Kids raised in the Vail Valley are just like other kids. They play soccer or football or they ski, they wrangle with their parents, and they suffer their first crushes and their first heartbreaks. But unlike many kids, here young people are often lucky enough to have opportunities to work their creative muscles and get a jump-start on their dreams.
There are dedicated and passionate mentors like longtime and recently retired Battle Mountain High School teacher Suzanne Foster, who mounted dozens of theatrical productions and took scores of students to state finals in speech and debate during her 24 years here. And Annah Scully, who founded the Vail Performing Arts Academy in 1996 to train students in theater arts with workshops and performances. And dance instructor Ann Taylor who created the Vail Valley Academy of Dance, where many young dancers learned their art. These people, along with parents and many more, helped rev the creative engines.
Our young and talented have another advantage that’s unique to the Vail Valley: the opportunity to watch and learn and gasp with wonder as performers from all over the world take the stage at the Vail International Dance Festival or the Vilar Performing Arts Center’s theater.
These gifted young people are quick to acknowledge the rocket boost that growing up in the valley gave their artistic aspirations. Here, four on their way up toss bouquets to the people and the place that inspired them.
Jonathan Ryse Windham
A performance he saw as a teenager at the Vail International Dance Festival probably changed Jonathan Windham’s life. He still remembers feeling electrified as he watched a man and a woman from Chicago’s Hubbard Street Dance perform a contemporary duet piece called “Gimme.”
“It was kind of a relationship struggle between them, and one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen on stage,” he recalls. “At that moment, I knew what I wanted to do.”
Windham was only eight when he started dance lessons with a jazz program run by the Summit School of Dance. Throughout high school, he studied ballet, tap and jazz dancing with the Vail Valley Academy of Dance and performed in their shows. Summers were taken up with musical theater, appearing in Fame, Grand Hotel, Copacabana and more at the famous Stagedoor Manor in upstate New York. Windham also appeared in many Vail Performing Arts productions.
He still sounds amazed that in high school Suzanne Foster let him choreograph Jesus Christ, Superstar, and Everything I Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten. “She was wonderful, and she gave me a lot of artistic freedom,” he says.
Windham studied ballet at the State University of New York in Purchase, but left to join American Repertory Ballet when he was only 21. He worked with several other ensembles and in 2009 became a member of Gallim Dance based in New York City. Gallim is Hebrew for “wave,” which describes the contemporary style of dance called Gaga technique. (No, not that Gaga.)
“It’s a very sensation-based vocabulary,” explains Windham. “In class we use a lot of imagery, like imagine there are 1,000 holes in your skin with air going through, how would that make you move? The movements are quick and sometimes kind of distorted – very physically, as well as mentally challenging. I love it.”
The dancers who ignited the Gaga technique in Israel came to New York and founded Gallim Dance. Windham saw the company perform and immediately wanted to join. The core group is only six dancers, so the competition at the audition was fierce. Windham feels very lucky to have won his place.
“I love being in New York – I’m doing what I dreamt of doing and it’s amazing.” It’s not all Big Apple glamour, though. Windham and the other dancers have a grueling rehearsal schedule of six-hour days, six days a week. He says he wants to concentrate on performing while his body is in shape to keep up with the rigorous physical demands of the difficult work he’s doing. Somehow he finds time to experiment by choreographing a few of his own pieces as well.
Says Windham, “I love the actual performing of a piece, the journey of the performance evening from jumping up and down backstage warming up before we go on, to afterwards being totally out of breath and just lying on the dressing room floor exhausted. I love the feeling of satisfaction when it’s finished.”
The company is becoming known, performing across the U.S. and in Holland, Spain, Vancouver and elsewhere. Windham looks forward to hopefully appearing in his hometown, maybe at the Vilar Center.
“That would be great. For me, the environment in the valley was really inspiring and a good place to nurture artistry and creativity,” he concludes. “I had a lot of opportunities to explore different aspects of art – I did visual art, I played in the band, and choreographed high school musicals – all of that definitely influenced what I’m doing today.”
Fashion Designer and Entrepreneur
These days, Greg Garman signs his name with two sprawly G’s and puts a star between them. Garman knows where he’s going. Before he was 25, he was designing a chic women’s clothing line called Cartel Noir that’s getting lots of buzz in all the right fashion quarters. Seldom does Denver come to mind as a fashion capital, but Garman has headquartered his company there, and is manufacturing the clothing in Colorado as well. Garman kicked off his very first collection in March of 2009 with a fashion show at Denver’s Suite 200 nightclub and introduced his 2010 line at Denver’s Museum of Contemporary Art.
Denver may be the center of his operations, but the designer, who was born in Vail, credits his mountain upbringing for developing his fashion eye. “Vail is such an international community – I grew up loving this chic European style that I saw on these sophisticated people when I walked around Bridge Street,” he says. “That had an enormous influence on how I design now.”
Never really one of those kids who doodle dress designs on their math homework, Garman says he had little interest in fashion until his freshman year at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. Though he was majoring in speech and communications, he and a few friends almost by accident cobbled together a business creating t-shirts. They dubbed their venture the Sir Famous Rock Star T-shirt Company, and incorporated unique features in the designs, including gold foil and a burnout fabric process that put holes in the shirts.
“We thought it was pretty fun and cool,” he laughs. “I found out I have a love for both the design side and the business side of fashion.”
By his junior year, Garman created a business plan after seeking advice from his family and his parent’s friends who would fund his new business. He researched every aspect of the clothing trade and analyzed the style aesthetic of favorite designers like Tom Ford and Marc Jacobs. Alexander Wang was another huge influence.
“These people create timeless garments that are as much architecture as they are fashion. Alexander Wang’s work immediately spoke to me because he did leggings and t-shirts that everybody wanted to wear; they made girls of all ages look amazing.”
Garman followed the same path; rejecting the temptation of gimmicky fashion and creating a classic look expressed in a softly curve-flattering jersey fabric. Right now, his collection is small, only about a dozen pieces in all, mostly black. About 100 copies of each garment are available, retailing from about $180 to $500, and most can be worn in virtually any season. The designer intends to expand the collection, with plans to be in a half dozen stores in Arizona, California and New York by February. The Cartel Noir collection is also sold online.
Garman has some advice for other young entrepreneurs. “Love what you do, because a lot of it is truly a grind in a good way, but very creatively rewarding. To see a person wearing something that you created and they’re proud to wear it because it makes them feel beautiful – that’s really satisfying.”
Anthony Scully aka Tony Castle
When last we encountered our hero, he was a goofy, shock-haired teenager who hijacked the daily Battle Mountain in-school announcement TV program and warped it into his personal version of Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show. He called it Tony Time, and shot footage featuring his friends skateboarding and punching each other in the face. He still can’t believe he and his posse got away with it.
“It was definitely funny and inappropriate,” muses Tony today from the Manhattan hideout where he’s now helming his own production company. The son of Annah Scully, young Tony had some unflappable performance mojo stored up from all the mom-directed productions he had acted in since he was only 10. “I don’t know if it’s genetic or it’s just shoved down your throat enough that you just accept it,” he says.
Clearly he loved it. At 15, he started pre-production on his first movie, an homage to West Side Story. He and his buddies set about creating their own version: casting, choreography, printing out scripts and lyrics, and rehearsing. “I’m kind of weird and awkward and can’t sing or dance so I discovered I really like being behind the camera,” he says. One little snag: there was no camera to be behind. That first production ended up a virtual movie instead of a real one.
Attending CU’s film school in Boulder, he and fellow student Roxy Hunt were annoyed that the film classes didn’t have a showcase in which to display student work. So they invented the Big Freakin’ Deal Film Festival and rented the historic Old Main building to screen the films, rolling out an actual red carpet and throwing a party starring the students. When Hunt and Scully graduated in 2009, they passed the baton to the next class of film students.
The two invaded Manhattan and launched their company, BFD Productions. Scully officially became Tony Castle, an identity borrowed from his great uncle William Castle, who earned a cult following making horror films in the 40s and 50s.
BFD has been creating everything from short documentaries to video art installations, websites and graphic design. A couple of years ago the partners brought their film festival savvy to the Vail Valley Film Festival, and last February birthed the brand-new Lower East Side (LES) Film Festival to spotlight that trendy NYC’ hood.
Through a mutual friend, Castle and Hunt met Susan Sarandon, a partner in SPiN a New York ping-pong club and joined her and pals on a junket to China to film the club’s celeb ping-pong contenders taking on China’s national team. The filmmakers want to use the resulting 10-minute film Lost in Shanghai, as the springboard for a TV series like The Office but set in a ping-pong club, or maybe a documentary-type show. Or something.
Castle’s other aspirations include doing more original productions with Hunt and getting a fabulous office, since the two now work out of their closet-sized apartment.
What’s it like being a mid-20s actress trying to crack the big-time in the festering piranha tank of Hollywood? Ask Bryn Abbott. She’s cute and blonde, just like a of million talented girls struggling to make it, she admits. But one thing she has that lots of the other wanna-be’s don’t is a Vail upbringing that gave her a resume packed with quality high school performances in both musical comedy and drama.
That early work gave her the background she needed to mix it up today in Hollywood, doing comedy improv with actors from The Office. “For the size of the town I grew up in, the amount of support and opportunity that people like Suzanne Foster and Annah Scully provided was just out of this world,” says Abbott.
With roles in eight productions during the young actress’s Battle Mountain High School years, plus the demanding competitions that took her all over the state with the speech team, Abbott was able to constantly practice her craft. Her roles in the Vail Performing Arts Academy shows as Frenchie in Grease and the lead in Fame introduced her early on to the experience of acting before a sophisticated audience at Beaver Creek’s professional venue, the Vilar Performing Arts Center.
“It was so beautiful to perform there, I thought I had died and gone to heaven,” remembers Abbott. “It was truly life-shaping. Without the opportunities to explore these characters while I was growing up, I don’t think I would have been accepted into a college theater program; I don’t know if the flame would have kept burning.” Abbott graduated with honors and a B.A. in theater from the University of Southern California in L.A., snagged an agent and started trooping out on casting calls.
“It’s kind of a wacky business, and there’s a lot of rejection.” she sighs. “Ninety-eight percent of the time it’s not a personal rejection: Los Angeles just wants somebody shorter or taller or a redhead. So you learn not to take it personally.” Still, Abbott has been busy doing what she loves, acting in lots of short films that independent producers enter in film festivals across the country. She’s also appeared in commercials, pilots, a Criminal Minds episode, and in an improvisational project with Ed Begley, Jr. called, The Rise and Fall of Tuck Johnson.
“There was no script, so it was a blast sitting toe to toe with him and these actors from The Office, and coming up with lines, just keeping up,” she says. One of the ways Abbott figures she can stand out in the sea of blonde girls and stay productive while she’s waiting for Steven Spielberg to call is by expanding her talents. So she’s been taking classes and performing in sketch comedy with Saturday Night Live alum Amy Poehler’s improv group, Upright Citizens Brigade, and also doing stand-up during open mike nights at clubs around town.
She says being alone onstage with nothing but your wits to rely on is the scariest thing on earth – that’s why she has to do it. After all, this is how Poehler and Tina Fey, two of her heroines, started out. Working in improv has also inspired her to write her own material – again, like Fey and Poehler. She’s enthusiastic about two scripts she’s working on, one that she hopes will start shooting soon. It’s about a group of six struggling actors living in a Hollywood house together when a small-town girl moves in and brings a fresh new perspective to their world-weary cynicism. Where’d she get an idea like that?