Paintings and pirouettes

A Painter’s Love Story

The ballet <i>A Painter’s Love Story </i>uses projected images of Maxfield Parrish’s paintings to address known and imagined aspects of the painter’s life and romances. <i> </i> <i></i>

The ballet A Painter’s Love Story uses projected images of Maxfield Parrish’s paintings to address known and imagined aspects of the painter’s life and romances.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, is a book about a painter worth a ballet? Rosine Bena, artistic director of the Sierra Nevada Ballet, thinks so. A Painter’s Love Story, a ballet about artist Maxfield Parrish, is inspired by Alma Gilbert-Smith’s book The Make-Believe World of Maxfield Parrish. The ballet’s premiere coincides with the Nevada Museum of Art’s upcoming Parrish retrospective, Maxfield Parrish: Master of Make-Believe.

A Painter’s Love Story focuses on Parrish’s relationships with the two most important women in his life: Lydia, his intelligent and politically active wife, and Sue Lewin, the household servant who became his model and muse. Parrish’s relationship with Lewin was deeply private and little is known for certain. However, they were certainly intimate friends for decades and may have been romantically involved.

“It’s basically the love story between Parrish and [Lewin] because that’s what the book was about,” Bena explains. “But I’ve added more about Lydia, because we’ve done a lot of research on her and she was a really incredible person.”

Bena is coy about what her ballet reveals about Parrish’s relationship with Lewin. “We suggest it, but we don’t absolutely come right out and say it.”

The ballet has been a long time in the making. A smaller version was performed in the Bay Area in 1990. A much larger version, incorporating opera, was commissioned by the Atlanta Ballet for the 1996 Olympics but didn’t make it to completion. Bena broached the idea of a collaboration with the Nevada Museum of Art, and, after several years of negotiations, the exhibition and the ballet will open this week.

This version of the dance performance, which Bena describes as “medium-sized,” incorporates the European tradition of tanztheater—ballet with spoken lines. Cameron Craine, of the Nevada Shakespeare Company, will provide the voice of Parrish, while Domingo Rubio, who was featured in the movie The Company, will dance the role of Parrish. Original music, composed especially for the ballet, will accompany the dancers.

Since art was so central to Parrish’s life, Bena felt that a ballet of his life story had to incorporate the actual works.

“A lot of the love story was within the paintings,” Bena explains. “[The studio] where [Parrish and Lewin] lived was like a make-believe world. … I thought the best way to show that would be to bring the paintings to life.”

A large screen divides the stage in half, and images of Parrish’s paintings will be projected onto the screen. The area in front of the screen represents reality, while the area behind the screen represents an imaginary world of dreams and fantasies; the dancers will use the entire stage to portray the artist’s internal as well as external life.

“The make-believe world and the real world,” says Bena, “get mixed together for a period of time.”

Sadly, Parrish and Lewin’s story didn’t have a happy ending. After Lydia’s death, Sue Lewin married another man, leaving Parrish alone in his studio. Still, Bena hopes that Parrish’s art, as well as his tragic romance, will make for an unforgettable production.