Paul Vasterling
September 1, 2014

Music for ballet 

Vasterling brings a Nashville sound to many of his ballets.

When one is based in the heart of “music city,” it’s only natural to take advantage of the vibrant music scene. As artistic director of Nashville Ballet, Paul Vasterling has a reputation for collaborating with popular musicians. Many play live during his ballets, drawing new audiences to see dance.

Last season, the company premiered a ballet with the Nashville Symphony set to a concerto by alt-rock piano virtuoso Ben Folds. Given the indie hero’s huge fan base, Vasterling knew the project would amp up ticket sales in addition to being artistically stimulating. After the two spent just one day together in the studio (“He noodled on the piano and I noodled with dancers and we talked about what we wanted,” says Vasterling.), the choreographer felt confident he could leave compositional choices up to Folds. “He went away and started sending me little fragments, and all I really said was, ‘Wow, that’s amazing.’” The result is the three-movement Ben Folds Project. Not surprisingly, Vasterling says the choreography is driven by the music. This approach stretched his comfort zone as a dancemaker, since he feels most at home creating story ballets. The piece premiered in May on a bill with Balanchine’s Serenade and Ji˘rí Kylián’s Petite Mort, both major crowd-pleasers for first-time viewers and balletomanes alike; 1,400 new audience members attended.

Of course, what would Nashville collaborations be without country artists? Vasterling has staged ballets to the lilting tunes of Nanci Griffith and, more recently, Kellie Pickler, who performed at NB’s 2014 spring gala. He dreams of one day working with Patty Griffin. While other dancemakers might shy away from the twangy, often pop-driven genre, Vasterling thinks “music is meant to be choreographed to.” All music. The hard part, he says, is approaching songs with lyrics without being gimmicky. His solution is to ignore the words in the early stages and work purely with rhythms, melodies and overall feeling. Eventually he’ll take the words into account, which can present a fresh challenge. “Sometimes I find myself at odds with the lyrics,” he says. “Maybe I’ve got this sad song that sounded happy to me when I first heard it. Then I have to find a way out of that. It’s a good thing for creativity.” DT

Artist: Ben Folds

Album: The Best Imitation of Myself: A Retrospective

A compilation of Folds’ past releases as a solo artist and with his band Ben Folds Five. “Folds’ songs usually surprise me in some way. He was a drummer, so his work tends to have interesting rhythms.”


Artist: Richard Danielpour

Song Cycle: “A Woman’s Life”

A series of Maya Angelou’s poems arranged for voice and orchestra. “Richard’s music is complex but still totally approachable, and he picks compelling themes that I find inspiring.”


Artist: Kellie Pickler

Album: The Woman I Am

“I got familiar with Kellie’s music after she did a gala with us—this is her newest, and it has a lot of interesting songs.”



Artist: Adam Guettel

Album: The Light in the Piazza 

Soundtrack to the musical. “Guettel writes beautiful complex songs full of emotion, encompassing unique ways of expressing the nature of love.”



Artist: ALIAS Chamber Ensemble

Album: Boiling Point: Music of Kenji Bunch

Nashville-based ensemble performs original compositions. “I came across Kenji’s music at a concert and really connected with it. I went to the director of ALIAS and said: ‘Who is this guy? Do you think he’d let me use his music for a Macbeth ballet?’ He ended up saying yes.”


Photo (top) by Anthony Matula, courtesy of Nashville Ballet

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