All the right moves
Located in the historic Sylvan Park neighborhood of West Nashville, the home of the Nashville Ballet could easily be confused for a Catholic primary school. A yellow brick building is surrounded by a fleet of minivans on this mild Friday afternoon, and a stream of children exit joyfully out into the parking lot as their parents await.
Despite all appearances, these young disciples are here to learn not about the three R's, but about the power of pirouettes. In fact, this modest space is the place where some of the city's most talented artists tend to their craft. The Ballet's curriculum-based program brings dance education to elementary, middle, and high schools as well as community centers, public libraries, and colleges, covering a 15-county region throughout Middle Tennessee. Dance students, ages three and up, receive ballet instruction from faculty.
This program is just one of the Ballet's many contributions to the Nashville arts scene. The average person may not know the difference between an adagio and an arabesque, but the compelling performance art presented by the Nashville Ballet has inspired awe and admiration from its audiences for a quarter-century.
The organization completes its 25th anniversary season this month with the excellent cantata Carmina Burana, and this major milestone has allowed the organization to reflect on past successes and plan for the future.
"I think the community is starting to see there's something special in the city," says Chris Stuart, a seven-year veteran of the Ballet's dance troupe. "It's been great to see the growth of the talent. There's a mix of the classic and contemporary, and that's what I love about this company."
Nashville Ballet, which was officially inaugurated in 1986, is the largest professional ballet company in Tennessee. They present a variety of classical ballet and contemporary works by acclaimed choreographers, including original compositions by president and CEO Paul Vasterling.
In 1989, Vasterling joined the Ballet as a dancer, and has now served as artistic director for thirteen years. The board of directors elected last summer to tab Vasterling as the organization's CEO, a position that requires him to balance both his artistic and his administrative instincts.
"I took the job (as artistic director) because of my desire to be a choreographer," Vasterling says. "There's a certain risk in being a creator, but now I enjoy being a mentor to these dancers. It's nice to be able to go back and forth between each role. It's really made me become a much better communicator."
According to Stuart, Vasterling has succeeded in both aspects of his dual role.
"Since I've been here, I've seen him change so much as an artist," he says. "He's been such a mentor to me. He's very dedicated to the company, and his vision for us never stops."
Vasterling, well versed in the world of dance, has deftly handled his new role by empowering his management team to make new strides. Staff changes last year have stirred up positive results. Jan Morrison, a public relations practitioner with experience at Lovell Communications and NewsChannel 5 Network, is now the organization's PR & Promotions Manager. And after a stint with Manheim Nashville, Jim Johnson has stepped into the role as the Ballet's director of sales and marketing.
To enhance the Ballet's public image, Johnson seeks consistency in marketing strategies as they cement their special place in Middle Tennessee's arts community.
"My goal is to promote our caliber of talent," he says about recent publicity efforts. "I want there to be an image of prestige. In the past, all of our departments worked differently, and nothing really worked together. Now we're making sure that everything fits together as a whole."
Johnson credits Vasterling's inexhaustible spirit for keeping him focused and fulfilled during the beginning stages of his tenure.
"I'm stressed sometimes, but he doesn't let up," Johnson says. "He pushes me to be better than I ever had been. I'm excited to be a part of a company that will help me grow, and I'm ready to start building the next generation."
Although the Ballet offers a series of polished presentations, they do so without the financial windfall of comparable companies. The challenge is to create an attractive showcase with limited resources.
"The company is really intimate and the administrative staff is small," Johnson says. "People think that because we're a professional company, there's a lot of money, but we still rely a lot on volunteer help which we're grateful for."
Their efforts support the artistic endeavors of 22 dancers who work full-time Monday through Friday to perfect their routines. In this intricate genre, dancers have the slimmest margin of error. Many Ballet attendees can appreciate their exquisite physical form, but few understand the intense commitment required to perform at such a high level.
"In the performance it's great to have the audience's energy," Stuart says. "It's all about the vibe from the audience and showing my passion while I'm on the stage. It's very demanding and you have to be in great shape, but it's worth it to have that feeling."
It's this connection to the community that makes the Ballet's prospects bright. With his gaze fixed on the future, Vasterling aspires to build a program that rivals the biggest regional ballets in the nation, with the goal of gaining national exposure for his roster.
"My hope always is to add more programming," he says. "I want to do things that are fresh and creative, and find a way to expand our offerings. In the end, my focus is always to tell the story well."