Choreographer Paul Vasterling recently took one of the biggest leaps of his career. After a decade working as Nashville Ballet’s artistic director, Vasterling last year also became the company’s chief executive officer.
It was a huge increase in responsibility for the long-time choreographer. Yet it was also an amazing vote of confidence on the part of the ballet’s board of directors. Many ballet companies around the country have cut back due to the tight economy. Often, the repertory of these companies seems like little more than a small stable of tired old warhorses.
Nashville Ballet’s board of directors, on the other hand, accepted Vasterling’s vision of creating a more adventurous American company. This season, Nashville Ballet will premiere a new work created in collaboration with the groundbreaking Alias Chamber Ensemble and Watkins College of Art, Design and Film. The company will also present the seldom seen American masterpiece Billy the Kid, and it will join the Nashville Symphony Orchestra to perform Stravinsky’s fiendishly difficult Firebird and Rite of Spring.
We recently spoke with Vasterling about his views on dance and his plans for the coming season.
Q. You are now the artistic director and CEO of Nashville Ballet. How do you balance these two seemingly conflicting roles?
A. There’s this myth that artistic directors sweep in to demand money. The truth is that the most successful artistic directors are people who keep their eyes on the bottom line. My main talent is not business, but I can think like a businessman and have enjoyed working as CEO. The biggest challenge for me in holding two jobs has been finding the time to do choreography. I didn’t do much choreography last year but will be doing a lot more this season. Among other things, I’m creating a new dance with Alias Chamber Ensemble cellist Matt Walker. I’m excited, but I have to admit that the idea of choreographing again is making me nervous.
Q. Many ballet companies are struggling in this economy, but Nashville Ballet has been thriving and expanding. What’s different about Nashville?
A. Nashville is a very generous place when it comes to supporting the arts. Government, individuals and businesses all want to see the arts thrive. Nashville, of course, is a music city, and that’s especially true of country music. But there’s an amazing amount of support and interest in dance and the fine arts in Nashville as well. As for Nashville Ballet, I think the secret of our success is that I’ve made a point of growing the company slowly. I did not rush to create a big company that would not be sustainable.
Q. The Washington Post’s dance critic Sarah Kaufman won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in part for an essay called “Breaking Pointe,” which asserted that ballet companies these days are “so cautious in their programming that they have effectively reduced an art form to a rotation of over-roasted chestnuts.” Does Kaufman have, ahem, a point?
A. She’s right up to a point. Relying too much on old warhorses like The Nutcracker and Giselle can be a trap. But there’s no denying that chestnuts and old warhorses can also help attract new audiences to ballet. So how you approach these works is important. You don’t want to just focus on the non-artistic, athletic side of ballet. That will just make the work seem cold and uninteresting. I approach a work like Nutcracker as if I’m staging it for the first time. I approach it as a work of art that has something relevant to say to a contemporary audience. Most importantly, I’m going to stage a work like Nutcracker because it’s a masterpiece. I can’t think of a more sumptuous, beautiful score.
Q. Nashville Ballet has been described as a “distinctly American ballet company.” What makes it so American?
A. First and foremost, our dancers are American; they are very versatile. They can do anything. In fact, this season you will see them dancing barefoot and in pointe shoes. We’re even going to be doing some salsa. Our repertory is also very American. We recently revived a rare American classic called Filling Station. And this season, we’re going to be one of the only ballet companies in the country to present Billy the Kid, the great American ballet featuring the music of Aaron Copland.
Q. You are known as a choreographic storyteller. How would you describe your style?
A. Well, I like the challenge of trying to tell a story without words. We recently did a performance of Midsummer Night’s Dream. Shakespeare did a pretty good job of telling that story. But how do you tell that story when you take the words away? My style is rooted in the music. I look to the music to suggest gestures and theatrical movements that will tell the story.
Q. What is Nashville Ballet doing this season to expand and develop its audience?
A. We’re trying to reach more people in part through collaboration. For example, we’re collaborating both with the Alias Chamber Ensemble and with Watkins College of Art, Design and Film to create new dances set to original music, film and other interactive elements. That kind of collaboration will help expand our audience base to include contemporary music fans as well as visual arts enthusiasts. Hopefully, some of these new audience members will stick with us. We’re also diversifying our dances. We’re doing some salsa this season, which will give the company new energy while broadening its appeal.
Q. Do you have any advice for young dancers who want to pursue a career in ballet?
A. The most important thing is to always keep an open mind. When I first started dancing, I would have laughed at the idea of one day being an artistic director. But you need to be flexible if you want to have a long-term career. You also have to be driven. Dance is hard. If you don’t have an uncontrollable urge to dance, then you shouldn’t consider it as a career. But if you do, you’ll find a way to have a career. You’ll do whatever it takes.
Q. When you’re not working at the ballet, what do you like to do? What are your hobbies?
A. My biggest passion is reading. I read everything and will sometimes read four or five books at a time. I am currently reading a history book by Miranda Carter called George, Nicholas and Wilhelm, about the three monarchs on the eve of the First World War. I’m also reading another book by Michael Cunningham called By Nightfall.
photography by Lawrence Boothby