Dance and Ballet 

Nashville Ballet continues to carve its niche and refine its identity

Nashville Ballet continues to carve its niche and refine its identity

Ballet is not especially popular in the United States—not even among people who love the fine arts. It’s not that Americans are against ballet; they just don’t pay any attention to it. Like soccer, it’s not something they grew up with, and they see no reason to find out about it. But in Nashville, Paul Vasterling is trying to change that.

Nashville Ballet’s artistic director since 1998, Vasterling leads a company now 20 years old. Ballet has always had staunch supporters in our city—enough to keep it alive, but not enough to make it robust. Of late, Vasterling has given it an infusion of vitality. Maybe he can do for ballet what Nashville Opera directors Carol Penterman and John Hoomes have done for their own ensemble.

Vasterling says he is “committed to taking ballet into the community and serving a broad audience.” Thus his organization is not just a professional company of some 14 dancers, but also a school with programs for everyone from small children to beginner adults. The School of Nashville Ballet has just opened a third campus in Brentwood, in addition to its campus on Harding Road and its main campus, now in a new, renovated facility in Sylvan Park. Thanks to the new building, for the first time ever, the company now has rehearsal space as large as the stages it actually performs on, so that what is rehearsed can be moved—without translation—directly onstage. That saves a lot of rehearsal time and greatly boosts morale.

Vasterling’s programming is noteworthy too. He is, of course, doing mainstream repertory that puts his dancers up on their points and opens the wallets of sponsors. The company did five performances of Nutcracker in December, and will do a comparable production of Swan Lake to close out the season in April. It has done choreography by Sir Frederick Ashton and by George Balanchine. But it is also doing work by living choreographers like Salvatore Aiello and Vasterling himself.

As a choreographer, for the last decade Vasterling has been marrying the disciplined elegance of classical ballet with more daringly modern idioms. He has adapted material by singer-songwriters Jonell Mosser, Nanci Griffith and Hal Ketchum. He has collaborated with the Nashville Chamber Orchestra to produce a segment of Conni Ellisor’s ballet-in-progress based on Tennessee’s Bell Witch legend. In December he collaborated with West End United Methodist’s Chamber Choir to produce a delightfully lovely “visualization” of selections from Handel’s Messiah. For a February program showcasing Aiello’s choreography for Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Vasterling has choreographed Ballet: Tango to music by Astor Piazzolla, translating “the soulful energy, the melancholic mood and the sexual tension” of Argentina’s most famous dance into the idiom of ballet. It’s hard to imagine a more suitable opener for Stravinsky’s implacably urgent fertility ritual.

Vasterling likes to call ballet “the athletic art,” and it is certainly that: The company’s seven young men and seven young women all have the bodies and the stamina of trans-Channel swimmers. But ballet is also a unique narrative art that uses movement and gesture—an elegantly stylized kind of mime—to give a story’s emotional architecture visible and memorable bodily form. Vasterling’s Nashville Ballet is doing that very well right now, in a wide range of manners for a wide range of stories. With any luck, more Nashvillians will start paying attention to this important, if somewhat unheralded, ensemble.

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