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.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Review: Chun-jou Tsai's The Dream Project

It's no small feat to fill a theater on a chilly winter night in Boston, yet Chun-jou Tsai's The Dream Project succeeded with an over-sold crowd packing the chairs and floor of Green Street Studios' modest space.

Chun-jou Tsai's The Dream Project.

The buzz of supportive excitement was palpable, met with a tinge of tender humor watching third-grade performer Jasmine Teng shakily hold a series of intricate poses pre-show. Teng, an award-winning artist in her own right, is an impressive performer at her young age. When the performance began with a distanced duet between Tsai and Teng, the two moved seamlessly with adept precision and elastic flexibility. Serving at times as a glimpse into Tsai's past, and at others perhaps her inner child, the duet set the scene for the show, and turned our focus to Tsai as its pivotal character.

The beauty, yet difficulty, of Tsai's choreographic style stems from its breath of quick staccato foot and hand gestures to its luxuriant full-bodied twists and rolls through the spine. Unfortunately, not all of the company can keep up. While all technically strong, most lacked the emotional and physical clarity that makes Tsai such an intense force on stage. Still, dancers Wisty Andres and Jorge Delgado should be commended for rising to the challenge and beautifully executing Tsai's choreography to the fullest.

There were a few aspects of the show that, in its current form, held the view back. For one, the work was disappointingly short! Despite starting half an hour late (with the audience waiting uncomfortably on the stairs at an unattended box office), the performance ended at 9:10 after a mere 40 minutes of dance. While it's true what they say "Leave the audience wishing for more," the show could have benefited from one final sequence to tie everything together, while serving up a meatier night of theatre for its viewers. The choreography, too, could benefit from a little variation and smoothing: At times, the quick tempo of all performers onstage was so uniform that it became cumbersome for the eye to follow for a ten-minute stretch; at others, the company's impressive acrobatic lifts were handled overly laboriously to the point of taking the audience out of its trance and simply worrying for the safety of the dancers. Within the larger context of the work as a whole, these are small details that with some future tweaking and caressing can easily heighten the work to the next level.

Chun-jou Tsai performing her solo in The Dream Project.
Photo: Lumyr Derisier. 

By the end of the evening there were two works which stood out the most: One, a gorgeous trio between Tsai, Delgado, and Brian Washburn (another excellent dancer who disappointingly never reappeared, even in the work's climactic closing scene); the other, a captivating solo featuring Tsai. The trio, with its intricate entanglement of detailed lifts, leaps, and limbs, was breathtaking. These three perform so well together that their bodies seem linked by an invisible force, each landing in exactly the right spot, providing just the right foothold for the next. Emotionally, the work brought to mind simultaneously an inner struggle and the need to mentally (and physically) take a moment to pause. Similarly, the solo reached a heightened level of emotional and physical endurance. Though alone on stage, Tsai's movements were mimicked, balanced, and at times surrounded by a large-scale video projection against the back wall featuring black dots of ink bleeding into unseen water. The two came together harmoniously, creating a sinuous duet with both ink and dancer spiraling through the depths of the mind.

It's not often we see such high-caliber performers and attention to detail in a debut performance such as this one. If her work continues to progress from here, Tsai promises to become another leading voice in the Boston arts scene. Special mention should made made, too, of the thoughtful costuming (Eugenia Kim), video animation (Bowie King), and lighting design (Hai Dang Nguyen) that so well complemented the movement onstage.

To learn more about The Dream Project, visit the event page.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Black and White and in the Nude: Modeling for Judith Larsen

The first week in June, I found myself once again on the threshold of producing another issue of Art New England magazine, with all decided but the cover. For once, though, I was determined to see one image rise to the top of the list. Judith Larsen (world-renowned photographer and wife of equally famous artist Peik Larsen) had sent us her images to be shown at out of bounds 2014. The image I saw immediately peaked my interest, and eventually I succeeded in making it our July/August 2014 issue cover:

Art New England's July/August 2014 issue cover, featuring SHIMA by Judith Larsen.

I couldn't help but let the artist know how happy I was to have put her image on our cover, and let her know I was curious about her work. One thing led to another, and in chatting we discovered that we're both projection artists with a love of using the body as a canvas! As if that wasn't a cool enough connection, Judith soon asked me to join her in the studio to model for her upcoming photo series...

...Here's the catch. In order to create these gorgeous images, Judith projects black and white images onto nude bodies against a black backdrop, then inverts the photograph to create these beautiful, ethereal figures. Oh, did you miss the catch? Nude bodies.

There was once a time when the timid ballerina inside me would have politely declined, but luckily over the years I've come to love the unexpected adventures that arise when working, performing, and collaborating as a professional artist. Judith's works are incredible, and have been shown all over the world. No level of self-consciousness was going to stand in my way this time, and before I knew it, I was borrowing Kim's bathrobe and heading to the studio!

PLEXIS by artist Judith Larsen, featuring models Merli V. Guerra and M.D.

The first photoshoot went well, and as we walked in a few weeks later for round two, we were greeted with a mesmerizing sight. The worktable was now covered in prints from the first session, with paper doll cutouts of M.D. and myself in contorted poses, sometimes inverted, other times against the original black. It was beautiful and surreal at once--hard to believe we were the subjects in these intricate otherworldly photos!

Ultimately, we spent the afternoon fine-tuning two of the images, followed by an afternoon of me trying to untwist my body and work out the kinks of holding each pose for an hour! We had an absolute blast, and loved the two final products: PLEXIS (above) and EMERGY (below).

EMERGY by artist Judith Larsen, featuring models Merli V. Guerra and M.D.

A few months later, I was invited to attend the opening VIP reception for the annual sale at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where EMERGY was framed against the wall. Judith welcomed me into the space, introducing me to viewers, and we both were excited to see the final product proudly displayed for $3,000.

At the 2014 SMFA Auction. Merli V. Guerra with artist Judith Larsen.
Photo: Jill & Bob Armstrong

At the 2014 SMFA Auction. Merli V. Guerra with artist Judith Larsen.
Photo: Jill & Bob Armstrong

At the 2014 SMFA Auction. Judith Larsen and
Merli V. Guerra with Larsen's EMERGY.
Photo: Jill & Bob Armstrong

As I joked when accepting this gig, a nude photoshoot should really be on every "real" artist's bucket list. So I suppose I can call it quits and check it off my own, yet I have a feeling this is just the beginning of working with Judith, and hopefully just another story to add as I continue along the "real artist's journey."

View more of Judith's work at judithlarsen.com.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The warmest northern town...

This summer I, and the ladies of Luminarium Dance, have been fortunate to perform every other week for nearly the entire summer season, darting around from Boston to Cambridge, Somerville to Arlington, and most recently Massachusetts to Maine.

Rose and Merli barely survive their Maine moose attack.
Photo: K. Holman

Oh glorious Maine... How long we anticipated this trip!

The casual shopper.
Photo: Merli V. Guerra

Jess, Rose, Amy, Melenie, and Kim strolling Wiscasset Village.
Photo: Merli V. Guerra

There are times when the simplest of Luminarium performances become the most meaningful and most heartfelt. Wandering the streets of Wiscasset, ME, a few hours prior (and a few passing-vehicle catcalls aside) we found ourselves in a town village on the water surrounded by art galleries, small boutiques, cozy cafes, and most importantly enthusiastic locals!

"Luminarium Gives Wiscasset Art Walk Added Dimension"
Wiscasset Newspaper

Never have I traveled to perform and felt so instantly well-received. The warmth of this town, its residents, visitors, shop owners, and artists took this monthly artwalk to a whole new level. Truly, the Wiscasset Art Walk is a destination for locals and travelers alike, with beautiful works ranging from classic to contemporary lining the walls of the dozen-or-so galleries, while balloons bob in the ocean breeze to mark one's path. As performers, we scattered ourselves along the street, performing in window fronts and cafes, sidewalks and piers. From the artwork shown to the music played, it was easy to find new inspiration in each venue...and wine.

"Luminarium in Maine, 2014"

And as the evening came to a close, it felt especially appropriate to enjoy the biggest response in the smallest space. Two pairs of musicians who had never before played together carried the tune as Luminarium slinked its way along the narrow corridor of Mac's Place. Exhausted, elated, we joined our supporters at a local restaurant for a late dinner, jogged up the hill to our beautiful vintage abode, and marveled at the clarity of the Milky Way—a sight seldom seen back home in Boston.

Thank you, Wiscasset Art Walk, for bringing us to your state, your town, your local waterfront. What a fantastic 2014 Tour for this Boston company.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

If Crayons Could Capture: Acadia, Maine

Recently I had the rare opportunity to escape the city and head to the mountains...and the water. So tonight, as life has once again become abundantly tumultuous, I'll put my metaphorical pencil down and let these images offer an escape to anyone needing a summer night in Acadia / Bar Harbor, Maine.

Our first glance: Acadia National Park, Acadia ME.
Photo: Merli V. Guerra, 2014

Rocky slope, Acadia ME.
Photo: Merli V. Guerra, 2014

Setting sail, Bar Harbor ME.
Photo: Merli V. Guerra, 2014

Gust, Bar Harbor ME.
Photo: Merli V. Guerra, 2014

Red-tipped waves, Bar Harbor ME.
Photo: Merli V. Guerra, 2014

Sunset, Cadillac Mountain, Acadia ME.
Photo: Merli V. Guerra, 2014

Girl on a mountain, Acadia ME.
Photo: Merli V. Guerra, 2014

My favorite little islands: The Porcupine Islands, Acadia ME.
Photo: Merli V. Guerra, 2014

Oh but the moon, Acadia ME.
Photo: Merli V. Guerra, 2014

If crayons could capture... Acadia ME.
Photo: Merli V. Guerra, 2014

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Then and Now: Johnny-Oh! vs Art New England

Every once in a while, we find ourselves staring at a piece of our past, and are instantly compelled to compare it to the world we live in now. An old index card in a drawer reveals "Snowman with fingers: Merli 1990": A humorously hideous scribbling of blue ink against yellowed parchment. Middle school is suddenly reignited by the discovery of a box of prized scrunchies, lip glosses, and nail polishes now separated into swirling colorful rings, like marking the age of an old tree. In some cases, like the latter, the comparison from then to now is a clearly striking one (I no longer wear fake hair while sporting a Princess Lea look, for one); in others, like the sketch, little has changed in 23 years (drawing really isn't my forte, though that doesn't stop me from scribbling on every paper scrap I can find!). Most recently, I was so struck by one "then and now" comparison that I knew it was time to document it. And given another decade of growth, I hope to once again be floored by my own humble progress!

Those closest to me know my story as a graphic designer (my ambitions, my training, my current portfolio) and without divulging too much here, the one aspect I seldom share is my initial inspiration. Being 5 years and 361 days older than my brother had its advantages while growing up, and among them was the opportunity to take our mutual love of the anime series Yugi-Oh! and turn it into a fanciful (yet professional) graphic design endeavor to give my brother the colorful world...of Johnny-Oh!

The 4 final Johnny-Oh! cards ever printed.

Johnny Gobbler was a big hit, and a classic addition
to any Johnny-Oh! deck.

Over the course of 4 years, Johnny-Oh! became a growing enterprise in our childhood home, with each card carefully crafted to fall within the guidelines of its own complex hierarchy of attack points, powers, rankings, and colorful descriptions. Soon each pack began arriving in hand-crafted decorative cases; Johnny's friends started putting in requests to see themselves turned into cards; and eventually the first plastic-wrapped debut edition of Johnny-Oh! Magazine waited by my brother's door.

Johnny-Oh! Magazine. Published by M.V.G. Paints.

I was having a blast. As the creator of Johnny-Oh!, I was Tooth Fairy and budding entrepreneur combined, and teaching myself design tricks all the while. For design geeks at home reading this, I was working with a form of Adobe software so old, the Creative Suites had yet to be invented. A painful process to be sure, but like any artistic tool, I learned ways to bend the rules and accomplish each look I required.

5 of the 7 issues I've designed for
Art New England

Fast-forward over a decade later to my current position as Production Manager (graphic designer) of Art New England magazine in Boston. Each day I travel into the city to work alongside a team of talented ad reps, publishers, writers, and editors, and for some (crazy) reason they continue to entrust me with the design of their nationally-distributed publication. The best part? I'm helping readers across America learn more about my favorite field: The arts!

Then and Now: A spread in Art New England
(above) alongside a spread in Johnny-Oh!

So here I am, 26 and loving both of my jobs: One in the field of dance, the other in the field of design, but both in the field of the arts. In the 4 years I ran Johnny-Oh!, I produced 11 magazines, 100 unique cards, and 1 happy brother. In the year+ I've worked for Art New England, I've just completed my seventh issue, and it is by far the fullest, largest, most impressive issue printed in the company's 35 years on newsstands. I am so fortunate to be a part of this publication, fortunate to have had a younger brother who encouraged me to pursue this line of work, and will surely be fortunate again another decade from now when my next leap forward makes me stop and reflect.

This entry is dedicated to the hilarious, witty, talented, lanky John D. A. Guerra. Never stop creating new worlds!

Saturday, May 3, 2014

When Baking Meets Arts & Crafts

When you spend a lot of time with people who have an innate knack for cooking, I find it's best to hide my lack of knowledge in the field by tossing in a little artistic flair instead.

And thus, on a Saturday morning, my roommate caught me doing this:

Ocean Scene Lemon & Vanilla Cupcakes!

Baked them a little extra so my beach would be golden brown...

Add a little ocean crest...

Throw in a few goodies...

Swirl in a few drops of blue...

Arrange my little chocolate buddies...

Four extra, just in time for Luminarium's Gala Committee meeting!


 A fun way to start the day, and a tastier way to end it!

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

A Busy Boston Bee

Recently when I wrote, it was to promote the work of the greats in the field of dance... This time, it's to promote my own company's work (and my work as an individual artist)!

What an incredible month it's been. Below are some of the dance-related highlights that I just have to share. I cannot emphasize enough the pride I feel watching Luminarium grow, coupled with the surprise I feel each time I receive a personal invitation to be involved in someone else's extraordinary event. I guess this is what it feels like being "the real deal."

1. DANCE+ Series
Every year, Kim and I make sure that Luminarium produces two major community outreach projects: One in the field of Arts Enrichment, the other Cultural. This year's AE-COP has been such an incredible weekly high--We'll be sad to see it go! This season, Luminarium produced its first DANCE+ Series, providing weekly free classes to grades 1-6 (which turned into ages 3-12, haha) combining dance with other fields, namely: Technology, Science, Music, and Light. Enjoy a quick clip from one of our fun Saturdays here!

Week 2 of Luminarium's new DANCE+ Series. Lumi Company Member
Rose Abramoff (far left) teaches us how rocks turn into lava during the
DANCE+Science class on April 12, 2014!

2. Cultural Council Celebrations
This month, Kim and I were honored to attend a celebratory reception at the Mayor's Office in Boston, having won a substantial grant from the Boston Cultural Council. Sadly, the event overlapped with the tragic fire on Beacon Street, so while the mayor himself could not be present, we found ourselves chatting with a variety of local shakers in the arts, from Boston Ballet to the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and from the Huntington Theatre Company to the Boston Public Schools. It was a wonderful event--And somehow we got talked into posing for a photo in the Eagle Room...

Kim and I rock the "Why B Cultural" sign at the Boston Cultural Council
grant awardee reception, only to later regret not insisting that the photo be
taken in front of the distressing and enormous bronze eagle sculpture just
a few feet away...

Just a week later, Lumi Company Member Katie McGrail and I (because Kim was busy being a snazzy devil choreographing Chicago at Babson) joined fellow local grant winners at a celebration hosted by the Arlington Cultural Council. The evening marked the first official declaration of our 2014 Culture-COP (aka, my own community outreach program baby for Luminarium's 2014 Season), converting the Arlington water tower at Park Circle into a breathing work of art for a two-hour, free, public dance event on Saturday, September 6th. The evening offered us the opportunity to learn about all of the other stellar projects lined up for Arlington this year, while eating possibly some of the tastiest cupcakes and felafels to date.

Katie and I pose with this year's grant winners after enjoying a celebration
hosted by the Arlington Cultural Council.

3. My Simon Cowell Moment
While waiting for the T with Kim post-Boston Cultural Council reception, I found an email inviting me to act as a judge at this year's Boston College Annual Showdown. Little did I realize what an incredible night awaited... Held in BC's Conte Forum stadium (complete with impressive theatrical lighting, fantastic DJ, and two giant video feeds panning the crowd), the annual dance competition boasted the talents of 14 dance teams to a sold-out audience of 3,500! Joining me as judges were Reia Briggs-Connor, owner, choreographer, and dancer for Phunk Phenomenon Dance Complex (middle), and Sarah-Katarina "SKooJ CorE-O," founder and director of Boston Community Dance Project, and artistic director of Static Noyze Dance Company (left). What a blast!

l. to r. Sarah-Katarina "SKooJ CorE-O," Reia Briggs-Connor, and
Merli V. Guerra: Judges at the 2014 Boston College Showdown.
Photo: Christopher Huang

4. Breaking Barriers Conference
It's always inviting returning to the Valley for an afternoon event: This time, it was Mount Holyoke's Breaking Barriers: (Re-Defining) Entrepreneurship Conference that drew me back to the fresh air of Western Mass. The afternoon consisted of impressive presentations from aspiring MHC student entrepreneurs; three panels featuring alumnae from Boston, New York, and beyond; and a keynote address by Senior Producer of CNN's In America, Alicia Stewart. Among the words of wisdom shared: "Just do it, and learn from your mistakes as you continue moving forward," "Turn your challenges into advantages for the future," and "You alone don't need to have every skill necessary; create a strong team to carry out your mission." As always, it was a fun experience tossing my own thoughts into the ring while speaking on the Innovation in Art & Design Panel, while meeting some fabulous alumnae pursuing their work to the fullest.

Breaking Barriers Conference 2014
Mount Holyoke College

And with that, I'll have to end this entry here, because if I don't then one month will quickly turn into two, three, four... Next week, you can catch me (and with luck, Kim as well) at an MHC Speed Networking Panel at the Lenox Hotel in Boston. Then May brings performances for Luminarium, followed by our first festivals of the season and the company's 4th Anniversary Gala & Showcase in June, and so much more after that. Welcome, summer weather, and with it the heat of the season!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Water Tower Project: Early Sketches

Time for some simple sketches!

Each season, I create a new body of work centered around a previously-untapped cultural landmark through the integration of dance and the arts. In 2012, it was the Celebration of Preservation Project at the centennial anniversary of Louisa May Alcott's Orchard House (Concord MA), and in 2013, it was the Threading Motion Project at the New England Quilt Museum (Lowell MA).

Now, as Luminarium's 2014 Season continues to pick up speed, I find myself hurtling towards one of the most complicated projects I've taken on to date: The Water Tower Project (or as Luminarium has now marketed it, "Night at the Tower"). In short, my goal is to transform the water tower at Park Circle (Arlington MA) into a breathing work of art, through dance and artistic film projections, while accentuating the architecture of this local landmark. The support we've received both within and beyond the Arlington Cultural Council is inspiration enough! And now that we have our date set (Saturday, September 6, 7-9pm . Park Circle, Arlington MA) and a new-found appreciation and understanding of local government (Ask me about it sometime...), it's now time to consider, construct, and create.

Please enjoy these early thoughts and sketches of the project, and if you have contacts or suggestions for ways to make this happen to the level that it's playing out in my head, please reach out! Leave a comment below, or write me at mguerra (at) luminariumdance.org.

A very early sketch from the start of the season, showing
the dancers performing on the path along the front of the
tower, and (maybe??) some inside the tower's overlook!

"Digital sketches" of the Water Tower Project:

Ideally, I'm looking for a short-throw projector that can
cover the entire front surface of the tower. Among the pieces
I plan to project, last year's film The One I Keep is a work
that I feel would look beautiful in this space, with its
thousands of pieces of paper flying up and out the tower walls.

Through the help of Linda Shoemaker at the Arlington
Center for the Arts, I'll be creating a video feed devoted
to the impact of the tower on the town. This series will
combine early photographs from the 1920s (when the tower
was built) along with the ACA's collection of artwork depicting
the tower through the eyes and minds of Arlington's professionals
and children over the years. Viewers will have the chance
to see their own artwork stretched across the tower's walls!

Performative digital sketch:

And of course, no new project would be complete without
the creation of one entirely new work. My mind has been
bubbling for quite some time, but in the end, I think I have
settled on a new work involving projections of bright,
dripping watercolors cascading down the tower, with our
dancers performing an equally vibrant piece below. Perhaps
last year's colorful umbrellas can also once again join the mix?

Luminarium's Night at the Tower will be held Saturday, September 6, 7-9pm, at the water tower at Park Circle, Arlington MA--Just off Rt. 2!

This project is supported by a grant from the Arlington Cultural Council, a branch of the Massachusetts Cultural Council.