Yara Travieso on Metamoto and Multimedia Dance

​Choreographer, director, and all-around multimedia artist Yara Travieso got her start dancing here relatively late, at age 13, and not in the usual realms of jazz, modern, or ballet. Rather, the self-described "super-sassy" teen was drawn instead to the flamboyance of flamenco. And though she later attended the New World School of the Arts to study dance, she wanted to continue on to film school. She ended up at Juilliard.

Travieso is back in Miami this week for three performances at the New World Center. We spoke to the 24-year-old choreographer about her background and her penchant for blurring artistic media.

Travieso's natural ability scored her a full scholarship to the notoriously stringent New York conservatory, where she honed her technique and choreography. But since graduating in 2009, she still hasn't stuck to dance -- for the cultural benefit of Miami and beyond. That year, she helped helm the Borscht Film Festival, which she co-founded with Borscht "minister of the interior" Lucas Leyva

Afterwards, she returned to New York, where she's appeared as a guest dancer at the Metropolitan Opera and choreographed her own further productions for Juilliard, among other genre-hopping projects.

But still, Miami looms large for Travieso, and this week she realizes a dream by presenting a new work, Set, during Metamoto, a musicians' and choreographers' forum at the New World Center tonight and Thursday. 

In the project, curated by Lydia Bittner-Baird, young choreographers work with musician fellows from the symphony in order to create new works tailored to the space. Travieso paired up with composer Jerome Begin. (The other choreographer-composer pair is Letty Bassart and Daniel Bernard Roumain, and other collaborators on Travieso's piece include architectural designer and artist Chat Travieso, designer Arias, director of photography Darren Hoffman, and artist/illustrator Ryan Hartley.)

Yes, Travieso is actually dancing about architecture.

Cultist: Your official biography talks about how you started dancing relatively late for a dancer. How old were you, and what inspired you to start?

Yara Travieso: I started dancing when I was about 13, when you're already developed, so it's a little harder to train your body to create muscle memory and habits. I had done flamenco on and off for a couple years prior to that. I needed a place to direct all this creative energy I had, and I had a lot of it. I think my parents thought it would be great to channel it in movement. I also had all of these insane ideas bouncing on and off, and I thought dance would make sense. 

What drew you to flamenco specifically?

I was a really sassy little girl, and I hated the idea of being a little girl, and the idea of pink, and cute things. I was actually really aggressive, and I wanted what I wanted, right now. I saw this dancer do flamenco one day -- and I have a lot of family in Spain who are well-known flamenco musicians, so that was already part of my life. But I saw this one dancer, and I said, "This is what I want to do! This isn't cute! This isn't pretty!"

There was also something really great about systems. Flamenco has really strict systems and it's really logical, but there's freedom in that. I've always been attracted to that -- something with a rigid system, where you can still go wild inside that structure.

When you went to Juilliard, did you have to go back and train in classical ballet?

Yes, Juilliard is like going back to zero. I didn't even apply to Juilliard. It was a fluke that happened. I was already making films when I was going to New World School of the Arts for dance, and I knew I wanted to direct and choreograph. And I didn't want to apply to Juilliard because I figured I couldn't afford it, and there was no way I would ever get in, and it was a dance factory, basically. 

But the director of Juilliard and Mikhael Baryshnikov saw me perform for the National Association for the Advancement of the Arts, and my dean called me the night before the audition, when I was out partying -- I had gotten into all the colleges I wanted to go to and was celebrating. And he was like, "You should go to bed, you're auditioning for Juilliard tomorrow."

What were your trepidations about going to Juilliard if you wanted to focus more on choreography?

It's a conservatory, so it's really a training environment for your body. But it turned out to be the best thing I could have done, because I'm interested in so many things that focusing on one big thing, how to move and speak with my body, gave me more tools to do everything. All these different media that I'm interested in -- cinema, multimedia, architecture -- they're all then fueled by my knowledge of my body and movement. 

How would you describe your style of choreography to someone who has never seen it?

My work is changing a lot right now. In general, I have a sense of cinema, which means there's a feeling of narrative, even when there isn't a very obvious story. I think about things like jump cuts, or film's ability to move slow or fast and use all these techniques to tell a story. 

Another aspect of my work I'm playing with right now is architecture. My brother is an architect and my dad's an architect, so I grew up with these bigger concepts and ideas. My brother and I are really close in age, and he's a great collaborator of mine. So it's interesting because a lot of the work I'm moving towards right now is very architectural. It's based on systems, just like what I was talking about with flamenco. Like, you can take this idea of compression or tension in architecture, and I can take that concept and apply it to a human situation. 

In music and music journalism circles, there's a saying that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. It's meant to say that both activities are abstract, and nearly impossible to use to accurately describe what they're talking about. But here you are, actually dancing about architecture. Can you describe more concretely an example of how you might do that? 

That's so interesting. But yes, one piece I did was part of the Bessie Schonberg Choreographers' Residency. I was able to take my company of dancers to Martha's Vineyard in the off-season, when it's totally abandoned, and feels like a horror film. It's beautiful. 

So I shot video of one of my dancers, Lucy Baker, on the beach. I took video of her face for hours with the erratic rhythm of the ocean in the background. I was looking for a real moment in her face, even if it was two seconds. So after hours of being nagged by the camera, she gave me an amazing moment when she was really annoyed with me.

So we took that look, that span of three seconds, and projected it on a huge wall behind the dance space where they were going to be performance. So I looped that reaction, and the entire background of the performance was basically her face. Then I overlaid her face with quadrants, a grid. 

Then I gave each one of my dancers a face part -- one was her right eye, one was her left eye, one was her mouth, one was her cheek. The idea was to trace her facial movement, every little bit of budging, which became graphed in the space by their movement. 

The final idea was then to create a three-dimensional extraction of that one moment -- which is architecture, if you think about it. It's a three-dimensional representation that creates a division in space. So we attached ropes to my dancers, each end attached to the real Lucy onstage, so she would then be moved by the dancers copying her facial expressions. Her movement would then be propelled by their systems. 

It's basically this obsessive attempt to figure out this one moment. That's how I work in my mind -- it's a very nervous energy while I'm working that can be expressed either as extreme order or extreme chaos. 

When you have so many ideas and you're interested in working in so many media, how do you decide on which medium is best for a specific idea? 

Well, I really like exploring the boundaries of each venue. If I'm working in a theater, I don't want it to feel like a two-dimensional proscenium. I also like blurring the lines between media, because I grew up with artist family and friends doing everything. So it all depends on the problem the project is trying to solve.

Why do you feel such a strong responsibility to bring cultural work back to Miami?

Miami is like one of my limbs -- my fifth mutant limb, and as much as I wish I could get rid of it, I can't. It's not even a normal limb, it's a tentacle with feelers, and it's in the way of everything and looks weird. I talk about my brother a lot because he was a painter and became an architect, and a lot of his work, too, is based on the urban experience we've had in Miami, or the idea of creating something from the ground up.

There's this open door that I've been a part of, of creating a city that's so exciting and strange and transient. I love the transient nature of Miami, the idea that nothing really stays, everything's always changing. In the tropics, fruits are always rotting, but more fruits are coming. 

I have a responsibility as a kid who grew up in Miami as a specific generation, who saw it for what it was and what it is now. Miami's so transparent, which is so exciting. It's so open, and it'll take ideas and gestate, and we'll know it's gestating.

New York is amazing; it's given me so many opportunities I would have never found, unfortunately, in Miami. But Miami's so young! We have to have the responsibility to get it to a place where those opportunities are just there for us. We need to also teach the audiences and be part of that conversation, and be educated by the audience in turn, to take those next steps. I think it's clear that there's already a specific artistic voice emerging.

This week, you'll present new work in town at Metamoto, a forum for new choreographers at the New World Symphony. How did you get involved?

The project has a curator, Lydia Bittner-Baird. I know her from Juilliard, and she's a big supporter of mine. She really wanted to see what would happen if she tried to put dance with the New World Symphony, and the kind of dance I do doesn't exactly go with traditionally symphonic music! We're doing it with the fellows of the symphony, and we've been interacting with them to create new music with them and my composers in New York. 

But basically I wanted to do something in Miami. I knew I was going to be in New York for a little while building my voice, but I needed an ending point. I needed it to end in Miami, before I could start again in whatever city. So when this happened, it was beyond what I could ever want, because it's not only Miami, but it's the new Miami, which I feel a part of building. 

It's also in the part of Miami that isn't Miami-specific. I like the Miami that's having a conversation with the rest of the world. I'm so thrilled to be doing the first multidisciplinary project in that space, ever! It's a dance piece in the round, which is also rare, and I'm making it for that space.

Metamoto. 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 11 and Thursday, May 12. The New

World Center, 500 17th St., Miami Beach. Admission is free, with a $6

handling charge for reserving in advance online. 305-673-3331; nws.edu. Traveiso also performs Sunday, May 15th 1 p.m. as part of YoungArts FL Celebration.

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