Other stories filed under Feature
Where they are now
West Side Story uncovers the recent success stories of past West High students. Here are a few of the former students that made a name for themselves in the world
March 1, 2019
With thousands looking upon them, the ballet dancers gracefully glide across the stage to the mellifluous music. They have been working their entire lives for this moment, practicing their art for years to reach their dream of performing under the bright lights of New York City. Faces in the audience display a spectrum of emotions, transforming from sadness to joy as the performance progresses, watching keenly as the dancers portray a dramatic, dreamlike story. This is the New York City Ballet at Lincoln Center, and this is where Miriam Miller’s dreams came true.
As a child, Miller was fascinated by the world of dance. Starting at age three, Miller became heavily involved in tap, jazz and ballet. However, she ultimately decided to focus on ballet at the age of eight.
“I didn’t really see myself dancing jazz or tap professionally. It wasn’t something that I enjoyed as much,” Miller said. “[Ballet] brought out a different emotion in me that all those other types of dancing didn’t necessarily do.”
Miller worked with different ballet groups in Iowa City, dancing at the University of Iowa’s Dance Forum for eight years and then with City Ballet of Iowa for six years. There, she met one of her most influential instructors, Sarah Barragan, a faculty member at City Ballet of Iowa, and discovered her true dream of becoming a professional dancer.
“[Barragan] introduced me to this dance world and encouraged me and made me feel like it was possible and that it was something that I could actually attain,” Miller said. “She inspired me a lot as I was getting involved with it.”
As Miller developed her technique and movement, Barragan noticed significant improvement in her dancing and observed her dedication. She realized Miller had the potential to become a professional dancer.
“She was the fastest study that I’ve ever had. She was able to pick up and apply all the corrections I was asking from her immediately,” Barragan said. “I’m really proud that she’s caught on to the details, because it’s not just learning the correct step or how to recite it; it’s the feeling, the energy, the emotion or the projection you present with your portabra, with your arms and with your fingers.”
However, Miller’s commitment to ballet often prevented her from having a typical high school experience, limiting her time at West to only her freshman year.
“I missed a period during the day to go to ballet class. They allowed for that schedule change, which helped me because I wouldn’t have been able to train for the dancing that I was doing,” Miller said.
After years of training, Miller felt ready to move to the next level. She auditioned for summer courses in Chicago, and later, the School of American Ballet in New York. After a string of successful auditions, Miller found herself closer to her dream, receiving an offer from the prestigious school. At the same time, she enrolled in the Professional Children’s School, a private institution, to study various subjects like any other high schooler. The transition to New York, however, was much different than she expected.
“West was where I felt like I was a normal high school student. I think that if I didn’t have that experience, it definitely would have molded me maybe into a different person,” Miller said. “I’m just very thankful that I had that experience and feeling like a real high schooler and a real teenager was important just for my well being. Even getting to go to football games and all of that was nothing that I did in New York.”
Less than three years after attending the School of American Ballet, Miller earned a spot in the New York City Ballet. With rehearsals during the day and shows at night, she eventually found herself in a featured role as Titania in Midsummer Night’s Dream, just four months after beginning to work for the dance company.
Later in her career, she had the opportunity to perform back in Iowa City at Hancher Auditorium during a nationwide tour.
“Being able to share my part of the world and have all of my family get a glimpse of New York City Ballet and to be able to bring that to my hometown and share the art with everyone, it was just really special because not everyone can come out to New York,” Miller said. “[I wanted to] try and inspire younger dancers that might not know what the dance world is about and that it’s nothing beyond anyone’s reach.”
Barragan, in particular, was thrilled to see Miller return to Iowa City.
“It’s amazing to see her grow and mature in her artistry, in her work, and her ability to be versatile to do contemporary ballet and classical ballet,” Barragan said. “Having a young dancer that had the talent like Miriam comes around once in your lifetime. It’s amazing that I got to have that opportunity. It was an honor to work with her.”
For Miller, performing ballet in New York was no longer a dream. Her passion and commitment towards the art was unprecedented, becoming the only ballet dancer in the state of Iowa to dance with the New York City Ballet. Because she acknowledges that the opportunity to become a professional dancer was quite rare, Miller wants to keep sharing the art that she loves with every performance while it lasts.
“Knowing that all eyes are on me is just something that I could have never imagined for myself, and having that realization in the moment on the stage was pretty special,” Miller said. “Being able to evoke some sort of emotion to them is something that I really enjoy doing.”
Just across the river lies the glistening prospect of hope. Hope for a better education, hope for better opportunities, hope for a better life. For rurally isolated communities across the world, this hope is unattainable without access to one seemingly simple piece of infrastructure: a bridge.
In impoverished countries that lack sufficient infrastructure, the responsibility of providing this necessity falls into the hands volunteer organizations. One of these groups is Bridges to Prosperity, a volunteer-led organization that aims to build safe access to opportunities stretching across the rivers. Avery Bang ‘04, a former West graduate, has been an active member of Bridges to Prosperity for 11 years.
“We are really focused on solving poverty, mostly in Africa and poverty that is due to isolation,” Bang said. “There are over one billion people, so one in seven people around the world that currently walk everywhere. They walk to school, they walk to work, they walk to the farm, they walk to the health center to see the doctor.”
Prior to joining the Bridges to Prosperity organization, Bang was a jack of all trades during her years at West. Participating in activities metalwork to mathletes, Bang juggled a busy schedule while still saving time for her favorite subject: engineering.
“I love that [West] felt really open and available to be both an artist and an analytic person,” Bang said. “When I went to college and decided that I wanted to be an engineer, I ended up having a double major in studio art, so it really kind of led the path for me to find a creative outlet and be academically successful.”
Bang’s love for engineering eventually led her to begin building bridges for those in need. According to West physics teacher Matt Harding, Bang stepped outside the usual stereotype of engineering by using her knowledge for volunteer work.
“Typically people don’t see engineering, and specifically mechanical engineering as a path to improving the lives others in that altruistic kind of way,” Harding said. “But the bridge project that she undertook was just amazing, that she was able to positively impact so many lives of so many people that get overlooked I think too often.”
Even before Bang went on to volunteer her time to change the lives of others, Harding could guess in high school that she was going to go on to do something great.
“You can see from the way her personality was in high school that she was always looking out for other people,” Harding said. “If somebody was going to go on to do that it would have been Avery.”
Not only was Bang involved in a diverse range of classes, she was also immersed in sports during her time at West, participating in both soccer and track and field. Girls track and cross country coach, Mike Parker, recalls Bang’s spirit everyday at practice.
“She was very fun to be around and had a great sense of humor, but a hard working athlete and a hard working student,” Parker said. “I would say she did a good job of combining the two, obviously, she’s out changing the world now.”
After graduating from West and majoring in engineering at the University of Iowa, Bang found her calling at Bridges for Prosperity, combining her knowledge of engineering with a humanitarian spirit to change peoples’ lives.
“My favorite part of my job is that when you start a business or you’re an entrepreneur and at first it’s a team of one, you can start to think about what kinds of culture or values that you want to start to live by,” Bang said. “The thing that I like the most is that I get to work with people to help make them the best that they can be.”
From playing a record-breaking season during college to coaching in San Diego, basketball has always been a significant part of former West High graduate Glen Worley’s life. Growing up in Coralville and attending Kirkwood elementary school and Northwest Junior High, Worley was no stranger to West High. During his days there, Worley spent all four years doing what he loved the most: basketball. When he wasn’t playing basketball, however, Worley enjoyed being a part of the community at West.
“The best part of West was the community involvement,” Worley said. “The community rallied around the kids and tried to help the youth out as much as possible.”
Worley’s love of basketball was not unbeknownst to his peers. Science teacher Maureen Head, a fellow classmate of Worley’s, heard about his athletic success all throughout high school.
“His reputation was mostly as an amazing basketball player,” Head said. “He was a standout. It didn’t really have to do with his personality, but he definitely was one of those special athletes that comes through high school in a given point of time.”
Worley’s reputation spread even farther than just his classmates. Health teacher Kathy Bresnahan, remembers Worley’s fierce competitiveness at everything he did.
“He was a little bit cocky, like you would have to be if you’re a good athlete.” Bresnahan said. “But he had a ready smile, a great sense of humor and you could tell he worked hard for what he had.”
One specific memory that Bresnahan recalls about Worley was his ability to stay calm in stressful situations. During his freshman state championship basketball game, Worley’s last second shot helped push West to a win.
“He was cool as ice. When you make a free throw and win the state championship basketball game with no time of the clock — that’s every little boy and girl basketball player’s dream,” Bresnahan said. “I watched him do that his freshman year and I thought, ‘This kid’s going to be a special athlete.’”
After graduating high school, Worley initiated his record-breaking season for the Hawkeyes at the University of Iowa, becoming one of 35 University of Iowa basketball players to have scored 1000 points over the course of their career. From there, Worley decided to share his expertise in basketball as an assistant coach at the Academy of Art University in San Diego.
“Being involved with coaching basketball guided me over to wanting to not only help them on the court but off the court as well,” Worley said. “And now just not helping athletes, but all kids in general.”
Once he had experienced coaching, Worley decided to use the skills he learned on the court to pursue a career in teaching.
“Right now, I am a special education teacher. This is a far cry from what I wanted to do, but I’ve found it so rewarding to be able to help young people,” Worley said. “Seeing their growth through the years is truly amazing. There is never two days that are the same so its blessing.”
Although he never pictured himself as a teacher, Worley remains grateful that he was given the opportunity to have a positive influence on so many people.
“What inspired me is being able to impact young people’s lives in a positive manner,” Worley said. “I learn so much from these kids, more than they will ever know and more than I would imagine.”
Despite all his success today, Worley wishes he would have tried harder while he was in high school, and hopes that students today take advantage of the resources that West High has.
“I would change my approach to high school. I didn’t take it as serious as I should, I did enough to just get by,” Worley said. “My biggest advice for young people is sometimes its okay to fail because it gives you motivation to get and do better for yourself.”
Coming from a town of around 5000 people, West graduate Tony Cress ’96 never imagined that he would someday be working alongside famous celebrities ranging from talented musicians to nationally-ranked athletes. This all sparked into action following an odd turn of events in which Cress entered a reality TV show called Strip Search and danced his way to the top, participating in various boot camps until he finally won a spot in the final troupe that performed for a live audience in Las Vegas.
After winning the TV show, Cress was able to solidify his career and set his personal training business into motion. Today, he owns and operates his own training facility in Las Vegas called the Tony Cress Training Center.
While other students scrambled and stressed to figure out what they wanted to do, Cress had his mind set on one thing. From the age of 14, he knew that he wanted to have a career in his lifelong passion: fitness.
“I knew I wanted to be a trainer when I was 14. I did not know at 14 to what capacity that could become,” Cress said. “The fact that I’ve worked with my favorite all time musical group [Boyz II Men], Joey Fatone and some NFL players makes me affirm how much I’ve achieved [my goals].”
Upon discovering that he could get paid to workout by being a fitness trainer, Cress made it his goal to attain his dreams in any way that he could. Through his participation in basketball for four years at West, Cress found an outlet for his love of exercise.
“I’ve always been obsessed with exercise, and when I found out you could get paid to do it, say no more,” Cress said. “I had blinders on after that.”
While his aspiration for the future has not changed over the years, Cress’s determination to go after what he wants has intensified immensely. During his days at West, he lacked the drive that he has gained in his adult life, and regrets not going after more of the things that he wanted when in school.
“I didn’t always go after what I wanted because I listened to the doubts of other people,” Cress said. “I knew I could do the things I wanted to, but it was other people holding me back from those exact things. I’d just go after more of what I hadn’t growing up.”
Some of that motivation he eventually acquired to achieve his dreams came from trusted adults at West High. The bonds that Cress formed as a student with teachers and coaches helped him become the person he is today.
“I think for my own agenda, what I learned at West happened outside the perimeter of class time,” Cress said. “It was the conversations I had with teachers and coaches outside my class time with them that made me realize they are there to genuinely help make successful adults and see the promise in everyone.”
One of those adults was Steve Bergman, Cress’s basketball coach for two years while he was at West. Cress was close with Bergman both as a coach and as a person, and Bergman has watched him grow more and more successful over the years.
“I’m really happy for Tony that he went out [of his comfort zone],” Bergman said. “He did the reality show, and it’s turned into something that he really loves to do and he’s really good at.”
Another major influence on Cress throughout high school was social studies teacher Gary Neuzil, one of the announcers at all of the basketballs games that Cress was in. Having taught several of Cress’s family members over the years and witnessed Cress’s confidence firsthand, it came as no surprise to Neuzil that Cress went on to be a successful business owner.
“Tony had a personality that drew people to want to like him,” Neuzil said. “He was just one of those school leaders that you can see has charisma, but also has those natural characteristics that you have to have to be successful.”
From Iowa City to Las Vegas, Cress’s history at West has been a constant in his life.
“I would not change a thing about the education I got at West High, the faculty or the students when I was there,” Cress said. “I really do think that it is one of the best high schools in the nation.”
Having over 50 prints displayed around the world is what some artists only dream about, but for West alum, Diego Lasansky ’12, it’s a reality. Toying around with pieces of copper as a toddler, Diego has been surrounded by printmaking all his life.
“I really started creating art when I was about 11 or 12, and I started creating art in a family setting. I have so many family members that are artists that my interest in art came from being around that,” Diego said.
Today, Diego is a respected printmaker in the art world, but it was only eight years ago that he was in a chair in room 158. The West High Art room taught by Christian Aanestad.
“When you have talented kids like Diego in class you utilize their talents,” Aanestad said. “Diego had a background in printmaking, so he helped us as a class make some refinements.”
To pursue his dream as an artist, Diego graduated early. Only spending three years in the art room at West, he gained an artistic taste by holding an art show in the library and collaborating with his peers.
“Taking classes with Christian was a lot different for me,” Diego said. “It was my first time being with other people my age creating art.”
The Lasanksy family has deep connections at West High: Tomas Lasansky, Diego’s uncle, graduated in the mid-1970s, and Phillip Lasansky, Diego’s father, has a close friendship with Jerry Arganbright, former principal of West. As a retirement present for Dr. Arganbright, Phillip donated Mauricio’s, Diego’s Grandfather and art influencer, prints to the school and to Dr. Arganbrights personal collection. These prints can be seen in the main and ninth grade offices.
Phill runs the Lasansky Corporation Gallery, selling prints and sketches of their family’s artwork. The Gallery is located downtown and is connected to the family studio.
“Not being an artist like my brothers or Diego, … all of those [careers] are independently minded things, you kind of march to your own drummer,” Phillip said.
In a household filled with printmakers, Tomas taught Diego as a child to translate his doodles onto an etched piece of copper layered with ink. This process known as Intaglio printmaking originated in Medieval European, and the family has mastered the technique throughout the 20th and 21st century.
“It’s all done with oil-based inks, and so you print it and you can’t touch it right, … it needs time for the pores in the oil to dry,” Diego said. Usually, Diego’s prints can take up to ten days to dry.
Intaglio printmaking requires days of work, and it forces Diego to practice his craft in his studio from sunrise to sunset. The process of layering ink and waiting for it to dry is repeated many times until the print is fully colored.
“I sort of feel really guilty … if I go a couple days and haven’t really worked at all,” Diego Reflected on his schedule.
As a child, Diego collected books, so he can perfect his printmaking. In retrospect, teenage Diego was always at the downtown art studio copying and reading pages of art books.
“What I found that the internet couldn’t give me was … you can’t find all those pieces online,” Diego said.
Books about Van Gogh, Da Vinci, Goya and many other influencers lie in a mammoth of a bookshelf in a spacious art studio, located downtown Iowa City, originally bought by his grandfather in the 20th century.
“He (his grandfather) made about 500 to 1000 prints, and the exact number honestly I can never figure out because it’s changing,” Diego said as he walked curiously through his grandfather’s gallery of eclectic prints.
At the age of 21, Diego’s hard work in his studio made a splash in the art world by being featured in Wartburg College to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the protestant reformation. The pieces are known as Martin Luther print edition 1-50.
His current project, Japanese Samurai Sketch attire, is slowly chipping away on the top floor of the Lasansky Downtown Art Studio. With the only use of a pen, Diego scratches textures on a large black and white sketch of a Japanese man in his formal attire. He hopes to finish the sketch collection of 16 pieces, which will allow him to tour the artwork around the world.
Diego still lives in Iowa City, and holds a reputation as a respected artist; he hopes to innovate the art scene.
“It’s fairly easy to sort of be in a town like Iowa City,” Diego said. “You know that [it] has such great art and culture.”