On a chilly day last fall, Miami-born artist Yara Travieso sat in a beach chair in her Brooklyn backyard while she talked about a performance she was planning for Miami’s YoungArts Plaza. “It’s very weird,” she said of her current location, “because it’s cold.”
Though she no longer lives in Miami, Travieso said she feels like she still has an umbilical cord attached to the city. Hurricane Irma had just blown through, leaving downed trees and twisted street signs. She felt it from afar.
Meanwhile, Tinseltown was being battered by a different kind of storm. Allegations of sexual misconduct were staining the careers of powerful men, and a surge of #MeToo stories had just hit the internet.
Some forces have since settled, but they are repetitions of age-old themes that Travieso has harnessed for her upcoming multimedia performance. El Ciclón will show Saturday, May 12, in the YoungArts Plaza as part of the YoungArts series Outside the Box.
The National YoungArts Foundation nurtures promising young artists in visual, literary, design, and performing arts and assists them throughout their careers. Its Outside the Box series brings YoungArts alumni back to Miami to produce creative work for an outdoor space, free and open to the community.
Travieso, a 2005 YoungArts alum, has reimagined the YoungArts Plaza as a minimalist mylar swamp swimming with alligators. A series of cars will light the stage and provide the sound, and the audience will be transported into a story of a moral dilemma.
The main character in El Ciclón, Ava, gets stranded in the swamp. Her car won’t start. As she’s trying to escape her predicament, she hears a man pleading for help in the darkness. What follows is an internal struggle: should she try to rescue him or save herself? The story grows more complex when a news broadcast plays on the car radio in the background: A violent crime was committed against a woman, and the man in the swamp fits the description of the perpetrator.
As an artist, Travieso constructs fictional female characters through multimedia storytelling. She draws from dance, opera, theater, film, music, and the visual arts. “I’ve been able to visit a lot of different worlds," Travieso says. Locally, she made a significant imprint on Miami’s cultural scene as cofounder of the Borscht Film Festival. She also trained as a dancer at New York’s Juilliard School and performed as a dancer with New York’s Metropolitan Opera.
In her early professional life, she found she was producing 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. She wanted a voice of her own. “Frustration and anger fueled me to really push myself to do the things I always wanted to do — my own work, my own vision.”
When she began producing her own projects, Travieso says, “I wanted to create these really wild works, and there was no precedent for them.” Storytelling and imagery are at the center of her creative process. “A lot of my work is around specific women, and I try to use different tools to push the story.”
Empathy is the superpower bestowed on her female characters. They are not your typical heroic figures; they are complex — simultaneously strong and vulnerable. And, Travieso says, they are fed by her own personal and professional struggles as a woman.
She sometimes references Greek mythology or other traditional stories. “This new character for YoungArts feels like a myth,” she says, “but it’s a totally new story. I love the timelessness of the Ava character.”
Though Ava was conceived well before #MeToo hit social media with such force, there is a resonance between them. “This narrative that we’re seeing has been underground for a long time,” Travieso says. “Every creative milestone of my career, I have had a huge ‘me too.’
“I think there’s something in that metaphor of pulling the man out of the swamp,” she adds. “The swamp is stagnant; it’s heavy. It’s not moving, and he’s stuck in it. And the idea of the woman sacrificing her life, her time, her energy, putting her life and existence on hold to save this man, that’s a daily act.”
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Her project for Outside the Box was borne from a long-standing relationship with the organization. She was a recipient of the YoungArts Award in 2005, an honor given annually to artists aged 15 to 18 from around the nation. Since then, she has continued to work with the organization as a teacher and performing artist.
Travieso credits YoungArts with giving her complete freedom in the production of El Ciclón. “I feel like something happened when I was given the liberty to make this project,” she says. “It’s that free sensibility as an artist to tell your stories from a place of freedom, not from a place of fear.”
– Catherine Annie Hollingsworth, Artburstmiami.com
Yara Travieso’s El Ciclón. Part of YoungArts' Outside the Box series. 7 p.m. Saturday, May 12, at YoungArts Plaza, National YoungArts Foundation, 2100 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; youngarts.org. Admission is free with RSVP via otbyara.eventbrite.com.