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2015 Fall Culture Guide: Ones to Watch

Teya Urena
Aaron Mayes

Teya Urena, dancer

Teya Urena


Selected by Jabbawockeez performer Perris Aquino, Ones to Watch 2014On a Friday afternoon in August, 17-year-old Teya Urena pranced in slow motion across the open wooden dance floor of a mirrored studio on South Rainbow, dragging one foot behind her and flourishing one arm in front with each step. Fancy walking, to the untrained eye. Meanwhile, her ballroom dance coach Mariusz Zakrzewski, leading the movements a few feet in front of her and to the left, pointed to different parts of his body and shouted technical observations about counter-opposition between hip and shoulder rotation, the use of abdominal and lat muscles.

After a few trips across the room like this, a line of perspiration appeared down the back of Urena’s grey tank top.

“The audience likes to see light, easy, like nothing,” Zakrzewski says, accentuating his heavy Polish accent with a hand gesture every couple of words. “We know what we need to do to create the work, but that’s not what the audience wants to see.”

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Urena acknowledges the lesson with a serious nod. The Las Vegas Academy senior is well aware of the hard work required to create the illusion of floating on air. A dancer since the age of 3, she had hip surgery last July, at 16. As a child, she had to overcome shyness and fear to attend dance classes; to this day, she occasionally battles low self-esteem. “It’s definitely a journey,” Urena says. “I’m constantly learning and finding out new things about myself. … It helps me believe in myself more.”

Others believe in her, too. Suggesting her for this story, Perris Aquino noted she’s already doing industry gigs for big-name companies. In July, she was invited to perform in a show by well-known L.A. choreographer Talia Favia at DancerPalooza.

Urena returned to ballroom at Zakrzewski’s Elite Dance Studio after a yearlong break necessitated by her surgery. She’d discovered the style a few years earlier while taking time off from competitions in jazz/lyrical dancing and immediately took to it, winning in her age group at her first contest. A couple years ago, she danced in the Nutcracker, forcing herself to overcome her dislike of ballet. She also performed with a hip-hop crew Prodigy for a time. Dance, in all its forms, beckons.

“But I do have a backup plan,” Urena says. “I want to go to school for nursing and be a pediatric nurse. So if I don’t pursue dance as a career, I can do that. And that would be really cool.” Heidi Kyser


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Natalie Kalei Ventic


Selected by singer Brittany McKay, Ones to Watch 2014In one of the larger studios of Audio Mix House, 21-year-old Natalie Kalei Ventic recently strode deliberately through the door and up to a mic, where she began singing her slow, sweet rendition of Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love.” A skinny cameraman followed Ventic, circling her with a large console at various heights and proximities. The mic was off; she was singing over a previously recorded track that blared into the studio from the control room next door. This performance was all about capturing footage for a video to be released with a forthcoming album, her first.

As the track cut off mid-song, Ventic abruptly switched from soul singer — hands gracefully stirring the air, slightly pained facial expression — to all business.

“I think that one was good,” she said to the cameraman, who agreed. “Do you want to get one more shot of the entrance, starting out in the hall?”     

Ventic comes by her apparent ease in this environment honestly. She remembers sleeping on couches and playing on floors of recording studios similar to this one as a child, while her father, Steve Ventic, a professional musician who was keyboardist and producer for 1980s freestyle band Exposé, worked late into the night. Father and daughter now work together in their own business, Just Look Up Productions, which specializes in launching the music careers of child performers. Their clients include Asia Monet Ray, the daughter of former Mr. Olympia Shawn Ray who has her own reality TV show, Raising Asia, and JoJo Siwa of Dance Moms fame.

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Unlike a lot of producers, who dress young girls in revealing clothing and write provocative lyrics for them, Just Look Up lets kids be kids. “We work with all our artists to help them stay their age,” Natalie Kalei Ventic says. “We’ve found that kids around the world relate to them better that way, and it sends an important message.” As evidence of the strategy’s success, Steve Ventic points out that their first song for Siwa, “I Can Make You Dance,” went to No. 24 on the iTunes Hot 100 with no major recording label, just social media marketing.

After more than two years behind the scenes, learning the business from the ground up, Natalie Kalei Ventic is returning to her own work, which she calls “life music,” a fusion of her various influences, from reggae to rock and roll.

“It feels so good,” she says. “I’ve had all the songs recorded and written, and I’ve just been waiting patiently. ... But I’m glad I’ve had the last two years. I was always afraid of writing and producing before. Since I’ve been pretty much living in the studio, I’ve learned to love it.”

Shadowing Just Look Up’s high-profile clients, Ventic has also gotten a taste of fame. “I see people notice them just walking around,” she says. “I can’t wait to have that experience, because I’m around it, but I don’t know what it’s like.” Heidi Kyser

Mikayla Whitmore

Artist, photographer

Selected by Jennifer Kleven, Ones to Watch 2012Memory. It functions like (a) photographs neatly tucked into folders; (b) digital images stored in files you sometimes can’t find on your hard drive; or (c) photos that’ve been cut into confetti and which you reassemble with a blow-dryer?

That the answer lies somewhere between B and C is fortunate for artist Mikayla Whitmore, as the distortions and corruptions of memory provide the raw thematic material of her recent art photography. (The “art” distinction is necessary as she’s also a photojournalist for the Greenspun Media Group.) See for yourself come November, when she installs her exhibit When the Night Comes in the Cosmopolitan’s P3 Studio.

Whitmore was still working out the deets at press time, but the basic setup will involve a group of slide projectors flashing images, her own family snaps mixed with found negatives. Over the course of the residency, she’ll distort the photos in various ways — by introducing mirrors to splinter off parts of the projection; by burning into or drawing onto the negatives themselves — by way of “tracking how your memory over time corrupts, corrodes, how you start to piecemeal things together …”

She intends to involve viewers by having them run their own photos through a button-making machine, creating two buttons of each image: one they keep and one Whitmore will add to a wall display.

You see what she’s doing, right? Getting right down into the complex interplay between the evanescence of memory and our need to hold on to it? “I’m trying, in my own, unscientific way, to physicalize it — make it tangible,” she says.

That impulse toward specificity lies at the heart of her devotion to photography. “It’s the most concrete way of expressing what I’m thinking,” she says. At the same time, photography can seem like an instant, hands-off process — point, click, done. Whitmore counters that through some inventive formal strategies, from the burned negatives of her P3 show to words hand-stitched in thread into her prints.

“Her evolving artistic style has been an exciting and brave journey to watch,” says Jennifer Kleven, who hosted Whitmore’s first big show in her former gallery, in 2012. “She ... explores new techniques and methods to convey her point of view. She understands light better than anyone I know, and engages it with subtle manipulations. ... We may be looking at an artist whose work is collected by world-class art-lovers and museums alike!” (See Scott Dickensheets


Will Edwards

Entertainment impresario

Selected by filmmaker Kelly Schwarze, Ones to Watch 2013Will Edwards just wanted to borrow some furniture to shoot the pilot for his ambitious late-night Vegas variety talk show: a host-worthy desk for him, a sofa for guests, maybe a table. High on upbeat, can-do mojo, he sauntered into a local furniture store and asked the owner. The owner said no, and then some.

“He says, ‘Your show will never succeed! Nothing’s going to come of it. Nobody will watch it! Don’t even bother!’” Edwards recalls. “He actually yelled at me. I was devastated. It almost crushed my dreams.”

It was Edwards’ first encounter with that strange, sour undercurrent of pessimism and pre-emptive schadenfreude that runs beneath the Vegas ethos of optimistic hustle. “I started thinking, should I even do this?”

A few months later, in July 2011, the New York City transplant was hosting The Will Edwards Show twice a month to live audiences at Downtown’s Theatre 7. (He ultimately bought a desk from Target. “We accidentally built it backwards.”) Now taping its sixth season at the Indie Film Factory on Desert Inn and Valley View, The Will Edwards Show endures not just because of his persistence (or, as Edwards calls it, his “psychosis”). The program, a mix of breezy interviews, comedy sketches and live music (all fueled by the show’s signature drink, the Ghettotini — fruit juice and whatever alcohol is handy) has tapped deep roots in that segment of the Las Vegas entertainment scene — radio personalities, off-Strip magicians and hard-working local musicians — who might otherwise get lost in the neon shimmer. “That’s exactly the point of the show, to introduce Las Vegas to the best of Las Vegas,” says Edwards. “This is something locals can call their own.”

“Will is unique because of his persistence and determination,” says filmmaker Kelly Schwarze, one of Desert Companion’s Ones to Watch in 2013. “He started his show when so many people turned him down. Now he’s become one of the city’s most known local personalities and has his hands in everything.” That’s not an overstatement. Edwards also hosts “We Funny,” a monthly comedy show at Inspire Theater, and helps write and produce a sitcom, Church Business. He’s getting ready to unveil a line of Ghettotini bottled cocktails. And this month, he’s launching SqWear by Will Edwards, a line of repurposed pocket squares. True to his DIY ethic, Edwards scours the thrift stores for stylish secondhand shirts, and cuts, sews and finishes the squares himself. “If I can leave New York City with a couple bags of clothes and build a humble brand here in Las Vegas, anyone can,” he says. “All you have to do is start.” Andrew Kiraly


Ann-Marie Pereth

Artistic director, A Public Fit

Selected by Sarah O’Connell, Ones to Watch 2014“Well, hopefully there won’t be much confrontation,” Ann-Marie Pereth replied.

What? No, no, I said “conversation.”

She laughed. “I thought you said confrontation,” she said, raising her fists. “I was like, are we going to box?”

Funny, she seemed up for it either way. Probably not surprising, as conversation and a sense of confrontation both underline her work as artistic director of the newish theater company A Public Fit. The work she selects for the company’s productions and readings tends toward the challenging, the edgy, the thematically knotty.

Take Foxfinder, A Public Fit’s first full production, last November. It’s a dystopian fable set in England, where people have been told foxes cause most human ills: disease, bad weather, crop failure. It’s a stinging Kafkaesque critique of fundamentalist certainties. It was, she says, just the play’s second North American production. Or look at this entry from the upcoming season: A Summons From the Tinker to Assemble the Membership in Secret at the Usual Place. Written by local theater mainstay Joe Kucan, it’s extrapolated from a trial scene in Fritz Lang’s 1931 thriller M. “I choose material that is very contemporary, very relevant, very dynamic,” she said.

A Public Fit was born in conversation. Just out of grad school at UNLV, where she studied directing, she watched as friends and fellow students left for New York and L.A., places where they might better earn livings as artists. “So we gathered them together and we read this play” — Adam Bock’s Thugs, described by the New York Times as “a delightfully paranoid little nightmare” — “and afterward we had this amazing discussion about the play. I’m like, wow, that was really great.” So she kept it going, regular readings of difficult plays, 15 people showing up for the first one, 20 for the second, 35 for the third. “Pretty soon we were busting out of the house.”

A Public Fit’s shows, whether readings or full productions, are followed by what they call The Buzz, a kind of heightened audience-feedback sesh that drills into each play’s thematic complexities. “You know that feeling you get when you’ve just seen a really great piece of theater, and then you get in the car and talk about it on the way home ... and then you wake up the next morning and you’re like, wow ... That’s really what our mission is about, creating that unending conversation, keeping the themes of these plays in the minds of people.” (See Scott Dickensheets

(Editor's note: Scott Dickensheets no longer works for Nevada Public Radio)
As a longtime journalist in Southern Nevada, native Las Vegan Andrew Kiraly has served as a reporter covering topics as diverse as health, sports, politics, the gaming industry and conservation. He joined Desert Companion in 2010, where he has helped steward the magazine to become a vibrant monthly publication that has won numerous honors for its journalism, photography and design, including several Maggie Awards.
Desert Companion welcomed Heidi Kyser as staff writer in January 2014. In 2018, she was promoted to senior writer and producer, working for both DC and State of Nevada. She produced KNPR’s first podcast, the Edward R. Murrow Regional Award-winning Native Nevada, in 2020. The following year, she returned her focus full-time to Desert Companion, becoming Deputy Editor, which meant she was next in line to take over when longtime editor Andrew Kiraly left in July 2022.