Paul Vasterling, Artistic Director and CEO of Nashville Ballet, is passionate about ballet’s potential to inspire people and improve lives. The company has thrived under his leadership, expanding to include a second company and spreading deep roots into its community through thoughtful education and engagement initiatives. The World Dances spoke with Vasterling about his vision for Nashville Ballet, his ideas about the future and meaning of ballet, his perspective as both Artistic Director and CEO, and more.
You will be doing a fellowship at New York University’s Center for Ballet and the Arts this summer. What projects will you be undertaking?
I’ll be working on two new pieces, one based on Orlando by Virginia Wolf and one based on a collection of sonnets called Lucy Negro, Redux by Caroline Randall Williams. Both are contemporarily focused stories. I’m particularly interested in narrative. I always have been. I think it’s what I’m best at in terms of making up dance or theatrical productions or expressions.
What’s interesting to me about Orlando is that it plays to the idea of gender and what gender means. Orlando is a magical realism kind of idea. Orlando never ages, but in the middle of the book or so, he wakes up and he’s a woman, just inexplicably he has become a woman. It’s really interesting that embodied in this one person are these two genders.
Lucy Negro, Redux is based on the author’s theory that Shakespeare’s Dark Lady Sonnets were for a black woman. She wrote a fascinating sonnet cycle around that concept. It juxtaposes modern and Elizabethan times with modern considerations of this mixed race relationship. There are many layers to the story. There’s very complex subject matter and it was prescient. It feels very now, even though both of these stories come from and refer to older times.
Nashville Ballet provides lectures and education programming about career transitions to its dancers. Why do you think this is important for company culture?
It’s hard to leave this profession, and it’s particularly hard as a director to tell people it’s their time to move on. So I wanted to help dancers be prepared to figure out what will come next for them. I’m also interested in dancers who are “real people,” people who are interested in the world around them. It’s not just about the six pirouettes that they can do; it’s also about the book they just read, the museum they just visited, the interactions they have. I want people who are out there experiencing the world. As artists they have depth of field and they have somewhere to bring you.
How is your perspective on the company shaped by your dual role as Artistic Director and CEO?
I have a unique perspective internally as an artist but also externally of the community we’re in. I believe the art we present needs to be aware of and responsive to the community, what we do needs to be a part of their lives. We need to have art the community can connect to and is interested in. Having been here for a long time is really helpful for that. Understanding resources, what we have—be they in the back of our storage room or our board members—is helpful as well. I have been a dancer, faculty member, ballet master, resident choreographer, artistic director, CEO at Nashville Ballet. All of these stages have taught me different things. I keep these lessons with me and try to apply all of them. They all connect back to being a member of the community here.
Is it a challenge to balance the artistic vision of the AD role with the responsibilities of your role as CEO?
I struggle with this all the time. However, to my mind, the CEO role involves envisioning the future of the company. I try to imagine what we can be and gather the team and all the constituencies, dancers, faculty, board, etc., into this unified vision. As CEO, I help everyone dream new ways forward. The everyday business, making sure the bills are paid, is definitely a part of it, but I think the biggest part is dreaming. And isn’t that what artistic directors are supposed to do? So, for me, the two roles are closely related and support each other. In my opinion I think more Artistic Directors should be CEOs.
What is your vision for the future of Nashville Ballet?
Nothing short of changing the world through ballet I guess! The dream is for us to fulfill our mission, which is to create, perform, teach, and promote dance and try to be an inspiring element in our community. As I look forward, I want the company to be more nationally recognized. We always have to be doing these basic things, inspiring people, and bringing art to the community that makes people think. We want to help develop new choreographers and ballets and be a company that nurtures and drives creativity. And we want to make and share art that is transformative and helps people understand themselves and the world in different ways.
Photo: Paul Vasterling Photo credit: Anthony Matula