeth discussed the play briefly during his retrospective at the museum last year, commenting: “Nureyev’s character has all the best lines.”

In an interview for a Wilmington News Journal review, Wyeth, now 69, said it was “a little embarrassing” seeing himself portrayed as he was 40 years ago when he was in his 20s, but that it “brought back so much.” He also called the play “very moving.”

“Nureyev’s Eyes” is at the Delaware Theatre Company through March 20.

The next Gallery Talk, on the same subject, is scheduled for Wednesday, March 16 at 2 p.m.



Video: Ballet students from the Academy of International Ballet of Media dance the “Révérence,” a traditional end of class dance expressing thanks for the teacher’s time and effort.

Top photo: Actor Bill Dawes, who portrays Rudolf Nureyev in “Nureyev’s Eyes” strikes the same pose as depicted in Jamie Wyeth’s “Curtain Call.”



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About Rich Schwartzman

Rich Schwartzman has been reporting on events in the greater Chadds Ford area since September 2001 when he became the founding editor of The Chadds Ford Post. In April 2009 he became managing editor of ChaddsFordLive. He is also an award-winning photographer.



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