REVIEW: “Nureyev’s Eyes” drama featured at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

Unique Wyeth and Warhol exhibitions continue through October 5 in Arkansas
By Glenda Rice Collins, Published October 2, 2015

BENTONVILLE, Ark., USA — “The eyes are the hard part,” says the Jamie Wyeth character in  David Rush’s award-winning drama, Nureyev’s Eyes. An inspired reading of the play was featured last week at a “Live Arts – Dance” event in the Great Hall of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art — concluding with an audience ‘standing ovation.’  

The current Jamie Wyeth exhibition, organized by Elliot Davis, curator of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, continues through October 5 at Crystal Bridges, as does a somewhat related Warhol’s Nature exhibition.  Wyeth and Warhol were close friends, having spent time together, sketching and painting each other for posterity.

Nureyev’s Eyes was produced and directed by Darin Anthony, Los Angeles-based artistic director of Moving Arts, specializing in the development of new plays and emotionally resonating performances.

Rudolph Nureyev profile with black wash background by Jamie Wyeth

Rudolph Nureyev profile with black wash background by Jamie Wyeth

Nureyev’s Eyes

In his synopsis, playwright David Rush states that “During the 1970’s, the American painter Jamie Wyeth (son of Andrew) did a series of studies and paintings of, Rudolf Nureyev, the legendary ballet dancer who defected from Russia and revitalized western ballet. The play imagines what their encounters may have been like, as each man somehow changes the other.”

The characters include two men of roughly the same age: the painter Jamie Wyeth (portrayed by former Tulsan, Hughston Walkinshaw, of Kansas City), and the iconic, and tragically short-lived Russian ballet dancer, Rudolf Nureyev (portrayed by New York-based Jed Peterson).

Coming, myself, from a ballet background, I reveled in seeing Nureyev dance years ago — both live and in film — and even on the Kennedy Center stage with Dame Margot Fonteyn. Now, after experiencing the character embodied by Peterson, and visiting the Wyeth exhibition of superbly captured Nureyev theatrical images, I came home feeling as though I had re-lived the experience of the dynamic and memorable Nureyev’s at-once awesome, magnetic and concurrently intimidating presence! Bravo!

Both actors breathed full-scale energy into the reading last Friday night , with Peterson effectively capturing the Russian accents in the world-famous defector’s dialogue; and Walkinshaw exuding the patience and strength of conviction required of the determined artist who seeks to capture motion and humanity on canvas, as well as the dynamic charisma of the both wild and refined aura of this particular celebrity superstar.

Seeking Freedom

While Nureyev sought a sense of freedom and escape on-stage, and with his defection from Russia, Wyeth’s dialogue contradicts, with:

“You defected to the west to be free, and yet you dance.  Which has got to be one of the most confining things to do; you’re trapped on all sides. The music, the steps, — even gravity.”

“Is not the same with painting?” Nureyev replies. “Trapped by size of canvas?”

“Worse,” says Wyeth. “Once you start, the very first brushstroke absolutely demands what the last has to be.”

Aloof Charisma

The reluctant and aloof Nureyev character at first refuses to pose for Wyeth and has deemed this task to be impossible for both. Henceforth, the two highly accomplished artists, as dramatic characters, continue to test each others’ mettle and artistic limits with riddles, boasting and reflections of both their fears and self-doubts.

According to the Nureyev’s Eyes plot, over the years, Wyeth’s friends and partygoer associates included the likes of the distinguished impresario and arts patron, Lincoln Kirstein, general director of New York City Ballet, of whom Wyeth tantalizingly tells Nureyev, “he took me under his wing.”

It seems that Wyeth and Nureyev met at a party given by Sir Frederick Ashton, and the drama unfolds thereafter, as highlights of each artist’s career, and Nureyev’s professional travels, dictate the schedule for sketching and painting sessions during their ongoing losses. trials and tribulations, until Nureyev’s untimely death.

The Expressive Eyes Challenge

Within the Jamie Wyeth retrospective, currently displayed at Crystal Bridges, is a detailed Wyeth study of Senator Edward Kennedy’s eyes — several sketches.  Yet in the completed painting, Wyeth chose to finalize with somewhat of a profile view of the famous face. While his full frontal, facial view of President John F. Kennedy, during the Cuban missile crisis, captures both uncertainty and vulnerability, the expressive eyes notwithstanding.

In an 8-minute video of Wyeth at work on his 2006 watercolor, guache and enamel painting,  Inferno, Monhegan (from a private collection), on archival cardboard, the artist says, of the studied, scavenger seagull’s eyes, “That eye of the gull…with the glint and the pale yellow in it…is more the ocean than the great seascape…I think of painting much like music…you have to practice…Not all is awe-inspired.  With the gulls, it’s sometimes drudgery…(before) the fire comes.”

Artistic Miniatures: A Rich Tradition

The Jamie Wyeth retrospective includes two exquisitely detailed dioramas of elaborate miniatures: The Factory, studio of Andy Warhol, and Le Cote Basque (2013), a combined mediums assemblage from the Phyllis and Jamie Wyeth Collection. Le Cote Basque displays a representation of the elegant New York City restaurant, complete with celebrity characters dining in fine attire: Truman Capote and Joanna Carson seated at a corner table; Kirstein and Nureyev seated together, across the room — with chandelier, table settings, ornate wall mirror, and wallpaper details included.

Warhol’s Nature

Of the concurrent Warhol exhibition, Crystal Bridges’ copy editor Linda DeBerry says in a recent blog post, “Warhol’s Nature was curated by our own… Chad Alligood, and will not be shown anywhere else…don’t miss it!”

Not typical of most expectations, the Warhol’s Nature exhibition features paintings from Andy Warhol’s studies of floral and landscape perspectives not usually associated with the painter of Campbell’s soup can label details, and often large-scale Pop art versions of famous celebrities.

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art announces that it has welcomed more than two million visitors since opening on November 11, 2011. This includes 89,000 students that have participated in the School Visit Program, more than 200,000 participants in lectures, performances, classes or other public programs,
For additional details, please visit

Photo credits:

Jamie Wyeth
Profile with Black Wash Background, Head, Nureyev (Study #23), 1977
Pencil, gouache, and watercolor on toned rag board
20 3/4 × 21 1/4 in.
Collection of Philip and Tina DeNormandie. Photography courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. © Jamie Wyeth

Banner photo:

The Sea, WatchedJamie Wyeth
The Sea, Watched, 2009
Oil on canvas
30 × 48 in. Private Collection. Photography courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
© Jamie Wyeth

# # # # #Glenda Rice Collins 10-2-15.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s