When New York City-based director and choreographer Yara Travieso graduated from Juilliard in 2009, she resolved to live entirely off of her own work. A prolific director of independent projects at a time when entrepreneurship was not yet emphasized daily on campus, she had no intention of abandoning her creative impulses come commencement to find a job in someone else’s dance company, she told The Journal between gallery hops on the Lower East Side. With an impressive variety of commissions and residencies, she has certainly achieved her goal—albeit in some ways that have surprised her.
Travieso grew up in Miami in a creative household with artist parents from Venezuela and Cuba. She attended the New World School of the Arts, a local arts high school, and spent weekends shooting films with friends with whom she founded a filmmakers’ collaborative. Travieso was fascinated by Hitchcock and “that unsettling feeling you get in your belly when something is completely flipped on your face in a cinematic environment,” like when the expositional camera angle on a faraway town suddenly reveals itself to be the literal bird’s-eye view of the avian villains in The Birds. She envisioned re-creating that feeling through movement, “not in a flat, two-dimensional state, but in a live, living and breathing way.” At the same time, she said, film allowed her the “freedom to create an entirely new environment that wasn’t about one subject dancing in space,” and on which the subject would have an influence.
Travieso’s two passions were closely related from the start. “My films were always very theatrical and my choreography very filmic,” she said. Since arranging bodies on a stage is not unlike placing them inside frames onscreen, she discovered a specific internal sensibility that gave her dances and films “the same pacing and rhythm.” With this dual focus, Travieso didn’t even plan to attend a dance conservatory after high school, but she landed an unconventional invitation to audition for Juilliard (it was the morning after winning in the dance and choreography categories at Miami’s YoungArts Week), and her path was set.
Even though multimedia performance was not a regular feature of her Juilliard education, Travieso said that when she came to campus, she “wanted to create dances, movements, theatrical events that felt like cinema.” Although it had never been the body by itself that fascinated her, she came to understand the need for immersion in the background of the body to inform the theater of the body she would make later. She arduously performed and choreographed throughout her four years at school, but ultimately what she wanted to create “was beyond just the body, or the body in a symbiotic relationship, like ‘body and machine,’ ‘body and architecture,’ ‘body and cinema,’ ‘body and …’.”
Travieso also made films outside class, with other students joining her for shoots all around the city. She showed them wherever she could—at student choreography workshops, in humanities class as an outside-the-box response to an essay prompt, as part of the Student Affairs Office’s Hispanic Heritage Month programming. These films laid the groundwork for the genre-defying work she does now, though while she was at Juilliard, Travieso didn’t plan to combine dance and film. “I was turned off by the idea of multimedia because of its often messy, low-fi, and unfocused stereotype,” she admitted.
In order to live off her own work, though, Travieso had to take on a lot of small projects that had little to do with the kind of work she’d envisioned making. But then she discovered that no matter how little time she had or how distant a project was from what she’d had in mind on graduation day, it still let her discover and develop her voice. And when she received an opportunity to create a full-length narrative work, she found cinematic projections to be the bridge between storytelling and performance. Her skills as a choreographer and filmmaker allowed her works to move into critical and contemporary arenas beyond the stage—into the realms of visual art, fashion, and architecture. “I could use a completely impersonal project as a way to delve into an idea already gestating,” she said.
After a couple of years of experimentation, Travieso no longer separates the mediums in her work. “I’m just making pieces in which the body, cinema, and theater can exist,” she said. They’ve been presented at Lincoln Center, the New World Symphony Center, the Bowdoin and Beyond the Machine festivals, and Opera Birmingham, and they’re also part of several private international collections. She’s a resident artist with the Streaming Museum and the Tribeca Performing Arts Center, and her current projects include an enormous horizontal counterbalance that harnesses a military parachute inflated by an industrial fan to a dancer; a video piece projected in a mirrored room to create an “avalanche of alternative dimensions” for one performer and one audience member; and an opera installation that’s based on ancient Japanese ghost stories and that incorporates live electronic music and 360-degree video projections. She’s working on the last two in collaboration with dance faculty member Jerome Begin.
Electrified by what she called the liberating potentials of nontraditional theater spaces and trusted collaborators, Travieso is a model of creative entrepreneurship in the post-conservatory world. “When you have the need to make something, you find little corners of possibility where you can create,” she said. “When you know in your heart and in your head that you own something of yourself and that no one else owns you, then you have the freedom to start a new project or collective or organization and screw up as much as possible—even if it sounds terrifying. There’s always a way, even if it’s different than the way you planned.”