Paul Vasterling Reflects on His More Than Three-Decade Career at Nashville Ballet

May 9, 2023

In his 33 years with Nashville Ballet, artistic director Paul Vasterling has left an indelible mark on the organization. This month, he retires from the company, marking the end of an era.

A Louisiana-bayou native, Vasterling joined Nashville Ballet in 1989 as a dancer. After a back injury cut short his performance career, he became the company’s ballet master and choreographer; he was appointed artistic director in 1998. During his 25-year tenure as director he transformed the dozen-member troupe into the largest professional ballet company in Tennessee, with 33 dancers and a presence on the national stage. In addition, Vasterling founded Nashville Ballet’s second company, NB2, and grew its affiliated ballet school into one that attracts students from across the country.

As one of the company’s primary choreographers, Vasterling created over 40 original ballets, including Lucy Negro Redux, which was featured on PBS’s Great Performances television series (as Black Lucy and the Bard). He also led the company to commission over 22 original scores from Nashville singer-songwriters and nationally known musicians, such as Ben Folds and Pulitzer Prize- and Grammy Award–winning artist Rhiannon Giddens.

Vasterling’s final season ends this month with his production of The Sleeping Beauty. Pointe spoke with him about his career, what’s next for him, and the future of ballet.

Why leave Nashville Ballet now?

In a large dance studio, Paul Vasterling stands in front of a group of dancers and gives notes to them, placing his wrists together, palms facing out and fingers splayed. He wears a dark blue turtleneck sweater, jeans and brown sneakers with white soles. A famale dancer and male dancer face him, joining hands in a pose, and listen. The woman wears a black low-back leotard and tights, while the male dancer wears a gold long-sleeved shirt and black tights.
Vasterling with members of Nashville Ballet in rehearsal. Photo by Lydia McRae Photography, courtesy Nashville Ballet.

I have been thinking about retirement for a while, and the pandemic got me thinking even more about what’s next. I adore Nashville Ballet and everything we have done with it. But I wanted to have more time to myself to explore other bits of my creativity. Things are stabilized with the organization and there is good leadership I can leave it to. I want other people to be able to spread their wings and tell their stories.

Your legacy includes highlighting the artistry and history of Nashville, including commissioning original scores from local singer-songwriters. What motivated that?

Music has always been a big part of me. I went to college to be amusic therapist. So when I came to Nashville, I immediately connected with the music scene here. The choices of composers here is incredibly broad, and in the time I have been artistic director the local music scene has grown along with us and has become a natural part of who Nashville Ballet is. It is so much fun to work with a composer that releases their boundaries and becomes part of the process.

You accomplished a lot in your tenure as artistic director. Were there things you wanted to do for the company that you couldn’t?

Not really. I was just happy to have the opportunity to create work. My joy really comes from the process. By the time a production gets to opening night, I am happy to have it up, but then I am ready to move on to the next thing.

What made you happiest at Nashville Ballet?

Seeing the artists and staff achieve their goals. I don’t want to seem parental, but it’s sort of like a mentor watching his mentees thrive in their lives and careers.

What do you feel will be some of the biggest challenges for your successor, Nick Mullikin?

I think many of the challenges will be the same. How do we take this art form, one that’s based in tradition, and use it to tell stories that are relevant to the place we are in now? How do we get people excited about what we love and that transforms our lives every day in big and small ways? I feel strongly that Nick will take Nashville Ballet to the next level.

Where do you see ballet as an art form headed?

Ballet is a big ship that turns slowly, but in the last several years we have seen efforts for it to be a more inclusive and universal in its way of speaking. I sincerely believe in the language of ballet and the aesthetics that go along with that still have the power to transform lives going forward.

In a large dance studio, Paul Vasterling stands with his back facing the camera, wearing a black polo shirt and dark sweatpants. He joins hands with ballerina Kayla Rowser and holds their arms wide, as if dancing together. ROwser, wearing a black and white leotard and black tights, looks up at Vasterling as he talks. Owen Thorne, wearing a blue tank top and sweatpants, stands to the right of them, watching and listening intently.
Vasterling rehearses Lucy Negro Redux with former Nashville Ballet dancer Kayla Rowser and current company member Owen Thorne. Photo by Heather Thorne, courtesy Nashville Ballet.

Do you plan to keep choreographing?

Yes, but for now I won’t be hanging out my shingle as a choreographer for hire.

What’s next?

I am interested in finding other avenues of exploring my creativity. I’m going to direct a musical, and I have some other things I am working on. I’m not going to work as much, so I can spend more time with my husband, Jason Merrill-Facio, and our two Chihuahuas, Alfie and Birdy.