May 2023


Nureyev's Eyes

Carla Maria Verdino-S眉llwold

Sitting in a Portland's tiny Good Theater atop Munjoy Hill, I am riveted by the two-character drama playing out before me. The play, Nureyev's Eyes, by David Rush explores the brief, tumultuous creative interaction between artist Jamie Wyeth and dance superstar Rudolph Nureyev which took place during a series of sittings the dancer did for the artist in the 1980s. The two actors do not resemble the historical figures, but the fireworks they create transcend into the metaphysical.

Rush's 110-minute script is masterfully written, capturing the essence of these icons with all their inner angst and desperate seeking for artistic truth. His narrative is briskly plotted, laced with wit and pathos.  He explores the quest which binds these two giants together: finding and embracing the deepest truth in one's work – a challenge that is often fraught with danger and disappointment.  Wyeth's search to find the truth in Nureyev's eyes and to render that on canvas becomes a shared search to find his own parallel truth, one that he discovers mirrored in his own eyes and deep in his soul.  The play is filled with sharp and brilliant repartee, bold egos colliding with brilliant fireworks, and also with a poignant vulnerability and tenderness.


The two-person cast plays off each other with perfect chemistry.  As Jamie Wyeth, Joe Bearor demonstrates a touching vulnerability, as he reveals his insecurities, accumulated over years of living as the son of a famous father and grandfather, and as he learns over the course of the friendship with Nureyev to embrace the dark.  He is, by turns, gentle and tough, boyish and profound, finding the inner humanity of the character.  Michael Grew, as Nureyev, overcomes the fact that he does not at all resemble the exotic Russian dancer, nor is he a dancer himself.  But he manages slowly, slyly to inhabit the role so perfectly that in a very short time all you see before you is the dashing superstar of ballet.  Both physically and emotionally, he projects the dancer's ego that masks his own fears (which sometimes border on paranoia), his regrets, his wily manipulativeness, his love of a good battle with a worthy opponent.

The dance these two become entangled in is a high-stakes psychological pas de deux in search of the answer to an unanswerable mystery: what drives the artistic soul to create? And what makes that act of creation - though it be of the moment – take on quasi eternal dimensions?


The questions linger long after the play is over.  I am transported back to a moment in time when I was eighteen years old and on a whim purchased an orchestra second row center ticket to the Royal Ballet's Romeo and Juliet at the old Metropolitan Opera House. The cast was headed by Dame Margot Fonteyn and her new partner, Rudolph Nureyev, recently defected from Russia and blazing like a meteor through the international world of ballet. I fell in love that night with the Royal Ballet, choreographer Kenneth Macmillan, Dame Margot, and David Blair in a breathtaking performance as Mercutio. And I recognized the dazzling stage presence and power of Nureyev.  If he struck me then, and still for most of his career, as a phenomenon who could never quite sublimate himself to the characters and roles he was dancing – he was always NUREYEV - there was nonetheless an irresistible, seductive, unforgettable aura to his dancing. He was daring, dangerous, fierce, aggressive – from his Tatar roots – just as he was a creature defying gravity. Over the years, I came to respect and revel in his work because of the risks he was willing to take, the fearlessness of his conceptions, and the undaunted, even defiant uniqueness of his approach.  As a celebrity he could be outrageous, rude, a divo, but as an artist – like Maria Callas – he was uncompromising in his search for truth for himself and the other dancers around him.


For weeks after seeing Nureyev's Eyes, I found myself on a quest to probe the many  contradictory, exasperating, uplifting, and unforgettable qualities which made Nureyev unique.  An excellent starting point  is Julie Kavanagh's comprehensive biography of the dancer (Nureyev. Vintage Books. 2008).  Kavanaugh covers the fifty-five years of the dancer's life in great detail, starting with his birth on a train on the Trans-Siberian Railway through his poor childhood in Ufa, his undeterred passion to become a dancer, his schooling at the Kirov, his leap to freedom in 1961, and the subsequent thirty plus years filled with voracious dancing, choreographing, filmmaking around the globe, as well as a private life that was as colorful, original, and unapologetic as any.  Kavanaugh's prose is articulate, fluid, and urbane.  Her narrative is detailed and well researched, at the same time that she is able to bring all the characters to life with vivid dialogue and reminiscence.  As a dance writer, she is superb, and she weaves into the narrative eloquent descriptions of performances and classes, offering knowledgeable analyses of the evolution of works and techniques and styles.


The vivid elements of her writing translate very well into film, which is exactly what screenwriter David Hare and director Ralph Fiennes did when they made the film, The White Crow, using the first third of Kavanaugh's book as its source.  The title is a metaphor for Nureyev – someone who stands out from the rest.  The movie, filmed in Russian and French with subtitles, as well as in English, stars Ukrainian dancer Oleg Ivenko  as Nureyev. Ivenko bears an uncanny resemblance to the young dancer and is a compelling screen and dance presence.  The film does a fine job of examining the forces which came together to shape the artist – from the dreary misery of his Siberian origins to his years at the Kirov – ever the rebel, but still worshipping the art, the soul of dance itself.  Fiennes gives a masterfully understated and moving performance as Alexander Pushkin, Nureyev's teacher, mentor, surrogate father and cuckolded friend.  The actual scenes of the defection at the Paris airport follow Kavanaugh's book closely and are appropriately tense and thrilling.  The film also does a fine job of probing the psyche of the young Nureyev and revealing the extraordinary will and curiosity that drove him to dance, dance, dance.


My own retrospective quest took me back to old dance videos – pale substitutes for witnessing a live performance.  Even so, the charisma, the sheer burning intensity of Rudolph Nureyev on stage somehow manages to survive on celluloid.  His solo work is perhaps most thrilling because he can let loose. Athletic, yet a creature of the air, he dazzles in Le Corsaire; he demonstrates his affinity for incorporating national dance into classical ballet in Don Quixote; his classical solos from Sleeping Beauty & La Sylphide are more virtuosic than usual.  In Le Jeune Homme et La Mort, he demonstrates his versatility in dancing  the modernist plastique of  Roland Petit's choreography and again in Glen Tetley's Pierrot Lunaire to Schoenberg's score. Afternoon of a Faun is his bold take on Nijinsky's signature piece. The clips from Giselle with Fonteyn are breathtaking – he was always at his artistic best and on his best behavior with her.

And finally, I make my way back to where it all began for me:Romeo and Juliet. Macmillan's ballet to Prokofiev's haunting score with Nicholas Georgiadis' stunning d茅cor has not seemed to have aged one single bit in the sixty years since I first found myself spellbound in the old Met.  I am still mesmerized by David Blair as Mercutio and swept away by Fonteyn's purity and sheer, sublime, ageless beauty as a dancer. And then there is Nureyev – then twenty-six years old – portraying the young, impulsive Romeo.  He lacks the lyricism of Donald McLeary and Anthony Sowell in the role, but he does convey the unbridled passion, ardor, sexiness of the youth, and in the final pas de deux, when Romeo dances with Juliet's limp body, he goes for broke, leaving every ounce of emotion and energy on the table.


And that perhaps was the essence of Nureyev, the artist, and, to some extent, Nureyev the man.  Dance was his god, the theatre his temple.  Art was an all or nothing experience.  You felt it in the unstinting energy poured into every movement and gesture  And you saw it, as did Jamie Wyeth, in the fire in his eyes.


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Carla Maria Verdino-S眉llwold 's new book is Round Trip Ten Stories (Weiala Press). Her reviews and features have appeared in numerous international publications. She is a Senior Writer for Scene 4. For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives

©2023 Carla Maria Verdino-S眉llwold
 ©2023 Publication Scene4 Magazine





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