Welcome...

A Greater Boston native, I'm a professional dancer and award-winning interdisciplinary artist with talents in choreography, filmmaking, art, and graphic design. I'm co-founder and artistic director of Luminarium Dance Company (Boston, MA), art director of Art New England magazine, senior contributor for The Arts Fuse, and am the Boston area dance critic for the international Fjord Review. I recently completed a one-year term as co-chair of the Arlington Cultural Council, and am regularly hired as an arts advocate to speak at events ranging from legislative assemblies at the State House to entrepreneurial panels for students at Mount Holyoke College. This blog serves as a behind-the-scenes peek into the life and journal of an interdisciplinary artist. Learn more at merliguerra.com or luminariumdance.org, and thank you for reading my thoughts on setting the visual and performing arts into motion.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Young, yes, but legitimate.

Ever since mastering the use of scissors and crayons in preschool (which jumped me ahead a year to kindergarten), I've heard "Wow, but you're so young!"

It's a phrase that made me feel good when I had those scissoring techniques down, when all the other kids in my new class were already five and I was still a four-year-old bumpkin. It's a phrase I dreaded when my orthodontia kicked in early (even earlier than my older friends) and I found myself pioneering the retainer and braces front. But then again, it was a phrase I basked in when it seemed the entire school had metal mouths, and I now had a perfectly straight, perfectly white smile!

I'm sure there must be a driving force that comes with being the youngest in your grade. Maybe it's partially why I've pushed myself as hard as a I always have. Then again, it always gave me a safety net (that I luckily have never had to use): allowing me an out if ever I found myself behind.

Why am I stuck on age? Well, frankly, Luminarium has been experiencing a lot of the same obstacles and successes while also receiving the phrase "Wow, but you're so young!"

But this week, I (we) feel both young and legitimate.

Let's take a look at the past seven days, just seven, and see what a typical week is now like for Luminarium and its two co-directors. On Wednesday, we performed outdoors in a garden, as visitors gathered for a lecture on healing at The Children's Room in Arlington, Mass. A wonderful experience! Thursday brought a three-hour rehearsal for Luminarium's first commissioned work, to be performed through a brief residency at Ithaca College in October. Friday brought various paperwork, emails, and preparation for upcoming events. Saturday brought a day of dancing, with Lumi Parent #1 bringing one dancer out to Western Mass for an early tech, and Lumi Parent #2 playing taxi for our second dancer after a rehearsal later in the day. Once reunited, we found ourselves sitting in the ever-familiar Bowker auditorium in Amherst, as one of eight companies chosen for this year's Mass Dance Festival: Professional Company Gala Performance. Sunday brought a day of separation, then an evening of busy planning for our impending lecture. On Monday, Kim and I spoke as professional artists at the Arsenal Center for the Arts (more on this below), and Tuesday was spent fielding emails, forging connections, thanking presenters, cataloging files, and--what's this??--preparing for GRANT season!

Wow...but we're so young...

A Sampling of My Work:
6 Milestone Pieces in 5 Years
Presented at text & conText on September 24, 2012
Yet as Kim and I each took our turn standing at the podium on Monday night, with images of our work appearing larger than life behind us on the screen, I finally found myself believing for the first time Young, yes, but legitimate.

Here we were--each choosing to speak about six of our milestone works, and the progression of thought and artistry between them--presenting a body of work. This wasn't a post-show talkback, speaking only about the choreography immediately on the tip of our tongues. This presentation took careful thought in its preparation. In my own process leading up to Monday, I found myself giving particular attention not only to the work I chose to speak about, but what the work spoke about me. Choosing six works out of a collection of projects felt easy. It was simple to look back and think Of all my work, which ones jump out in my mind as the most memorable, for myself? The hard part came in connecting the dots of progression, yet beautiful to realize that there was a progression! Still, the most shocking moment for me came when I heard myself begin with "In 2008, I created my first film."

...2008??? Could that be right? But it must have been right, because my next piece was made in 2009. Which led to 2010. Then a new approach in 2011. Ending with my most recent work in 2012. Five years worth of work? Somehow, that alone is what made me leave the Arsenal Center for the Arts on Monday night thinking Young, yes, but legitimate.

Slides from the lecture (my half):

Synchronic
Film Still
2008

Synchronic
 Film Still
2008

Synchronic
Film Still
2008

What seems so is transition
 Film Still
2009

What seems so is transition
Film Still
2009

What seems so is transition (live)
Photo by Christina Pong
2010 Re-adaptation

Casting Shadows, Tearing Holes
 2010

Untitled Breathing Installation
2011

Emergence (Phase 2 of Untitled Breathing Installation)
Photo by Liza Voll
2011

Seirēn 
Photo by Ryan Carollo
2012

Seirēn 
Photo by Ryan Carollo
2012

Seirēn 
Photo by Jim Coleman
2012

Andromeda
"Before"
Sketch by Julia Wagner
2012

Andromeda"After"
Photo by Julia Wagner
2012

Andromeda
Lightbulb Placement and Movement Testing
2012

Andromeda
The Final Product
Photo by Kimberleigh A. Holman
2012

One final thought to end... Monday night was a beautiful, positive, encouraging, and reaffirming experience not only for myself as an artist, but for Kim, too. And as she experienced her own moment of legitimacy at the podium (I'm sure she has her own take on what this feeling was!), I found myself listening to and watching (for the first time since starting Luminarium) a completely independent artist. An artist whose mind is nearly always playing a game of creativity tag with my own, yet in this one moment, I felt pleasantly separated from my partner in crime. We feel so comfortable around one another that Monday finally offered me the chance to view her from the outside perspective. Here was this beautiful young woman speaking eloquently and humorously about her artistic decisions, insights, and intrigues, all leading up to this incredible dance company she'd started, and all I could think was how impressed I was.

And if that isn't an example of our legitimacy as artists, then I eagerly await the moment of discovering it.

Luminarium
Photo by Shane Godfrey Photography


Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Climbing inside the snow globe...

Last week I found myself with the unique opportunity to interact with my work in a way I never have. In every production Luminarium presents, I pride myself on knowing the intricacies of my work well. I feel every rhythm, every musical cue, every facial expression… I find myself falling into sync with the performers as I watch them from backstage. But the one thing I have never felt (in a group piece, particularly) is the ability to perform the work on the spot. Did I choreograph it? Yes! Do I know the reasons behind each movement choice? Certainly. Do I remember it? Not at all. I am by far a dancer who relies on muscle memory to perform—and if I set a piece, then spend weeks on the outside tweaking, editing, rearranging, it is the dancers who grow through my movement and not myself. I am no longer the expert when it comes to how a pose feels before rolling into the ground—they are.


So back to this unique opportunity: I have performed my own work before, many times, but always with one or two rehearsals in advance. I’ve allowed myself the time it takes to gather my senses, get up from the director/audience’s chair, and climb onstage to see the piece from the side I originally worked. I have always had the opportunity to ask my dancers how they feel as I integrate myself (am I moving too quickly, is my spacing correct, am I holding anyone back), and I have felt confidently assimilated by the time of the performance.

And then came this week.

With a dancer badly injured, and the sudden realization that I would have to both perform and continue to direct with Kim (thanks goodness there’s two of us!), I found myself with no time for review or rehearsal before tech night. Seirēn is a piece of co-dependence, be it through physical partnering or emotional relationships onstage. The dancers have become so beautifully fine-tuned in their approaches to the work, that I found myself without time to catch up. So on late Wednesday night when we chose to perform a full run of the show, I suddenly found myself mounting my partner in the darkness backstage, completely unaware how the piece now looked from inside it.

What it felt like to perform Seirēn from Luminarium's
MYTHOS:PATHOS, beautifully captured by Jim Coleman.
What an EXPERIENCE!

It was like staring at a snow globe for weeks, letting the sight of it calm you in its familiarity, only to suddenly find yourself transported inside. I have never once felt this so intensely while performing my own work. The dancers, who were all performing at their fullest in presence and emotion, seemed to swirl around me with true intent. When “battling” the sailors, I felt both the sinister attraction I had choreographed, but also a new-found feeling of self-preservation as I was continuously pushed away. I found empathy in a character I created to have none. I found joy in moments I had perceived as dark and cold. And beyond all else, I found a world that undeniably exists when the house lights darken and my dancers leave the wing.

The rest of the weekend went smoothly, and I gradually chose which of these emotions I would work with while performing, but none of the nights felt like the first. That moment of pure integration through immediate assimilation. 

l. to r. - Amy Mastrangelo, Jess Chang, Rose Abramoff, and
Merli V. Guerra performing Seirēn from Luminarium's MYTHOS:PATHOS.
Photo by Jim Coleman.
It makes me wonder if this is a technique to be used: To chose at random a dancer to replace during the rehearsal process to better understand the emotions that can arise when “living” the piece, rather than performing. Because what I learned on Wednesday night had nothing to do with the turns, the falls, the lifts… This experience simply allowed me to genuinely experience this character from a fresh, unrehearsed perspective. And I am so grateful.