The Painter and the Panther: All Eyes on Nureyev

A principal hope that comes to mind, when consigning one’s Saturday night to consumption of a theatrical product served up by only two actors, is that you will like, or at least find intriguing or sympathetic, the characters they are playing.

With such productions you are captive not so much to the story, however compelling it may be, but to the personalities and their players.


The actors, of course, have nowhere to hide but in the skin of the people they inhabit, and if only two roles are to be had, well, things could go quite badly if they are the kind of people you wouldn’t want to be stuck next to a dinner party. The thing is really about them.

For the second time in a season, the Delaware Theatre Company has boldly staged such a two-man vehicle and for a second time the results are impressive.

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Bill Dawes as Rudolf Nureyev and William Connell as Jamie Wyeth in “Nureyev’s Eyes” at the DTC

Last fall’s “Playing the Assassin” was a fictional take on a real life event, the tragic crippling of an NFL receiver and a mysterious ‘what if’ scenario that could have followed. DTC’s latest offering, “Nureyev’s Eyes,” is a study of the friendship – and cat and mouse gaming – of two generational talents, the legendary ballet star Rudolf Nureyev and artistic scion and painter Jamie Wyeth, a tale much closer to reality and for those of us in the Brandywine Valley, home.

The pair first connected in New York City through Lincoln Kerstein, celebrated leader of the New York City Ballet, and after some initial Nureyev resistance, from that point on Wyeth made the Russian dancer his muse, sketching and painting hundreds of portraits.

Right down to his wavy, chestnut hair, actor William Connell convincingly captures an insouciant 1970s Wyeth and his All American farm boy-from-a-famous-and-eccentric-family appeal. It is a confident and earthy portrayal of a man who seems to wear his legacy and his own extraordinary talent with ease, in contrast to the world-weary son of a Tatar soldier played by Bill Dawes.

Dawes shines as the haughty and fatalistic Nureyev, carrying off the finesse, physique and movement of the powerful dancer who Wyeth likened to “a panther in the house” on his frequent visits to the painter’s Chadds Ford farm.

The one-set stage takes us back and forth from the Wyeth farm to the artist’s New York apartment, but the basic thrust of the conversation remained constant. As a 2002 New York Times story explained:

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Jamie Wyeth illustration of Russian dancer
Rudolf Nureyev

”I’ve never worked with anybody who was that concerned with how I was doing him,” Mr. Wyeth said. ”He wanted to see everything. That finished me with doing portrait paintings for a while, because he was the first person I ever painted whose visage was his world, his life.” He said Nureyev would look at a drawing in progress and say — Mr. Wyeth imitated Nureyev’s accent — ”My foot more beautiful than that.”

Wyeth and his wife Phyllis attended Friday night’s performance and the painter left behind a clever prop: one of his aprons, splattered no doubt with the paint from a Nureyev canvas.

Jamie Wyeth’s formative education in art involved the observation of fornicating pigs and trips to the morgue. His tango with Nureyev completed his study and left us with a collection of elegant and exacting work now on view at the Brandywine River Museum.

See this fine play. Then dance over to the BRM to enjoy these treasures, and hear a talk about the same on March 16.

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