Choreographing murder is a—let's call it unique—area of expertise. But it comes in handy in the month of Halloween, when companies like Nashville Ballet give audiences a seasonal taste of the grisly and gothic.
For good reason, artistic director Paul Vasterling calls his October program "Ballet Noir": This year's Lizzie Borden is based on the story of the Massachusetts woman accused of an 1892 double homicide that made international headlines. Agnes de Mille famously choreographed a ballet version in 1948 called Fall River Legend. Though Borden was ultimately found not guilty of murdering her parents, de Mille and composer Morton Gould took artistic license, finding the defendant guilty as charged.
Mills coaching Miki Kawamura and Alvin Tovstogray (photo by Amy Haley, courtesy OKCB)
Some might call it bravado. Others would say fightin’ spirit. When Robert Mills grabbed the reins of a struggling Ballet Oklahoma in 2008, the company was at a crossroads: To sink under a $400,000 deficit or to merge with Tulsa Ballet.
“I wanted to show them what ballet could really do for this community,” says Mills of how he approached the city’s heavy hitters with a third option. His stump speech—“Why Oklahoma City Needs Its Own Ballet Company”—helped pull the organization back from the brink.
After off-loading some company property to settle the debt—a costume warehouse, as well as their studios, which were sold to an energy company that is ultimately donating space back to them—Mills started fresh. The troupe got a new name, Oklahoma City Ballet, and a new mission.
“We shifted from trying to win back old audiences to building new ones,” he says. “Yes, we still do traditional. But when we added new titles like The Wizard of Oz and The Phantom of the Opera, people started coming even if they didn’t know ballet.”
In the past seven years, Oklahoma City Ballet has expanded from 16 to 37 dancers. Its $1 million budget has grown to $3.4 million. Annual box office receipts have nearly doubled in the last two seasons, from $687,000 to $1.2 million, and about 300 students take classes in the company’s American Ballet Theatre–accredited school.
The repertoire is evolving, too. Starting this season, Mills has added a contemporary triple bill, enabling him to include more work by guest choreographers, like Matthew Neenan, Amy Seiwert and Helen Pickett.
Mills, 45, wants to nurture his dancers’ creativity. “I’m creating a company that I would want to dance in,” he says. “I was never 100 percent satisfied. So it’s important to me that my dancers take ownership of their roles.”
Growing up in Indiana, Mills’ early interest in gymnastics grew into a craving for jazz, tap and contemporary training. On Saturdays, he would commute to Chicago for ballet. He studied modern briefly at Columbia College Chicago, where he was encouraged to pursue a ballet career. He left school for a job at the Milwaukee Ballet and then Pennsylvania Ballet. But he wasn’t satisfied in the ranks of those companies. He moved on, landing better roles at troupes such as Tulsa Ballet, Oklahoma City Ballet, Kansas City Ballet and Ballet Idaho. His 17-year dance career introduced him to a wide variety of choreographers and styles.
The current OKCB, too, is a melting pot of dancers and artistic choices. Russian-trained, Ukrainian-born principal Alvin Tovstogray, 23, says that working here, he’s had to find a stylistic middle ground. “Robert likes to say, ‘This is America! You have to do everything!’ ” he says.
Principal Miki Kawamura, 35, who moved to the States from Japan in 2000 and has been with Oklahoma City Ballet for five seasons, says that Mills expects a clean technique.
“But he’s not just looking for a pretty line. He likes dancers who can really move.”
Mills choreographs one or two works each season, and ballet master Jacob Sparso has a knack for popular story ballets, like The Wizard of Oz. “People identify with it,” jokes Mills about Oklahoma City’s location in tornado alley. “But really, Jacob and I have in-depth conversations about every ballet. We’re not only concerned about who should be in what role, we are also trying to build an audience.”
Critics have praised the accessible repertoire and the strength of the corps de ballet in particular. In 2013, when Mills debuted his Swan Lake, the Oklahoman called the company “a strong artistic force in the state.”
And outside the state, OKCB is touting its contemporary bona fides. At this year’s Spring to Dance Festival in St. Louis, Mills brought Stanton Welch’s Play. The manic, highly improvisational ballet set to electronica by Moby underscores Mills’ emphasis in his classes: channeling and releasing energy.
“I work a lot with the release and isolation of movement,” Mills says. “At barre, I’ll have the dancers completely relax the outside arm while working with the legs. Or we’ll practice releasing tension in different parts of the body. Contemporary dance is less about shapes and more about movement. So I’m always working with this idea of finding your home base, coming away from it and then moving back to it.”
In a town best known for oilmen, cowboys and sports junkies, Mills has managed to find success—and a home base—of his own.
“More than anything, I like people who look me in the eyes,” Mills says. “Right away, I can see what kind of dancer they are going to be onstage. I want a body that is a blank slate, absent of affectation, but I don’t want a blank mind. I tell my dancers: View art.
At a Glance
Oklahoma City Ballet
Number of dancers: 37 (including 12 apprentices)
Length of contract: 30 weeks
Starting salary: $525 per week (corps de ballet)
Performances per year: 30+
This is your 14th season with the company. What advice would you give to your younger self?
Pace yourself. You’ll miss a lot of knowledge if you’re focused on obtaining status. Be as present as possible. When you’re just seeking the next thing, you’re not in the moment.
When you’re performing roles like Odette/Odile in Swan Lake, how deeply do you get into character?
I really feel the character. I would hiss at my partner.
Do you create characters in nonnarrative dances?
The narrative is your personality. That’s why a lot of choreographers like older dancers, because we have more to say.
What skill would you most like to have?
I would love to be a great orator—I love hearing inspiring speeches.
You meditate regularly. What initiated that?
Pain management. I’ve dealt with chronic tendonitis since 2005. I used to have nightmares about chopping the hurting part off. Meditation has helped me feel whole and reconnect with my body. It helps me visualize pain differently.
What’s your guilty pleasure?
I religiously watch “Fashion Police” on the E! channel. I have an infatuation—obsession?— with fashion.
If your life were a ballet, which character would be your soul mate?
Siegfried. Is that too obvious?
Nashville Ballet’s Paul Vasterling puts narrative and music at the forefront of the company’s focus.
The dancers are fighting again, but Paul Vasterling is unfazed. He’s watching it unfold at the front of the stage, fingers to his chin like a man contemplating artwork. A punch to the gut, a kick to the backside. One dancer goes sprawling across the floor. Another is killed, rapier to the mid-section.
With a slight gesture, Vasterling cues the accompanist to stop playing the music for this critical scene from his Romeo and Juliet. Time for notes.
You can learn a lot about the artistic director of Nashville Ballet by watching a dress rehearsal. For one, he wants the acting to be as precise as the movement. For another, he expects the music to set the tone. To have a live rehearsal pianist on hand for a fight call could be seen as a luxury, but for Vasterling, it’s a priority.
“Live music makes dancers better as artists,” he says. “Many regional companies only get one or two rehearsals with live music. But the dancing is just better with musicians, even a rehearsal pianist. The spark happens.”
As a former student of piano and theater, Vasterling might be the perfect fit to run a ballet company in “Music City.” Nashville audiences have high musical standards and conservative tastes—they love grand, familiar story ballets. And Vasterling’s vision has proved successful. Since his tenure began in 1998, Nashville Ballet’s resources have nearly tripled. The roster has grown from 12 to 22 dancers; a second company has been added; an indoor tennis complex has been transformed into a huge dance studio; and, best of all, the company now has an annual budget of $4 million.
Vasterling didn’t intend to go into the dance field. He wanted to be a music therapist. But years of piano lessons during his childhood in a New Orleans suburb led him to a rehearsal pianist gig at a community theater. “A choreographer there saw me and said, ‘Hey, you’re tall, you’re musical and you’re a guy. Come take lessons for free at my dance school,’ ” Vasterling says. “I wasn’t athletic, but I liked the physical part because it was connected to music.”
Vasterling earned a degree in theater at Loyola University New Orleans, then danced with various regional companies, including Nashville Ballet. He realized his gift for choreography while on the faculty at the School of Nashville Ballet. “I’d do pretty much anything, even choreograph for a table top in a mall,” he says. “That’s when I realized I wanted to go for it as a choreographer.”
Now, as artistic director, Vasterling takes on the bulk of the company’s choreography himself, with more than 40 works to his credit. “I think it’s important for dancers to have a house choreographer,” Vasterling says. “Someone who knows how to develop their talents—and knows what makes them look good.” It also, he adds, saves the company some licensing fees.
In particular, he loves putting his own artistic spin on familiar stories, from Dracula toPeter and the Wolf. Eighteen days after fine-tuning his testosterone-driven Romeo and Juliet, he premiered a new Macbeth, featuring live music by a chamber ensemble. “I happen to be really good at narrative,” Vasterling says. “It’s my favorite thing to do.”
Vasterling tries to make the most of being located in a music industry hub. Many ballets are backed by the Nashville Symphony. In May, he’ll premiere a work to a new piano concerto he commissioned from the pop musician Ben Folds, who will perform the piece with the orchestra.
“We’re always courting musicians,” Vasterling says. “They’re not used to having their music danced to, but when they work with us, they recognize that there’s this whole other poetic comment going on.” When he brings in choreographers to make new work (recent commissions include Gina Patterson and Sarah Slipper), he encourages them to choose music that can be performed live. Company dancer Christopher Stuart’s upcoming piece to the songs of Johnny Cash, for example, will feature a bluesy garage rock duo, Sugar & The Hi Lows, putting their own stamp on Cash’s tunes.
For the dancers, versatility is essential in a company that does big story ballets but lacks the numbers to perfectly fill each character role. They have to adapt. “Paul is always trying to figure out what is best for you as a dancer, how to push you individually,” says up-and-comer Kayla Rowser, who, like many company members, got her start in Nashville Ballet 2. “We don’t all have the same movement quality or look, but he has an eye for fitting us together.”
Although the company is unranked, seniority matters. “I’m really unlikely to throw a brand-new person into a principal role,” Vasterling says. “I err on the side of being slow.” But he makes sure his dancers have sufficient outlets, and most have long careers with the Nashville Ballet—several current members have been there for over 10 years. “Even when dancers aren’t ready for certain roles,” he says, “I try to give them other opportunities so they stay here and find their artistic life.”
At A Glance
Company: 22 (11 male, 11 female)
Length of contract: 34 weeks
Starting salary: $500/week
Performances: 7 productions per season; about 34 performances per year
Touring: No dates currently scheduled
“I look for intelligence, number one, and adaptability and curiosity. I like a really athletic physique in both men and women. I want dancers to relax and be themselves, to show me their personality in their dancing.”
John McFall has made Atlanta Ballet an incubator for innovative choreography.
In John McFall’s teenage mind, nothing equaled the enchantment of ballet. He remembers being cast as a swashbuckling supernumerary in Scheherazade when Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo visited his hometown of Kansas City. “I was leaping around the stage, sword in hand, swiping at people,” says McFall, 64. “The director was screaming ‘Stop! Stop! ’ I was having too much fun. I felt like I truly belonged to something important.”
Today, Atlanta Ballet’s artistic director feels that excitement again as his company starts a new era of growth, exploring innovative choreography. “We love the classics,” McFall says, “but we’re really thinking about the dance literature of tomorrow.”
Aiding the company is a successful $21 million capital campaign, spearheaded by executive director Arturo Jacobus. New opportunities include a $500,000 “Innovation Fund” for new works, and a 200-seat black box theater. Jacobus has said that the money allows what some perceived as a “kind of vanilla, all-purpose community ballet company” to make bold artistic choices.
The repertoire now boasts a number of abstract contemporary ballets by choreographers such as Christopher Wheeldon, Wayne McGregor and even Ohad Naharin. McFall also hired William Forsythe disciple Helen Pickett as resident choreographer. Collaborations with the Indigo Girls and OutKast rapper Antwan André “Big Boi” Patton have attracted fresh audiences: Atlanta Ballet has one of the youngest fan bases of any major performing arts group in Atlanta.
Launched in 1929, the company is one of the oldest dance troupes in the U.S., though it didn’t gain professional status until 1967. Founder Dorothy Alexander left the company to Robert Barnett, who led it for over 30 years, presenting many Balanchine works, including his Nutcracker. McFall took the helm in 1994, after 20 years dancing with San Francisco Ballet and eight years as artistic director of BalletMet. Having set work on Atlanta Ballet as a choreographer, McFall knew the troupe was primed to grow.
His first decision as director got people’s attention. “Right away we did a differentNutcracker,” he says. “They’d been looking at the same Balanchine version for 20 years. We wanted more people involved, and tons of children.”
McFall also got the company focused on dance education. Just a year after he started, Atlanta Ballet opened its Centre for Dance Education, now one of the largest dance schools in the country, with more than 1,200 students. “When you step into something that has a long history,” McFall says, “you must take a fresh view and go through a new door.”
Pickett’s recent appointment is notable not only because so few women hold similar titles in the U.S., but because it reinforces the company’s commitment to new work. She is currently contemplating a Tennessee Williams ballet, which would come with multiple selling-points: It’d be Southern, dramatic and also contemporary.
With any changes he makes, McFall strives to reflect the city, which he views as a global community. Out of 25 dancers, 11 were born abroad. “I’m looking for passion and imagination,” McFall says. “Technique is wonderful, but it’s not the soul of dance. I don’t look for body types. I don’t want a bunhead mentality. Are they here to collaborate? Do they want to explore all kinds of movement? Do they have a sense of adventure?”
At A Glance
Number of dancers: 25, including 4 apprentices
Length of contract: 35 weeks
Starting salary: $696/week
Performances: Five productions per season, including The Nutcracker; about 45 performances per year
Touring: No touring dates this season
“I’ve only ever hired one dancer directly from a cattle call,” says McFall. “It’s too big a decision. I have to get acquainted with you first. Sign up for a summer program. Come dance with us through the school’s Fellowship Division. Let us see your work.”