When Nashville Ballet’s artistic director Benjamin Houk announced last week that he was leaving the company to become artistic director at Fort Worth-Dallas Ballet, everyone was stunnedthe dancers, the board, the administration and staff, even the press.
The Nashville Ballet board responded quickly and intelligently when informed of Houk’s resignation. At a scheduled meeting on Tuesday, June 16, the executive committee voted unanimously to hire resident choreographer Paul Vasterling, who had been runner-up for the position when Houk was appointed in 1996.
Vasterling, who has worked at the Ballet for nine years, was in Macon, Ga., where he was guest-teaching. He immediately accepted the offer. “This is something I think I can do and am ready to do even better than I was two years ago,” he says. “By working with Ben, I’ve gained insight into the management of the company. They say everything comes at the right time. This is the right time.”
Although Houk’s decision to leave makes sense for many reasons, the news is still hard to swallowparticularly since he had vowed repeatedly that he was in Nashville for “the long haul.” Granted, that’s a relative term in the context of local arts groups, but his two-year tenure was brief by any standard. Even so, by the time the news had sifted down on Friday, nobody seemed to begrudge Houk his decision. But the reality is, he went back on his word.
That, says dancer Scott Brown, is what hurts. “He was the man we were following behind and rallying behind,” Brown says, referring to the company’s recent financial problems. “He’s been our cheerleader and our source of strength, and now he’s jumping ship. There are lots of hurt feelings, anger, and disappointment.
“With everything else that’s going on, this was bad timing.”
After a financially disastrous 1997-98 season that, thanks to April’s tornado, culminated in the cancellation of Swan Lake, the company has been making a comeback. As the Nashville community is wont to do, it has begun rallying behind the Ballet, which has made numerous cutbacks to address its current budget deficit. Since the spring, the Frist Foundation has offered a vote of confidence by awarding a grant for the upcoming fall production of Robin Hood; the Metro Arts Commission has presented the Ballet with a onetime award of $10,000; a group of patrons raised $7,000 for the company at an impromptu garage sale; and the troupe has lined up tour dates for performances of The Nutcracker. Board president Lynn Greer says this year’s budget is planned so conservatively that, barring any more natural disasters, the Ballet will be out of debt and making a profit by the end of the upcoming season.
Even if he’s not fleeing a funeral, Houk’s reasons for heading to Texas are understandable. The Ft. Worth-Dallas company, with a $3.5 million budget, 31 full-time dancers, and constant community support, is a step up for the artistic director. The repertoire is Balanchine-based, which matches Houk’s own dance heritage. Also, the family of his wife, Lori-Michelle Rohde, resides in the Dallas area. When Houk announced last spring that he was not renewing four contracts at Nashville Ballet, Rohde was one of two dancers who immediately resigned.
“I was not in the hunt,” Houk insists. “There are a bunch of artistic director jobs out there, and I hadn’t applied for any except this one. Because it’s a family thing.”
However, the dancers’ feelings of being shafteda “deeper sentiment than I expected,” Houk saysare equally understandable. The artistic director flew to Texas on Thursday morning, where he announced at a press conference that he’d taken the position. Thanks to the immediacy of the Internet, the news spread instantly. People all over Nashville were finding out just as Nashville Ballet’s PR director Andrea Dillenburgwho first got word the night beforewas frantically trying to release a press statement.
The Nashville Ballet dancers, meanwhile, were performing for an arts teachers’ conference on Thursday. They were literally the last to find outhaving been informed only after they’d met with Houk late that afternoon. “People were crying,” Brown says. “Ben, being Ben, told everyone to go ahead and take [their] shots, don’t hold back. And several dancers did.”
The dancers are now in a position to make their own choices about where to head next. This particular group has become renowned for its resilience, chemistry, and focus, despite the company’s repeated bad karma. Brown, a 15-year veteran of similar ballet wars, is philosophical about the changeover: “On a personal level, this hurts, but on a professional level, it could be the thing that gives us a real boost and could solidify our company into the next millennium. I’m hoping that’s going to be true with Paul. He’s earned it, and he’s held true to the company for many, many years.”
In fact, while Nashville Ballet has experienced a series of hard knocks as a company, Vasterling’s star has continued to rise. He has won several awards and has developed a national reputation for innovative choreography. When setting a new work, he shows an uncanny knack for augmenting a dancer’s unique strengths. Karen Burns in Remnants of Light, Kathryn Beasley Gager in Firebird, and Nicole Johnson in This Heart have all exemplified original Vasterling pieces in which the dancer indeed becomes the dance.
The choreographer reasons, “I have a strong sense that new work is going to bring us forward, although we’re not going to abandon our classical roots. I want to make a repertory that is theatrical, exciting, fresh, andeven though people in the arts hate this wordentertaining, but maintaining an artistic integrity. I want people to come see the ballet because they are excited by what they see.
“For us to try to be American Ballet Theatre or New York City Ballet is counterproductive. We need to be the Nashville Ballet. My job is to make a statement.”
That statement will include opening the season with Vasterling’s original full-length production of Robin Hood, followed by a winter repertory of The Nutcracker and Swan Lake. The season will conclude with a new spring series featuring Yes, Virginia, Another Piano Ballet combined with other works to be decided. Vasterling is considering a gospel ballet with onstage singers and/or a ballet performed to the music of a live local band.
Ben Houk is a nice, charismatic guy with, as he himself puts it, “a big heart,” deserving of well wishes. Yet the signs say his sudden hand-off to Vasterling could actually be the sea-change that the Nashville Ballet needs.
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