Streamlining the Chain of Command: Nashville Ballet

By Gavin Larsen

Three years ago, Nashville Ballet moved from a traditional non-profit leadership structure (artistic and executive directors, a board president) into one that looks more like a for-profit company. Artistic Director Paul Vasterling assumed the title of CEO while remaining artistic leader, and reports that the results have been only positive:  better communication, efficiency, and cohesion throughout the company. Dance/USA spoke with Vasterling about how it works.

Dance/USA:    Why change to this structure?
Paul VasterlingVasterling:    Because of limited resources, there can be a disconnect between the artistic and administrative sides, and sometimes they can be pitted against each other to reach their respective goals. Our board saw that having two people over the artistic and administrative sides of the organization required a lot of time in negotiation and compromise. So they combined the roles of artistic director and CEO, which allows me to manage the two sides of the organization that might experience conflict with one another.

Dance/USA:     Who exactly is involved?
Vasterling:    I serve as the artistic director and CEO.  We have an executive director who reports to me and helps manage all administrative aspects of the organization, and a board president with whom I work closely. To make the big decisions, I work directly with the board president and rely on the information and guidance provided by our executive director.

Dance/USA:   Does conflict still arise?
Vasterling:    Honestly, there’s very little conflict with this model. Most conflicts occur in my own head because I have to consider the entire organization when making decisions. But because of that, I have to consider how my decisions will affect each person within the organization and what will be most beneficial for everyone – not just my “side.” It also allows us to move and act quickly when necessary.

Dance/USA:     What are the benefits?
Vasterling:    I’ve become more involved with administrative staff when making artistic decisions, which helps us collaborate more to achieve our common organizational goals. We’ve become more nimble, prepared to react and adapt to changing circumstances.

Our administrative staff and artistic staff better understand each other and they work together directly every day and have an open exchange of ideas. Every single person in the organization, including the artists, understands the goals set forth in our strategic plan and understands each person’s role in achieving those goals.

Dance/USA:     What are the challenges with this structure?
Vasterling:     My biggest challenge has just been figuring out how to balance the responsibilities I have: Setting the artistic tone, creating programming, developing and nurturing our desired organizational culture and communicating my decisions to staff and board.

But I am so thrilled to have this opportunity, because it ultimately means that I get to help produce art that is not only of excellent quality, but is also relevant to our community. This allows us to challenge the growth of our artists, while engaging our audiences and enhancing the appreciation of our community. And that’s why we all do what we do every day.

Further reading:

The Executive Pas de Deux
Does a Dance Company Executive Director Need To Have a Dance Background?

Photo: Paul Vasterling, by Anthony Matula, courtesy Nashville Ballet

Gavin LarsenGavin Larsen danced professionally with Oregon Ballet Theatre, The Suzanne Farrell Ballet, Alberta Ballet, and Pacific Northwest Ballet. She retired from full-time performing in 2010 to focus on teaching, coaching, and writing about dance. Her articles and essays have been published in Dance Magazine, Pointe, Dance Teacher, Dance Spirit, and the Threepenny Review. She lives in Portland, Ore., where she is on the faculty of the School of Oregon Ballet Theatre.


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