Yara Travieso, a magical-tropicalist producer at times, once turned Downtown Miami into a swamp in the name of art. If asked at a bar what she does for a living she will say: “I’m a film and live performance director.” This is an awful simplification because unless one actually sees Travieso’s multidisciplinary art performances, it’s impossible to fully understand all that is being presented to the viewer. Within a project, she not only directs, but writes, choreographs, and edits it — but she also applies Latin American magical-realism, popular culture, and mythology to it. Travieso’s work lives in the intersection of multiple cultural lenses. She is a one-woman tour de force.
In recent years, through her cutting-edge multimedia storytelling, Travieso, 33, has made a name for herself in the art world by creating strong fictional female characters of color. From a limitless sky, she incorporates dance, film, installations, music, opera, theater, and the visual arts into her art pieces and in 2019 she was awarded a prestigious United States Artist Fellow and Creative Capital Fellow. “The way my ideas come is quite holistic, never fractured, so when one idea comes, all the details and other elements come with it since it’s all part of one bigger story. It’s something I can’t control and I really love,” she tells me.
A Tornado is Born
She was born in Miami to a Venezuelan mom and Cuban dad, both artists. In fact art seems to run in her genes, not only are she and her parents artists, but so are her aunts, uncles, and cousins on both sides. Thus, her Latino family has always been very supportive of her work. She co-founded the experimental Borscht Film Festival in her hometown and trained as a dancer at New York’s Juilliard School and has performed as a dancer with New York’s Metropolitan Opera.
Though she’s now based in New York, in 2018 she created a swamp-like set in Miami’s YoungArts outdoor plaza for an elaborate production of her work El Ciclón. Commissioned and produced by the National YoungArts Foundation, it’s described as a “wild neo-feminist mythology trapped inside a 1950s B-movie psychological thriller with singing, dancing, and just enough alligators.”
For the production, she projects a film two stories high above the audience, so that you watch a live theatrical performance and see the film while out in the open air, with the cityscape around you. Cars light up the dystopian-like swamp stage and provide the sound, along with punk rock recordings and live vocal performances by slamming female artists. Ava is the heroine in El Ciclón. And like Travieso’s heroines, she is atypical in the heroicness department; she is complex, both strong and vulnerable. Ava is facing a very real and timeless moral female dilemma: to help or not help a man who could potentially do her harm.
Let me set the scene: er car is stranded amidst marshy waters. The radio reports a looming tornado about to hit her exact location. The only people in her vicinity are a suspicious park ranger and a lone man seemingly drowning in the swamp’s waters. She hears the man shouting for help. Does she try to rescue him from drowning or save herself? Then the news broadcast in the background reports that a violent crime was committed against a woman in the area. The man in the swamp fits the description of the perpetrator.
Travieso writes of her play: “it’s a reflection on the exhausting struggle women face when they are expected to save those who continuously oppress them.” Sorry, reader, she won’t let me tell you if Ava saves the man in the end or not because it will ruin the ending for those will go see it live in upcoming stage performances. You’ll have to see for yourself.
A Troublemaking Travieso
The Spanish-language meaning of the word travieso means naughty. She admits that growing up she never quite fit in anywhere, so she learned how to listen to her gut instinct. But when she did this she tended to rustle some feathers in more classical spaces she admits.
“My first name is also magical since it’s the name of a small town in Cuba where my father’s family is from,” she adds. “At the entrance to the town, there is a sign that reads “Yara, A Place for Rebellion,” because it is where the start of the 10-year-war was proclaimed by the indigenous Taino people against the Spanish colonizers. I love both my names (thanks to my parents) and they do lend me a kind of wild freedom that I have used in every aspect of my life.”
It was not only her artistic family that expanded her world vision. Her teachers growing also woke her up to life’s infinite magic, people such as, Marta Miranda, her Spanish literature high school teacher at New World School of The Arts, with whom she first fell in love with storytelling, and Lara Murphy, her high school dance teacher, who “encouraged me to not only use my body, but my concepts, my visuals, my words and beyond.”
In turn, finding a creative mentor later in life was a challenge for Travieso. There were no examples of women around her or even in the world that were doing what she wanted to do. She remembers often crying because she felt so lonely in her creative journey. “I so badly wanted to follow in someone’s footsteps or sit with an older woman of color that loved what I loved and dealt with the difficulties I dealt with. But, historically women were rarely given the kinds of creative freedoms, positions, platforms, and spaces I was after.”
Travieso notes that the male-dominated arts landscape made it so that the older generation of female artists had to fight tooth and nail for whatever respect and positions they had. Due to this, she suspects there was no sense of community or extending a mentoring hand to help another. She told the Miami New Times that in her early professional life she had to produce films for men and often had to struggle to be taken seriously in positions of authority because she was seen first as a dancer and a woman. “Frustration and anger fueled me to really push myself to do the things I always wanted to do — my own work, my own vision.”
One day, she simply decided she wasn’t going to waste any more time feeling lonely and scared and that she’d simply do her own kind of female-centric projects. And then she´d become some young woman’s mentor someday instead.
Yara Rethinks Medea
Nothing depicts the struggles of women as well as Greek mythology and Medea is the queen of all legends. That pervasive figure of the wild, jealous foreign sorceress who vengefully murders her own children has haunted us all. In her, Travieso found her perfect subject and turned Euripides’ myth into a Latin-disco-pop-feminist variety show to call the story´s bluff.
Currently touring with what Vice has called “a modern-day Medea is mythology’s nasty woman,” Travieso has gone all out debunking the myth of Medea for a #metoo audience. Directed, performed, shot, and edited in real-time, her immersive musical and a simulcast film is not only high-stakes for the cast and crew, but for the audience as well, who also participate as part of the Greek chorus or as film extras.
“With La Medea I needed to rebel against every archetype that was ever written that I had been boxed into personally and culturally; ‘a hysterical foreign woman that is emotional, dangerous, intense, manipulative and not to be trusted.’ I knew that this character, as originally written by Euripides, was not a real woman, instead, she was a projection of the fears of the men around her.”
By rejecting the most prominent and prolific Greek myth ever written, Travieso wrote her own true way into this world, rejecting the past by addressing it, and currently creating new futures we haven’t seen before and that we enthusiastically await more of.