In a moment when the culture is bunkered down, these six creatives are using new methods — or stubbornly rehabbing old ones — to provoke, connect, and inspire
Dancer, Las Vegas Academy
Always on her toes, this hard-working dancer knows exactly where she’s going
By Heidi Kyser
In a dance studio at the Charleston Heights Arts Center one hot August morning, Hailee Smith and other members of the Contemporary West Dance Theatre spent three-quarters of an hour warming up before actually dancing. Sweat streamed from people’s heads onto the parquet as they bent forward to stretch. Far from exhausted by the lengthy conditioning, however, Smith came alive as she began crossing the room diagonally with the other dancers, two-by-two, repeating combos that company rehearsal director Avree Walker had shown them.
Smith masters the necessary moves — torso erect, lifted leg nearly vertical, toes pointed, and so on; the company wouldn’t have taken her on, even as the apprentice she is, otherwise. But what’s remarkable about her style is how present she is. Each movement appears deliberate, but not stiff. She’s focused, yet still relaxed. As other dancers chat distractedly, or stare obsessively at themselves in the mirror, Smith is just 100 percent … dancing.
“Hailee is affectionately known by her peers and mentors as ‘the beast,’ and it’s meant with so much love and honor to her work ethic,” Walker says. “She’s like dynamite. Once that fuse is lit, the light and explosion don’t stop. She’s such a generous artist with her gift.”
He’s been coaching and mentoring Smith since her first class, and, as a teacher at Las Vegas Academy, where she’s a senior this year, he still does. It hasn’t been that long, though. In dancer years, Smith didn’t begin until middle age — 10 years old.
“I was aware that I was older than most of the people in the levels of class I was taking, but it didn’t faze me, because I found a passion for it,” she says.
As a third grader at the Gilbert Academy of Creative Arts magnet school, Smith first focused on acting, which included a dance requirement. After taking that class, she switched tracks. She’d found her calling.
And she made up for lost time. In fifth grade, she joined a before-school program run by Nevada Ballet Theatre called Future Dance. Her performance there earned her a scholarship to attend a program of the same name at Nevada Ballet Theatre, where she studied for six years.
The summer after fifth grade, Smith also attended her first of many dance camps at the West Las Vegas Arts Center, which would prove to be pivotal to her dance career.
“Being there, I haven’t just learned dance technique and acting and drumming,” Smith says. “I’ve learned discipline and how to be a better person. Marcia Robinson, the head of the center, has always instilled in me ‘excellence without excuse.’ That’s her motto. She taught me how to always stay on my toes, stand in the front, be the person asking questions, so I know what’s ahead before the next person does.”
The center was also where Smith first studied with Walker, and where she met another source of inspiration, Bernard Gaddis, founder of Contemporary West, which is the Charleston Heights Arts Center’s resident company. The connections and experiences she’s made and had at the West Las Vegas center have helped to define her as a contemporary/modern dancer and led her to gigs with Cirque du Soleil’s Michael Jackson ONE and Mystère.
“I like to flow through movement as well as hit it,” Smith says. “I have a very strong physique, so I like to move fast through movements and make sure things are placed. I don’t like to just move and not know where I’m going.”
Where she’s going next is a career in dance. After graduation, she plans to attend college — she has her list of preferred schools narrowed down to four — and double-major in dance and physical therapy. After that, she hopes to join the Dallas Black Dance Theatre.
Playwright, actor, producer, painter
In adapting to a chaotic present, she finds new ways to explore her past
By Andrew Kiraly
The pandemic forced many artists to try new things, and Dulce Valencia is no exception. When producing her play became impossible, she adapted it as a podcast drama. When lockdown anxiety got to be too much, she picked up a brush and began painting. But in both cases, the embrace of the new brought her in contact with a sense of history and heritage: Her reimagined podcast saga recalls the gripping radionovelas that were popular growing up in her village of Zihuatanejo in Mexico; her vibrant paintings find a focus in the iconic image of a strong woman inspired by her mother. In adjusting to a chaotic present, Valencia found new paths to explore her past.
“The impulse to paint comes when I’m at a place where just I need a release, and I need to not think about things,” the 24-year-old artist and immigration activist explains. “Painting is my form of meditation.” What began as stress relief evolved into a kind of ritual tribute as she began producing a series of colorful, stylized portraits of a woman wreathed in a swirl of seasonal flowers and plants. “Subconsciously, the same person kept coming to me, and it was a very still female face, a contrast to the chaos. Throughout my entire life, I’ve been surrounded by strong females, so when I paint, I want to paint my reality, and that’s women being strong and bold.” Women such as Valencia’s mother, Maria Sanchez, who left Zihuatanejo for Las Vegas in 2007, bringing along 12-year-old Valencia and her two siblings to build a new life.
The process of building that new life in Las Vegas supplied Valencia with plentiful raw material for her other passion, writing. Her five-play cycle aims to explore the immigrant experience of several women over several generations, based largely on her own family’s experience. But before she put pen to paper, Valencia had to get through some creative blocks.
“I used to feel a lot of pressure in representing the immigrant experience, and that held me back for quite a bit,” she says. “But then I realized I’m never going to be able to capture the complete immigrant experience, but I can capture my story and what my experience was, and that will resonate with someone who can then write a different part, and then slowly we’ll have these pieces that complete the puzzle.” Valencia is currently developing her first play in the cycle, The Disappearance of Cristobal Suarez, into a 14-episode podcast, and hopes to complete it by the end of the year. That’s also when she’ll graduate from UNLV with a bachelor’s degree in theater studies. After that, she’s considering grad school in New York, depending on how abnormal the new normal is. But amid the uncertainty, she says she won’t stop working to realize her vision, a lesson learned from one of her inspirations, Hamilton creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda. Earlier this year, Dulce appeared in an episode of the Apple TV+ docuseries, Dear ..., in which she talked about how Miranda as a professional role model galvanized her commitment to both art and activism.
“Something he said once was, ‘Nobody’s ever going to write your perfect show, so you have to do it yourself,’” she says. “I would always get a little frustrated with the roles I saw out there or the plays I saw being produced. So, I was like, no one’s going to write my perfect show. So let me try. And I started writing.”
Executive director, Dam Short Film Festival
A deep well of experience helps this festival director innovate new ways forward
By Heidi Kyser
Tsvetelina Stefanova is well-known in Boulder City and music circles from her and her husband, James Adams’, rock band Same Sex Mary and their promotional company, Bad Moon Booking, which devotes special attention to cultural events and festivals in the small town to Las Vegas’ south. But it’s Stefanova’s latest gig, as executive director of the Dam Short Film Festival, that landed her on this list. She became festival director in January, and she’s already made a couple interesting changes. Considering her energy and enthusiasm for promoting the arts, they’re likely the first of many.
“I truly believe in the greatness of everything I put my time into,” she says, “especially the film festival. It’s like lightning in a bottle. It’s very special.”
Before I get to those changes, a short résumé is in order. Stefanova moved to the U.S. from Bulgaria in 1996. She went to Las Vegas Academy of the Arts as a piano major but switched to guitar her junior year and art portfolio as a senior. She graduated from Northern Arizona University in 2009 with a bachelor’s degree in biology, chemistry minor, and moved back to Southern Nevada, where she and Adams decided to give the rock-and-roll thing a try while they were still young. The band’s DIY spirit led to Bad Moon Booking, whose concert promotion business led to organizing festivals, such as Life Is Shit. For that event, Stefanova and Adams solicited art, poetry, and prose based on the LIS theme and used it to produce zines.
A few trends emerge from this history: Stefanova’s artistic eclecticism, a contact list spanning multiple cultural fields, the desire to share good finds with a broader audience, and a strong maker ethic.
“When you’re in an indie band, you do everything yourself, so you realize the things you’re good at,” she said. “I just kind of took on the management and marketing role.”
Thus, when the Dam Short Film Festival, for which she’d been volunteering since her return to the Vegas Valley, needed a social media manager, Stefanova was the obvious choice. She went from that to the board of directors, where she headed development, to her current role as executive director.
Her innovations along the way reflect her knack for bringing in new audiences. In 2017, she floated the idea of a music video showcase, which other organizers said they’d tried unsuccessfully in the past. Using her music-world cred, Stefanova was able to grow it from a pre-festival highlight into one of the festival’s permanent judged categories, with abundant submissions, since 2018. Last year, drawing on her experience with the Life Is Shit zine, she added a festival poster art contest. Graphic artists submit their original poster designs which hang in public for a viewing — for instance, at the grand opening of the Boulder City Co. Store during the town’s annual wine walk last year — and are judged for a grand prize of $500. All designers earn festival tickets, and the posters go on to adorn the directors lounge.
“I love that there’s so much creativity to marketing,” Stefanova says. “Las Vegas is a small town. It really is. In our arts community, we all need to support each other. Bringing arts together — things like poster art and independent film — is a great way to put the film festival on the radar of other artists who might not have thought about going to it otherwise.”
The 2021 festival is scheduled February 11-15, but Stefanova doesn’t know yet whether it’ll take place in its traditional format at the Historic Boulder Theatre, be a live-online hybrid event, or switch to an outdoor format such as a popup drive-in. For now, the team is focusing on the strengths that have earned the festival international praise. There will plenty of time in the future, Stefanova says, for more innovations.
Ashley Vargas (Ms. AyeVee)
Slam poet, poetry impresario
When the virus closes a door, it opens a browser
By Scott Dickensheets
So, yeah, poetry jumped onto the web with everything else, going from the coffeehouse to Instagram at COVID-19 miles per hour. Time to adapt. Zoom readings, selfie videos. In many cases, that transition wasn’t so bad; some poetry works just fine in the digital void between reader and listener. But slam poetry? That’s an art form in which, if you’re gonna do it like a boss, you typically want to embody your poetry, to engage it with your physical self, and that’s best done in the live energy flux between performer and audience.
Here’s Ashley Vargas — stage name: Ms. AyeVee — recalling her very first slam outing, in a 2016 Battleborn Slam event at The Beat: “I felt so alive. It felt so full of passion. And the people in the audience, they were so into it — they were cheering, giving you snaps, clapping. It was the first time in a long time I had one of those moments: ‘Oh, my gosh, this is what I’m supposed to be doing. Aha!’”
Sounds amazing, a sweet rush of validation. How’s that gonna work online?
It’s not a question of merely idle aesthetic interest to Vargas, who coordinates Beyond the Neon, a monthly three-round slam competition on Instagram under the auspices of the local nonprofit Poetry Promise. She knows firsthand the value of that sense of community. In her late 20s, after writing poems since about age 8, many of them exploring her less-than-idyllic childhood, she signed up for her first poetry reading. Her words and stories, she says — “my truth” — needed to get out. “I had never even dreamed that I would say these poems aloud — let alone on microphones in rooms full of people.” That first one wasn’t easy, what with her nerves and all. She read from a sheet, “hiding behind my paper a little,” she recalls. And quickly left when she got offstage. “I was so nervous.”
Vargas rebounded quickly, taking third place in that first Battleborn slam event. And found herself amid a supportive community that valued her poems about family, pain, and finding strength. She joined the Battleborn team in 2016, traveled to out-of-state contests, got noticed by Def Poetry, became a mainstay in the FreeVerbLV slam team, and this year saw it all skid to a pandemic halt.
Which brings us to Instagram: “How,” she asks, “can we revolutionize what’s happening while still staying true to the mission of sharing stories, transparency, connection with our own community now that we’re online?” Her one-word answer: freedom. With its first two rounds comprising video submissions, Beyond the Neon’s competitors can present their work any way they like. From lo-fi cellphone footage to a real production with a director and everything. Vargas recalls a local poet who added a charged visual urgency to her poem about reproductive rights by filming herself reciting it in front of Las Vegas City Hall.
This has turned out to be the compensatory upside of being cut off from your live audience. Poets are now free to imagine visual dimensions to work they once regarded primarily in literary and performance terms. This has upped the level of creativity, fostered collaborations with other artists, and added a new verve to what might’ve been a fairly typical online event.
“Ashley has been leading the hottest new slam scene,” says Bruce Isaacson of Poetry Promise, “an Instagram Slam, a wham-bam-Vegas-video-slam. Real poetry’s in the streets, in the lives of real people struggling. Ashley’s giving them a place to dream.”
“It’s so beautiful to see, and it’s unexpected,” Vargas says. “When I created Beyond the Neon, I didn’t anticipate it. The poets really brought that.”
Holly Lay + Homero Hidalgo
COVID or not, here they come — with a new gallery devoted to experimental art
By Scott Dickensheets
If there’s never a good time to take an impetuous risk (like opening an art gallery), it follows that there’s never a truly bad time, either (like during a global pandemic). So artists Holly Lay and Homero Hidalgo have opened an art gallery during a global pandemic. “It’s always going to be hard, with or without (COVID-19),” Lay says. “So let’s do it.”
And do it they did, thanks in some measure to stubborn determination, and in some other measure to a good deal on a spot in New Orleans Square: Available Space Art Projects opened in July with a show by Krystal Ramirez. Perhaps here is where we should clarify our terms: While “art gallery” may be a not-inaccurate shorthand, what ASAP really is is a “project space,” which amounts to a sense of exuberant permission expressed as square footage. Here, artists are encouraged to experiment, to workshop their still-gestating ideas, to test the viability of works in progress during weeklong pop-up shows, in hopes the feedback will clarify their fine-tuning. Situated in the interzone between the messy privacy of the studio and the polished gestalt of a traditional gallery, Available Space aims to facilitate the sort of try, fail, fail-better dynamic that, in theory, will keep the arts scene fermenting with new ideas.
“The artist is in charge of everything (during an exhibit),” Hidalgo says. Other than selecting the artists, who might be at any point on the career spectrum, from emerging to established, “there’s no curatorial influence from us.”
Needless to say, Available Space isn’t going to survive on sales. Not that Lay and Hidalgo would take a commission, anyway; nor will they charge artists to use the space. (But they do accept donations.) “It was important for us to make it free,” Lay says, so artists can put every resource into the work. The pair will keep the space running however they can.
While debuting a physical space seems contraindicated during the present thunderdome of pandemic hardships, how else could Hidalgo and Lay expedite the kind of project-incubation they’ve long felt the valley is missing? Even as culture swarms online, what an internet presentation can’t capture are very often the in-situ elements that the artist needs to work out. “They have to have a brick-and-mortar place to do it,” Lay says. Both arrived here in the last decade from areas where such spaces were more common, Lay from Indiana and Hidalgo from San Francisco.
Working in favor of ASAP’s longevity is their conviction that the arts scene absolutely needs an experimental space like this — pressed to name others, they could only come up with the student gallery at UNLV — as well as the cross-pollinating milieu at New Orleans Square, where a new arts hub is patiently taking shape. They’ve got shows booked into January, Hidalgo notes, including by artists Heidi Ryder and Alisha Kerlin, who says, “I’m excited to see local artists carving out space for people to try something new in a noncommercial, relaxed, and experimental setting.”
“We had zero doubts,” Lay says. “The city is hungry for more arts spaces.” After all, artists don’t stop working just because the world’s falling apart.