- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 2, 2002

"Capturing Nureyev: James Wyeth Paints the Dancer" consists not only of at least 35 paintings and drawings of the dancer by Mr. Wyeth, but more than 60 photographs from the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts and several of the dancer's costumes.

The exhibit coincides with the first of the Kirov Ballet's 10 planned yearly visits to the Kennedy Center. Mr. Nureyev was a member of the Kirov Ballet from 1958 to 1961, when he defected in Paris.

The two artists collaborated for years on the portraits, and while temperamentally very different, the men found common ground in their passion for their art forms.

"I became sort of obsessed with him," Mr. Wyeth says. "I have at least 10 sketchbooks with measurements [of the dancer]."

Mr. Wyeth went so far as to use calipers to measure the great dancer's legs, arms, feet and chest. Mr. Nureyev was impressed with Mr. Wyeth's dedication, but also took the opportunity to mock him a bit, the artist recalls.

"One time, Nureyev said, 'You have measured me so much, you could make me a suit,'" he says with a laugh.

The paintings and drawings in the exhibit all of which combine media, including charcoal, oil and watercolors show Mr. Nureyev most often standing still with a white-painted face, his trademark square jaw and high cheekbones, and an unruly mane of brown hair.

The dancer's facial expressions range from arrogance to uncertainty, and in between are deep concentration and pride.

"Paintings do have a kind of shorthand to the soul," says Clive Barnes, a Nureyev biographer and New York Post theater critic who is well acquainted with the collaboration between the dancer and the painter.

"The flame of Nureyev was absolutely fantastic," says Mr. Barnes, who met Mr. Nureyev shortly after the dancer's defection from the Soviet Union. "A lot of that charisma comes out in Jamie's paintings."

Mr. Nureyev, who died in Paris in 1993 after a battle with HIV, and Mr. Wyeth first met in the 1970s. Mr. Wyeth was instantly fascinated by the charismatic dancer and asked to paint him. The busy and self-absorbed Mr. Nureyev initially said he wasn't interested, but he later consented.

However, the collaboration, and later friendship, never was easy.

"To use a modern phrase, [Mr. Nureyev] was high maintenance," Mr. Barnes says. The dancer did not take lightly being portrayed in what he perceived as an unflattering manner.

"He was highly critical of everything," Mr. Wyeth says. "He would look at one of my sketches and say, 'My foot is more beautiful than that.'"

Shortly after Mr. Nureyev defected, he joined Britain's Royal Ballet. The young performer became a tour de force with the company and met his future dance partner, Margot Fonteyn. The two became one of the legendary ballet pairings in the 20th century, despite a 20-year difference in their ages. Miss Fonteyn was just as vain about her looks as Mr. Nureyev, Mr. Barnes says.

"If they found a photograph they didn't like, they would tear it up, then and there," he says.

Many of Mr. Wyeth's portraits of the Russian dancer show Mr. Nureyev in full-body poses, or close-up, detailed studies of the dancer's face. Few show him in motion, which may be because Mr. Wyeth became more fascinated with Mr. Nureyev as a man whose complexities seemed endless, than as a dancer.

Mr. Nureyev was one of the first ballet dancers to become a celebrity. His relationship with the great Danish dancer Erik Bruhn brought attention to the Russian dancer as did his highly publicized defection.

"Literally, [Mr. Nureyev] was on the front pages of the world," Mr. Barnes says. "It's the only time I have had front-page bylines in my life. Let's put it that way."

Mr. Wyeth's fascination with the great dancer didn't end with Mr. Nureyev's death. Mr. Wyeth continues to study his sketchbooks, and some of the paintings at the Kennedy Center exhibit are very recent.

"I love to keep him alive in my studio," says the 55-year old painter, who paints eight hours a day. Mr. Wyeth started painting full time when he was about 12 years old, the age he left public school to devote more time to his art.

"In this family, it would be odd not to be painting," he says.

Mr. Wyeth is the son of contemporary realist Andrew Wyeth, and his grandfather Newell Convers Wyeth was known for illustrating the classic novels by Robert Louis Stevenson.

"The notion of becoming an artist was all Jamie knew," says Christopher Crosman, director of the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Maine. "He also had that particular talent something akin to perfect pitch. He drew correct perspectives when most of us were still doing stick figures."

Farnsworth features at least 80 works of art by the three generations of Wyeths. Many of the approximately 40 drawings and paintings by the younger Mr. Wyeth on display depict landscapes and seascapes in Maine. He spends much of his time there on Monhegan Island.

Mr. Wyeth believes that Mr. Nureyev came to appreciate him, even though the dancer was known to be arrogant toward younger colleagues and critical of their technique or style and started out that way with the artist.

He notes that Mr. Nureyev let him continue to paint and kept inviting him back to watch rehearsals.

So what would the highly critical Mr. Nureyev have thought about the Kennedy Center exhibit?

"I think he would have been very flattered," biographer Mr. Barnes says.

"After all, when you have been dead for 10 years Whether he is looking up or down on us, it must be quite flattering. I can't remember an instance when a dancer has been so honored by a painter."

WHAT: "Capturing Nureyev: James Wyeth Paints the Dancer"

WHERE: The Kennedy Center Terrace Gallery, F Street and New Hampshire Avenue NW

WHEN: Open during hours of operation, 10 a.m. until approximately a half-hour after the end of the evening's final performance Thursday through March 10. The space is sometimes used for other functions, and Kennedy Center officials recommend calling ahead of time.

TICKETS: No admission

PHONE: 202/467-4600 or 800/444-1324

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