Dance Master 

Choreographer Paul Vasterling keeps the Nashville Ballet on its toes

The Nashville Ballet will kick off its 22nd season this weekend in grand style, presenting a trio of dances that will include a delightful Valse-Fantasie (featuring the choreography of George Balanchine), a steamy Ballet Tango and a ghoulish dance called Dracula, based on the classic Bram Stoker novel.

The Nashville Ballet will kick off its 22nd season this weekend in grand style, presenting a trio of dances that will include a delightful Valse-Fantasie (featuring the choreography of George Balanchine), a steamy Ballet Tango and a ghoulish dance called Dracula, based on the classic Bram Stoker novel.

Paul Vasterling, who’s celebrating his 10th anniversary as the ballet’s artistic director, created the choreography for Dracula and the tango. He will also play a major role in choreographing the rest of the ballet’s upcoming season, which will include the holiday favorite The Nutcracker (Dec. 14-23), an Orpheus pas de deux based on the music of Philip Glass (Feb. 8-16) and Prokofiev’s classic Romeo and Juliet (April 25-27).

Clearly, the Nashville Ballet has benefited greatly from Vasterling’s creative endeavors—few midsize, regional ballet companies program as much original choreography. But the best thing about Vasterling’s tenure has arguably been his staying power.

During its first decade as a professional company, the ballet went through artistic directors the way the Weimar Republic went through chancellors—four between 1986 and 1997. “There was a lot of turnover, which didn’t help the stability of the company,” says Vasterling.

Since Vasterling arrived on the scene, there’s been a steady rise in the company’s fortunes. He now oversees a yearly budget of $3 million, double what it was 10 years ago. Moreover, both the company and its audience have become more sophisticated.

“I’ve tried to expose our audience to more of the variety and scope of what ballet can be,” says Vasterling, who has expressed an interest in presenting the works of such great American choreographers as Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Agnes de Mille, Martha Graham and Todd Bolender, among others.

Unlike many of those great choreographers, though, Vasterling came to dance rather late. He was working as a pit pianist for a community production of Paint Your Wagon in his native Slidell, La., when the show’s choreographer suggested he try his hand (and legs) at ballet. The slender 17-year-old pianist followed that advice and studied ballet at Loyola University in New Orleans. He then danced with regional companies in San Antonio, Jackson, Akron and Austin before finally landing toes-first in Nashville in 1989.

Vasterling may have found his niche, but he’s also experienced at least one major career setback. “I hurt my back,” the choreographer recalls. “I didn’t take care of it well. I kept pushing through it, and then it became a chronic issue, and my abilities were slipping.”

So after dancing for just two years in Nashville, Vasterling’s career was in jeopardy, and he seriously pondered going back to school to study social work. But he also began teaching at the ballet, and he started to secure opportunities choreographing for schools, smaller companies and festivals. Meanwhile, he became ballet master at Nashville Ballet and eventually became its artistic director.

With the company’s growing reputation, Vasterling has spearheaded touring opportunities, which have included a 2005 excursion to Argentina and Uruguay. But he also thinks locally and has been the key proponent of innovative programs such as the highly successful Bluebird Cafe at the Ballet and Emergence!, both of which provide opportunities for Nashville composers and performers.

“I like to do Nashville-driven stuff because we are in this place at this time, and it’s important that we’re influenced by what is happening in this community,” he says.

Vasterling’s goals for the future include an expansion of the dancers’ contracts, additional concerts on the yearly schedule and a special perk that the company has never been able to afford: a rehearsal pianist.

“I am a caretaker,” Vasterling says about his job. “It’s my responsibility to take care of the kind of aesthetic vision we’ve established and also to take care of the people who come to see us. But my biggest responsibility is to the dancers of the company, to be nurturing to them, to foster their growth as artists and to challenge them.”

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