Field Trip: A Visit to Congress

By Paul Vasterling

Back in November I had the pleasure of working with Brandon Gryde to pay visits to my member of Congress on “the Hill.” As I live in Nashville, we went to visit Senators Bob Corker (R-TN) and Lamar Alexander (R-TN) as well as Congressman Jim Cooper (D-TN-5). It was a fun and very relaxed morning; I really enjoyed the visits and the walks through the capitol buildings and Brandon made the visits extremely easy. All I had to do was show up and speak with enthusiasm about arts funding. Brandon helped fill in the gaps and make connections in the conversations so that everything flowed with ease.

There is nothing like a face-to-face conversation with our legislators about our work and what we are passionate about; I believe that forging personal connections is an invaluable  element to advocacy.

First up was Congressman Cooper, with whom I was able to meet directly, and who I know from seeing him around Nashville. Jim is a good speaker and I’ve heard him speak about many subjects in Nashville, but it was really good to get his one-on-one attention and to directly advocate for arts funding. He assured me, tongue in cheek, that he “was not a redneck” and was behind supporting the National Endowment for the Arts and assured me that the charitable giving laws would not be coming up for revision soon as there are too many other issues going on. I took some comfort in that, but realized that we would need to talk again if this issue continues to come up.

Next we saw three staff members from Senator Alexander’s office, including his education policy director Peter Oppenheim and Diane Tran, both Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee staff, as well as his legislative aide Samantha Williams. Sam, it turns out, is from Nashville, and is familiar with my organization, Nashville Ballet. We had a nice conversation that emphasized our efforts at inclusivity and diversity. We talked about all the outreach work that Nashville Ballet does in the communities throughout middle Tennessee and the importance of public arts education.

For the final meeting of the day, Brandon had to get back to the Dance/USA offices for board meeting activities (the visit occurred during the Dance/USA board meeting in November) so he left me to fend for myself in my scheduled meeting with Senator Bob Corker’s staff. I realized as soon as I started speaking that it would be easy because of my experience in the prior two meetings. It turned out that one of the staff member’s wives danced (it’s always easy to find dance connections) and I was pleased to see that he listened intently and took copious notes as I spoke.

All in all, it was a great morning and I would do it again, and would recommend making time for a legislative visit to all of our Dance/USA members. There is nothing like a face-to-face conversation with our legislators about our work and what we are passionate about; I believe that forging personal connections is an invaluable element to advocacy!

One final note: After leaving Washington, I, like all ballet directors, dove right into a long run of Nutcracker. I was happily surprised to see Senator Alexander’s aide, Sam Williams, in the audience at one of the performances. She told me she was “very impressed.” There was a wonderful connection between what she was seeing and our conversation back in Washington about diversity and inclusivity: We feature dancers of color in all of our performances at Nashville Ballet, but in this particular performance both Clara and the Sugar Plum Fairy were women of color. It put a lovely exclamation point onto our talk! And I doubt Ms. Williams would have made the effort to attend the ballet had we not first met in at her office in Washington.

Field Trip: A Visit to CongressPaul Vasterling stepped into the role of artistic director of Nashville Ballet in 1998, 10 years after he began his association with the company. He came as a company dancer and later served as a teacher, ballet master and choreographer. After several years of artistic turnover at the company, Vasterling applied for the job, a position he has held ever since. In the spring of 2010 Vasterling took on the additional role of CEO for the ballet.

A choreographer with a deep affinity for music, Vasterling has created more than 40 works, ranging from classical, full-length story ballets to more contemporary one-acts set to the music of local artists. Vasterling’s penchant and particular gift is for storytelling, which he has done vividly in such ballets as Dracula, Romeo and Juliet, and, most recently, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. His ballets have been performed from South America to Asia, everywhere to great acclaim. Stateside, reviews have been equally glowing, with New York magazine Attitude writing of his work, “America has not lost its sense of value of elegant dancing as art.” Beyond his own choreography, Vasterling has edited and updated classic productions of Giselle, The Sleeping Beauty, and Swan Lake, and has expanded the company’s repertoire to include works by Salvatore Aiello, George Balanchine, James Canfield, Lew Christensen, and Twyla Tharp, among many others. He has also encouraged company dancers who have shown an interest in choreography, giving them the same opportunity to create that he received from artistic directors.

In 2004, Vasterling received a Fulbright Scholarship that enabled him to work with three different companies in Argentina, paving the way for Nashville Ballet’s tour there a year later. In 2008, Vasterling raised the curtain on Nashville’s Nutcracker, making a holiday tradition local and newly relevant. His 2009 premiere of Carmina Burana, a ballet he had long wanted to present, was a huge success with critics and audiences alike.

A magna cum laude graduate of Loyola University, Vasterling has set a new standard for arts development. Under his leadership, the company’s resources have grown by close to 300 percent and Nashville Ballet became the first local performing arts organization to purchase its own building. 


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