Director's Notes: Storytelling in Music City

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

Nashville Ballet

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

Website: nashvilleballet.com

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