Issue No 17


BY Kaitlyn Parks

Yara Travieso, photographed by Ignacio Carballo

Fluent in multiple languages of visual expression, Yara Travieso pulls from her dictionary of film, performance, choreography, dance and narrative to create sensational works of art. Her intrinsic pursuit of storytelling manifests as stage performance, installation and video; it's culturally inspired, and an amalgam of genre and influence – she puts the MULTI in multi-disciplinary, multi-media art. She’s created numerous expositions for stage and gallery, as well as fashion films for Hermés, Glamour, and Superior Magazine, which are quite exquisite.

Inspired to capture the artist at work, I partnered with filmmaker Ignacio Carballo to document Yara’s story as she kicked off her most recent, and perhaps most ambitious project, La Medea. Through a residency with BRIClab, this was the first phase in the development of a Dogville-esque feature length project based on the ancient Greek tragedy and its protagonist Medea as “an iconized pop star in a post-infanticidal rant, re-living the events that lead to the vengeful bloodbath. Told as a Latin-disco-dance-musical-variety show turned feature film, the production is as wildly encompassing in its content as it is in its form – simultaneously manifested as a live theatrical musical, livestream broadcast, and feature film, the melodrama is directed, performed, shot, edited and streamed in real time. Performers and camera operators play the characters, while the studio audience is given agency to further the plot and fulfill the role of extras in the final feature film.”

In the first installment of a series of studio portraits commissioned by 1985, 
filmmaker Ignacio Carballo captures the spirit of the Artist in process,
documenting the creation of director/choreographer Yara Travieso's "La Medea"
at BRIC Arts Media House in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.

Kaitlyn Parks: Tell me about your approach to recent work - what you've been on to lately? With La Medea you experimented with combining multiple worlds together between live, recorded, behind the camera and audience involvement.

Yara Travieso: Combining multiple visual worlds and narratives creates juxtapositions for the viewer that mirrors an emotional crisis in the work. A lot of my work deals with characters and the choices they're making, or an existential event in a character's life. With a visual palette colliding directly against the narrative, it sometimes reveals behind the camera, the cameras themselves, a video projection of what's happening live, and sometimes mirrors showing the audience watching the live work. There are various ways I do this, and so many things to look at, but that would be nothing without the story that's being told.

I may have several visuals happening at the same time in La Medea, but as a viewer you're not missing anything, you're just aware that all of these things are happening simultaneously. The juxtaposition of everything is important because it tells the viewer to feel conflicted inside and to feel lost. I tell stories of human spectacle and adopt many different genres to tell the very simple story of human crisis.

I like to use the word "anti-spectacle" because I use film, dance and visual tropes that you would see in spectaculars, but for a different purpose. I use it to create a more guttural, human experience and to say something simple in a sensational way.

Photographs from LA MEDEA, created by Yara Travieso
BRIC Arts Media House 11.22.14

KP: Can you explain how you used the crew as characters in La Medea?

YT: For La Medea, my camera operators are two beautiful bad-ass ladies: My new Colombian hero, Monica Cohen, and my crazy Italian right arm Pamela Giaroli (who I work with on a lot of projects). They're both amazing women and so much fun to work with. Involving them in the mise-en-scène and the story itself is inspired by my filmmaking process. When I make films, the part of the process I feel most excited about is the actual shoot day(s). It’s that adrenaline rush when you're shooting and you're connecting with your team the way you would connect with a live audience or live performers, that kind of creative present-ness with a film team, you can’t re-create it in the film itself. Once you screen the film, it’s a different experience. You play it and you can always play it again, there’s no ephemeral feeling the way you would have for something that is live. So when I’m making a film, I see my camera ops as performers and I give them choreography. I also start seeing my PAs as performers, who are doing things under the frame, like fixing a skirt, changing a set. Seeing it from a distance ends up being a beautiful visual story. With one shoot I did, (Till I Hurt You with Grace Weber) I had to be on a balcony overhead watching the monitor because I couldn’t be in the way of the frame, and seeing a bunch of PAs, camera op, gaffers and so on chasing around this character - it was as if they were running for their lives. That was the moment I knew I needed my camera ops to be characters, I needed them to be seen. They have a task they are committing to and the whole world is in their hands. All of a sudden if you shine a light on what they’re doing, it becomes this beautiful poetry that has a duality to it. It is poetry but it is functional in a way, it’s dirty, physical and it’s full of possible mistakes and full of reality. Exposing the behind the scenes is more honest, true, and exciting for me because I can see something different every time.

Photographs from LA MEDEA, created by Yara Travieso
BRIC Arts Media House 11.22.14

KP: How did your trajectory in art and life evolve into a hybrid of dance, choreography, performance, installation, directing? What came first and what inspired you to bring together all areas?

YT: It started with my parents being visual artists, and my father is very philosophical, he’s an architect and an artist, and my mother is very aesthetic as an artist/designer. She does everything - she designs clothes, she creates mosaic works… one of her influences on me was storytelling, she would just tell stories all the time. Narrative was a big part of the visual stuff in my life through my Mom. My Dad would tell factual stories, and my Mom would make everything up! With those made up stories, the spectacular would always happen, they were stories that seemed like they could be true, but there were so many fantastical falsities in them that triggered imagination. It’s also a cultural thing (Latin America) where denials of reality persist, you see it in literature (magical realism), this world of the unbelievable attached to the mundane. My brother is a visual artist as well, and my sister is into design, so everyone has a visual inclination.

As a kid, I was really energetic and dramatic. Just a kid full of too many hormones, you know, I felt everything too much. My parents tried to channel that by putting me in theater, but that wasn’t my jam. I wasn’t really interested in performance until I saw Flamenco. I thought it was amazing. It was a great place for me to start because it was so theatrical and physical. I went on to train in various dance forms. It wasn’t until later that I realized how cinematic Flamenco actually is.

I became interested in film because I processed visually. Film was a place to combine what I loved of physical theater and what I understood of the visual world – composition, and human narrative.

In high school I would make films with a group of friends, and this is when I started to create a vocabulary on screen, discovering what that felt like and how it related to stage vocabulary, like what is theatrical about the screen work. When I got selected to attend Juilliard, my life was at a crossroads. I didn’t even think I was at the Juilliard level as a dancer, and I had applied to various film/multimedia schools. I thought I should go to Cal Arts or NYU. Juilliard was the only one to offer me a full ride scholarship, which was crazy and amazing. In my audition interview with the director of the Juilliard dance division, I had to explain to him why I didn’t apply to Juilliard in the first place. I said, “ 1) I didn’t think I was good enough and 2) I don’t want to be a company dancer, I want to be a director and a choreographer, and I want to create new work. I’m not sure what it is yet, but I have these ideas in my mind and I want to explore them everyday and get better at it as soon as possible.” And he said this: “To make good work, you need great subjects. You’re not going to find better subjects than at Juilliard. You will have the best dancers, actors and composers in the world”

That moment was a turning point, when I realized that I would need strong subjects in my work. I went to Juilliard and my journey as a choreographer really began.

I wasn’t a dance company dancer, and I knew that every day I was taking class. Still, I lived as if I was that dancer. I would wake up in the morning, take ballet as though I was going to become a great ballet dancer, take modern as though I was going to be a great modern dancer, go to countless rehearsals, and at the end of the day, physically exhausted, I would stay in the studio choreographing, storyboarding and working on my own stuff. There was something in that physical rigor to grasp on to, it fueled me creatively and gave me focus. During the summers I continued to explore my voice with filmmaking.

KP: It seems that young people have pressure to focus on one discipline - or at least I was encouraged to, perhaps because it’s the most practical, industrial, capitalistic approach. But it certainly is not the most creative or visionary approach.

YT: It’s interesting because if you think of where it all comes from, storytelling is at the base of everything. If you go back to the shamans, the first shamans, they used to choreograph things like their spirit quests. Their storytelling had movement, it was orchestrated. Structure and narrative are at the core of everything.

When you move away from traditional narrative or formalized stage work, that’s when people get a little nervous because they don’t know how they are supposed to feel. And the more foreign you (or your work) are, the more they are wary of you and your abilities. Which has actually given me a lot of freedom - to do whatever I want. I don’t fit in to the dance world, I don’t fit into the art world, and I don’t fit in to the film world, so there’s no pressure.

The separation of art mediums is something imposed on us at an early age so that there is order and profitability in the perception of art for institutions and the general public. We compartmentalize each form too much these days and forget that they are all part of each other, just like our five senses. Its great to be specialized in one field, but our minds and bodies are capable of so much so why stop at one? We should create in a process where anything that can further your work is game.

Directed and edited by Yara Travieso.
Collaboration with Director of Photography Danilo Hess.
Russian Glamour Magazine.

KP: Your work is so complex, and I'm sure every project is different - but give me a rough example of your process, from conception through execution.

YT: Oddly enough, the process is pretty similar for all of them. They always start with either a singular iconic image or a character question, such as who is this person, why am I obsessed with her? It’s usually an image or a character that is contradicting it/herself. Then I create visual collages that inform the final work and finally I go into rehearsals + production.

For La Madea, I had this itch to dive into a controversial female character and literally went to Amazon: “Amazon what kind of books would I like?” And “Medea” came up in the search results. I thought "oh man, that is one conflicted lady". Instantly, I knew that was the next work I wanted to make. It was just this feeling. I knew I had to do it. 

As I started to create a story around her, in the span of three weeks, I was flooded with all of these visuals, tableau-like images. I didn’t know if I was going to make a film of Medea, or a live work. I was probably thinking it would be a video installation, because I had just done one on the character Dido (Laid In Earth). At the time I was broke, and felt like creating something that was simple. I thought it could be a solo character, and that I could be her - at least for now and then eventually pass her along to a performer.

Well, I always think it’s going to be small, but it’s never small! As it goes, the images kept flooding; Images of mirrors, the vulnerability of this character, seeing cameras with an iconic female entertainer that you can’t really understand because she sings in an accent - a foreigner. And then being influenced by Italian disco, which I am obsessed with, everything collided. That was the idea: we see her changing backstage, we see her falling, everywhere she is, the cameras see her, and we see the audience seeing the cameras see her, and vice-versa. To demystify her was the plan.

So, my process starts with an itch, a curiosity, and then images. With those images I create storyboards, which are renderings and layered collages. Regular storyboards won’t work because the visual has so many elements to it. There might be a medium shot in one camera, a wide shot in camera 2, a super wide shot in camera 3 - as well as the live audience perspective and what you see if you’re stage left, or stage right (all at once). The collages I make communicate the feeling, the color, environment, and character, so the team can see where the references are coming from. It communicates the scale of things, and the texture and the vibe of the world. This is the most important process for me and it is directly influenced by my dad's and brother's architecture renderings.

Then, assuming I have the funding (because a lot of the work is grant writing/sponsor loving), and castings have taken place, and I have the team set up, I’ll move on to collaborating with my composer, Sam Crawford. We sit down, and it’s just like writing a script. I tell him all of my narrative ideas, my musical influences throughout and he immediately gets it. I love his style and sensitivity to cinema, I trust him with everything---we have a creative mind that is really connected. Based on his material, I start to form choreographic ideas. I don’t try to make choreography the full language of the work; I use it to create a spectacle, and to allow the absurd to come through, or to create a physical challenge for the characters such as holding a camera rig while slow dancing. I’ll go in the studio and find those moments. Eventually we put it together with the performers, the camera operators, the live band, and finally, with the audience (if its a live work). A lot of this depends on a brilliant team of makers and tons of support (emotional and institutional!). 

The final work for me is always exactly those original collages and visuals for both my screen and stage work. What’s in between is super accidental and experimental but the collages are the essence of the work and where it all lives. When those moments are right you just feel it - I won’t storyboard them if they’re not going to work.

Collage of "14R" by Yara Travieso

Directed and edited by Yara Travieso.
Collaboration with Director of Photography Danilo Hess. Effects by Jesse Garrison.
Superior Magazine.

KP: La Medea was hosted at Bric Arts Media House. It was my first time at Bric and it is such a beautiful space. Tell us a bit about your experience working with them.

YT: I’m glad you asked because more people should know about it! Bric Arts Media is an organization that has been around for years, but the building is very new. They are starting to create a strong legacy in bold programming, taking risks with a new wave of artists and fueling the Brooklyn community. The creative experience there is incredible. Inside the building there’s so much life. You walk in and you see an art gallery, a team doing a live broadcast show, a beautiful café, a dance concert in the theater, a multi-media project in the studio - so many different things happening at the same time. It’s exactly how my brain works.

BRIC gave me a BRIClab Residency, which was to spend ten days in the space exploring a live work that would be workshopped to the public on the final two nights. The purpose was to explore one part of my La Madea idea, such as the script, or the music, or staging ideas. But I decided to explore the whole thing - there was no way I could explore just one part of it! Most places would say to me, “whoa, this is too ambitious,” but this is the first time someone said, “whoa, this is really ambitious, but let’s see how we can make it work.” My mind was blown. To create under that circumstance is the best way to create. It’s how new things are born; with the freedom to be spontaneous, but with that kind of safety. Those ten days were madness and exhausting, but I don’t think I’ve created under such happy circumstances.

In addition to Bric’s support, we were funded by The National Association for Latino Arts and Cultures, the Ford Foundation, and The Surdna Foundation through the NALAC Fund for The Arts. Between them and Bric, it was perfect combination for the first phase of the work. We are continuing developing the next phase of La Medea via grant writing and meeting with producers.

KP: It’s great that your ambition has been surrounded by a great support system, from all of these organizations, to your family of collaborators (composers, cinematographers) – to your actual family. Your brother, Chat Travieso, who is also an artist (an architect and designer of public space and art) has joined you here in NYC. How does he influence your work?

YT: My brother and I are very different but we meet in the same place. Chat works with various community organizations in Manhattan and Brooklyn and most recently Cambridge, MA, to create projects that are both poetic and beautiful, but also to provide something that a neighborhood is missing, and the neighborhood will help design it with him. Whether that’s seating, a place to read, a bike path, a place for safety, a place for children, or a place for elderly, he really does ask questions and tries to fill a void. He was recently working with an elderly community, for example, in Bushwick, and he met with them weekly to collaborate on a shared vision for a new design outside their public housing. They decided to create useful benches, everything he does is very stylized and architectural, they are a striking design.

He’s great, and he’s the one that’s always grounding me. Otherwise, I’d be off in these absurd worlds of cryptic and esoteric storytelling. He gets me excited about making work that isn’t self referential to the art world, work where anyone can walk in and have an experience. You’ll see a general crowd at my work - just random people, not necessarily in the art world. I don’t want to to be part of a single exclusive community, I just want to have shared human experiences that provoke a real response.

KP: We've seen the emergence of fashion films which can be an amazing creative outlet for directors, in the same way music videos are and sometimes with more narrative freedom. You've created films for Glamour, Superior Magazine, and most recently for Hermés (coming soon!). How have you been able to use this platform to explore cinema?

YT: Fashion films are where I get to just make a film, and experiment with a lot of cinematic ideas that have been brewing. Because they are open genre for the most part, there are no rules, and I feel it’s the perfect place to play. Models usually don’t have too much dialogue, it’s about the picture and the image. It’s also an awesome editing process for me - like with 14R  which has a diptych or triptych of screens happening at the same time. That was my ode to Brian DePalma’s Sisters. I wanted to figure out a story with three frames happening at the same time next to each other, similar to what I would create on stage with various visual choices at once. It’s an experiment on translating language from stage to screen. Fashion Films have been a great opportunity and I'm grateful for it. It also allows for my own funding as an artist, so I can continue to make art in a sustainable way.