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.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Gluten Free, FODMAP Friendly, Maple Almond Cake (with Fig)


This year marked yet another first, as Sean and I geared up to host Thanksgiving. With many of the same guests attending as Easter, we were once again faced with the challenge of creating a gluten free, FODMAP friendly meal. This limitation led to moments of frustration (naturally), some impromptu creativity, and (surprisingly) a good laugh—especially when our midnight tastings of Sean's ginger carrot soup revealed that the plain, pared down recipe came out twice as good as its more complex counterpart taking up the remainder of our fridge! Still, soup aside, it proved to be a bit of a challenge.

For dessert, I set my sights on a maple nut cake. FODMAP makes this tricky, as you can't be too heavy on nut meal, and certain nuts need to be rationed per serving. Luckily, with a mixture of almond flour and coconut flour, we were good to go.

My first attempt proved disastrous. After being warned of the things that can happen when baking gluten free, I pulled out of the oven a test case in everything that could possibly go wrong: The sides rose, the center sank, it crumbled at a glance, yet still managed to greet me with a pasty consistency despite extra time in the oven. The flavor was decent, but trying to remove the "cake" from the pan had me scooping it with a spoon like ice cream. This was not the recipe for me.


After hours of seemingly hopeless research later, I came across a recipe that proffered a similar taste with more eggs to glue it all together. A huge thank you goes to Bob's Red Mill for supplying the Almond Meal/Flour and cake recipe. *One note, for my cake, I chose to tweak it from almond cake to maple almond cake. Following their recipe, I simply skipped the step of adding 1/4 teaspoon almond extract, and instead added 1/2 teaspoon maple extract. The resulting flavor was a delicious blend of maple, almond, and a hint of coconut. Incredible, even on its own! (You can find their recipe, and my tweaked version at the end of this entry.)




For my cake, I chose to split the batter evenly and pour it into two 6" round pans. I cooked the two cakes for 40 minutes, checking them at the 35 minute mark, and ultimately having the toothpick come out smoothly at 40.



After allowing both to cool overnight, I carefully removed them from the pans, sliced off the top of the one of the cakes (to allow for better stacking), then applied a hearty layer of fig jam from the local farm stand.




For those who are short on time, I can completely relate. Grabbing a can of gluten free vanilla icing, I simply added maple extract to taste, then coated the two cakes to give it that extra hint of maple.


For a final step, I chose to mix a healthy helping of sliced almonds and walnuts in a bowl with a dollop of maple syrup and a sprinkling of brown sugar and sea salt: Layer them across a tin foil-covered sheet and bake them at 375 degrees—in just 10 minutes you'll have a crispy, sugary tray of toasted nuts, perfect as a garnish for this scrumptious cake!


And here it is! The final masterpiece. It sat well in the stomach of our FODMAP guest, and one week later it's still just as moist and crumble-free as it was on day one. All-in-all, a gluten free success!


Gluten Free, FODMAP Friendly, Maple Almond Cake (with Fig) Recipe
Prep time: 25 minutes
Bake Time: 40 minutes
Serves 8-10 guests

This recipe is a tweaked version of the Bob's Red Mill "Magically Moist Almond Cake," and creates two delicious 6" cakes, stacked together with fig filling, coated in vanilla maple icing, and topped with sugared nuts.

What you'll need...

For the cakes:
  • Two 6" cake pans (ideally spring cake pans)
  • 3/4 cup unsalted sweet cream butter (soft)
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 4 eggs
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon maple extract
  • 1 1/2 cups almond meal/flour
  • 1/2 cup coconut flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp sea salt
For the frosting:
  • 1 can vanilla or buttercream frosting
  • Maple extract to taste 
For the nuts:
  • 1/4 cup sliced almonds
  • 1/4 cup chopped walnuts
  • A dollop of maple syrup
  • 2 teaspoons brown sugar
  • A sprinkling of sea salt (to taste)
Instructions...

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F, and coat the insides of two 6" cake pans with olive oil spray (or whatever method you prefer).

2. Cream the sugar and butter as best as humanly possible. Add in the eggs and beat by hand until blended. Add the milk and extracts and stir until fully mixed.

3. In a separate bowl, combine the almond flour, coconut flour, baking powder, and salt. Gradually stir it into the wet mixture and beat until creamy.

4. Evenly divide the cake batter between your two pans. Pop in the oven for 35-40 minutes. For me, I checked it at the 35-minute mark with a toothpick and decided it needed the full 40. When ready, the toothpick should come out clean. (Adjust the time based on your own oven's tendencies and how large a cake you're making. Since my dish was only 6" wide, I had to cook it much longer than the original 8" recipe on the Bob's Red Mill website.)

5. Allow the cake to fully cool. Carefully remove them from the pans, then slice off the top of one of the cakes to even it out for stacking. Apply the fig jam to this cake, then place the other on top and apply gentle pressure.

6. Add maple extract (to taste) to the vanilla frosting, stir it in evenly, then coat the entire cake.

7. Turn the oven up to 375°F. Toss walnuts and almonds into a bowl. Drizzle maple syrup, brown sugar, and sea salt into the bowl, then mix. Line a try with tin foil and spread the nuts out. Cook for only 10 minutes, then promptly remove to avoid burning.

8. Allow the nuts to cool, then break them apart, garnish the cake and serve!

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Phoenix Piece: From start to finish and back again

This past week marked the debut, run, and closing of an incredible performance. For its 2015 feature production, Luminarium presented Spektrel—delivering on its promise to give audiences an array of "otherworldly shadows, light play, and colorful abandon." With it came the premiere of my latest work Phoenixial Cycle, previously mentioned in this blog as simply "The Phoenix Piece." Now I'd like to pause for a moment of reflection, as I'm apt to do. I'd like to take a moment to go back: Go back to that very first sketch and compare it to the final materialized image that appeared last week onstage.

Merli V. Guerra's Phoenixial Cycle. Photo: Ryan Carollo.

For the first time in many years (if ever!), I felt the need to present a program note with this work. While I often support the notion of taking away whatever one personally feels from seeing my choreography, for this piece I wanted to first offer a nugget of context; and from there, let the audience dive in, engage, and explore. It took some time to find just the right words, as I found myself considering how much I wished to reveal, yet in the end, I feel this Note from the Choreographer serves as an excellent summary of my thoughts for this entry, and a place to begin:

Note from the Choreographer:
Phoenixial Cycle began as a sketch—a stick figure of a woman rising to a surprising height, with a full stage-width skirt cascading around her. But for what purpose? I wondered, as the image materialized effortlessly from mind to paper. 40 yards of satin, three months of planning, and seven months of rehearsals later, I now know the answer.

This work—which largely began as autobiographical—quickly opened my eyes to a universal epidemic. So often in modern society, we are urged to over-extend ourselves beyond the point of fatigue, pushing instead to the point of burnout. I see it all too often in both of my communities (arts and publishing): A deadline takes priority over all else—health, sleep, nutrition—allowing ourselves to “crash” once the project is completed, only to start the process all over again when we come up for air.

Studying this cycle, I soon realized that in these moments we are essentially living the plight of the mythological phoenix, a magnificent bird that ignites into flames, then arises, renewed, from its own ashes. This work is thus choreographed to be ever-continuous, and lives on indefinitely past the stage lights going out—but first, we begin amidst 40 yards of satin, as if waking in our beds the morning after the “crash,” comforted by the sheets around us and hesitant to begin the cycle once more.

Enjoy these before-and-after shots below, followed by performance photos, and accolades from the press and audience. My emotions post-show are a satisfying cocktail of relief and euphoria, pride and gratitude, tinged with a dollop of disappointment that can only be satiated with a second round.

BEFORE: Early sketches of a woman magically rising.

AFTER: Matthew Kyle helps to create that magical effect I first sought.
Merli V. Guerra's Phoenixial Cycle.
Photo: Celina Colby.

...so here's to the next round! May this piece rise again soon on a new stage, allowing the "phoenixial cycle" to continue once again.

Merli V. Guerra's Phoenixial Cycle. Photo: Ryan Carollo.

PRESS & AUDIENCE PULL QUOTES:

"She rises like the mythical phoenix from this figurative representation of ashes . . . as if she were a tribal goddess"

"Guerra’s [Phoenixial Cycle] turns a torturous, generation-wide phenomenon into a beautiful, haunting performance."

"The crown jewel of Spektrel is its finale, Phoenixial Cycle . . . It’s a triumph."

"[Spektrel] saved the most dramatic and high brow work for last. Guerra's Phoenixial Cycle."

...

"The phoenix piece literally gave my chills."

"Phoenixial Cycle was magical/powerful! The dance was rich with meaning and feeling and the audience was transported and given much to think about." 

"It left me speechless."

"You managed to create both a window into your personal experiences and a mirror reflecting the larger societal influences of our time. Your artistry inspired in me a rare combination of profound introspection AND delightful optimism. Such a gift, Merli. Thank you for sharing it with the world!"


Enjoy these additional photos taken by Caitlin O'Brien:

Merli V. Guerra's Phoenixial Cycle. Photo: Caitlin O'Brien.

Merli V. Guerra's Phoenixial Cycle. Photo: Caitlin O'Brien.

Merli V. Guerra's Phoenixial Cycle.
Photo: Caitlin O'Brien.

Merli V. Guerra's Phoenixial Cycle. Photo: Caitlin O'Brien.

Merli V. Guerra's Phoenixial Cycle. Photo: Caitlin O'Brien.

Merli V. Guerra's Phoenixial Cycle. Photo: Caitlin O'Brien.

Merli V. Guerra's Phoenixial Cycle. Photo: Caitlin O'Brien.

Merli V. Guerra's Phoenixial Cycle. Photo: Caitlin O'Brien.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Review: JEANNE, the story of a woman

l. to r. Magdalena Gyftopoulos (dancer), Nina Brindamour (dancer),
Anna Ward (soprano), and Danielle Davidson (dancer) in 
JEANNE, the story of a woman. Presented by Fort Point Theater Channel,
Contrapose Dance, and Ensemble Warhol. 
Photo: Daniel J. van Ackere.

Last week, Boston was treated to a multidisciplinary adaptation of an operatic episode—an excerpt from James Swindle and Mark Warhol's full opera JEANNE. The work is part of an ongoing collaboration between Fort Point Theatre Channel, Ensemble Warhol, and Contrapose Dance to illuminate through voice, music, and dance the excerpted scenes of the original opera. The result is an evening that challenges the viewer to stay on their toes, as the lyrics dive into greater topics that require one's mind to be sharp to follow. Yet by doing this, we find we are rewarded with moments of clever wit, alongside global realizations we may never have considered prior to this performance.

For JEANNE, the story of a woman, we are given three sections: "Mark's Monologue," "Jeanne Meets Mark," and "Postlude." The beginning opens to a solo drummer against a sun-spotted floor. A geometric pattern of light cloaks the stage, and as the atmosphere brightens, we discover that Boston University Dance Theatre's traditional stage has been masterfully reimagined with varying levels of platforms and pipes, reminiscent of a factory after-hours. So, too, are Contrapose's three dancers a part of the set, acting at times as a traditional Greek chorus, and at others like a mobile personification of the machinery itself.

Anna Ward (soprano) and Magdalena Gyftopoulos
(dancer) in 
JEANNE, the story of a woman.
Presented by Fort Point Theater Channel,
Contrapose Dance, and Ensemble Warhol.
Photo: Daniel J. van Ackere.


As the two central characters engage in a sung dialogue, we are met with an amusingly absurd scene: The grandeur and elegance of an opera met with the lyrics of what first appears to be a purely mundane conversation. Yet as the two continue their inquiries and insights, we soon learn that this young male engineering student and older female factory worker are diving deeper than their words first indicated on the surface.

The two discuss current issues from execution to education to abortion, all while finding new ways to link their examples back to the factory's machines. The two quarrel over which is more evil: The guillotine itself, or the human who created it—a theme which comes back into play periodically throughout the scene. In one climactical moment, Mark is told the story of Jeanne's reason for leaving school: An unplanned pregnancy. In the midst of the pair's ongoing conversation, one cannot help but compare Jeanne's story to that of the factory around her. In that moment of pregnancy, it was she who was the machine, built with the purpose to create.

Overall, this work is extremely well executed. The three dancers who shift through ever-repetitious movements expertly echo the cogs and wheels of a well-oiled machine, while alternately acting as a physical representation of Jeanne's inner emotions. Towards the end of the work, the dancers strip into nude camisoles as each sentence Jeanne sings reveals herself more and more to Mark. Perhaps the most moving moment of the entire work is when Jeanne acknowledges the three dancers for the first and only time. The three stand huddled in the nude, looking fragile and exposed, with Jeanne staring into their eyes with that same look of exposed fragility. In that moment, all became quiet for what felt longer than it likely was, yet offered so much with a single look.

However the work did offer many questions as the audience spilled out post show, and gave this critic hesitation as to whether or not the medium of "opera" was the correct choice for this elaborate work. The music—while excellent at creating a sense of unease through its grim, dissonant chords—quickly became repetitive to the point of distraction. If the goal was to make the audience feel the level of discomfort witnessed between the characters onstage, then it was certainly well done—though I would urge the composer to consider allowing the audience brief moments of reprieve, as an hour of the tedious strings made many breathe a sigh of relief when the show came to a close.

Likewise, the choice to make Mark and Jeanne's lines sung in the operatic style felt very much arbitrary. It became a hassle to read the subtitles above while simultaneously viewing the action below, and many times I heard the words "What did she say?" uttered by audience members around me. The dialogue is so cleverly written—so integral to the entire premise of the show—that I found myself wishing that the musical component could be removed, and instead presented as a play. It would allow me, as a viewer, to better engulf myself in the textual elements of the work, without the tedious distraction of the seemingly disparate music.

Still, there are moments when the soundscore does elevate the work to a whole new level, as witnessed with the drummer who emerges for the first and third acts. Similar in structure, yet striking in their simple difference, the two acts bring Mark alone to the stage, speaking about his encounter with Jeanne many years before. When the show begins, we hear Mark clearly as his words are punctuated with the staccato of the drum. Yet when he returns at the end, the drum now overtakes him. We see Mark speaking emphatically, but hear no sound from his lips, as if to say that he is "left speechless" by the encounter, and that the drum (his emotions) have overpowered him.

All in all, this production is a worthwhile visit to the theatre, and a show that will keep you thinking beyond the curtain. It leaves us wanting to know more about the characters to whom we've been freshly introduced, and looking forward to the next installment produced by these three talented companies.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Refurb Project: From roadside find to shabby chic

Every once in awhile, I make the joyous mistake of tackling a home refurbishing project. "Joyous" in its intentions and ultimate success; "mistake" in the amount of time it actually takes me, yet always worth it in the end. Years ago I rescued some chairs from the street and turned them from pea-green relics of the 70s to beautiful French/Parisian-style accent chairs with satiny, pale blue seats, delicate white trim and antique bronze buttons. Hmmm, perhaps I'll finally post the blog I always meant to for that project. More on that later.

Back to present: Two weeks ago, in the wake of Boston's "moving day" (known to some as "avoid going down one-way streets day" or "grab all the free furniture left behind day" or to those outside the city, simply "September 1st"), I rescued from a nearby curb in Arlington an old, battered trunk. This thing had clearly seen better days, with deep scratches, welts, and old stickers peeling at its sides. Before hesitating to consider what I would do with it, I quickly snatched it up, lugging it awkwardly back to my car like a pirate rowing back to the mothership with a chest of treasure.

And here we have it: Before...

The quintessential "before" shot.

And after!

...the "after" shot! Here's the trunk, pretty and painted, after hours of work and
$47 of supplies (including paints, primer, brush, and tape). Not bad all in all.
Photo: Merli V. Guerra.

Being a lover of history, I didn't jump blindly into my project, but rather took the time to fully document where my bruised old luggage had been. From its tags and where I found it, I can safely say it's traveled from coast to coast!—From San Francisco, CA, to Weston, MA, and from Wellesley Hills to Arlington, MA. 

Stickers helped tell its story.

...while painted words and initials helped tell the rest.

First it was time to clean it up. I carefully wiped it all down, turning my purple towel black with years of age. Next I sanded it down, taking extra time to sand off all the stickers to give it a nice smooth finish post-painting. (Don't worry, I still left in a few of its "flaws" to keep it true to itself.)

Who knew sanding it would take so much elbow grease...

Next, I found several blogs recommending using lemons coated in salt to naturally polish up the brass. I will freely admit that this appears to have done absolutely nothing in the long run, but hey—the living room has smelled lemony fresh ever since!

Sorry, internet. Your advice didn't seem to help this time.

Then it was time to tape it all down. Wow, this took forever. All those little metal nooks and crannies meant a refresher course in Patience 101.

I take everything back! I'll take sanding over taping any day.

Yet finally it was time to paint! After much deliberation with Sean—and a wonderful woman at the paint store whose opening words to me were "You're a 'Winter.' Let me get you your color wheel."—we agreed on painting the bulk of it Acadia White (Yes, I'll admit Acadia, ME, holds a special place for us...but honestly it's also just a fabulous shade of white!) with the top in a more durable Whale Gray.

First priming...

...then painting!

Then off with the tape for the grand reveal!

Et voila: A beautiful, fresh, contemporary look for this now "shabby chic" trunk. I'm in love.

From roadside find to shabby chic.
Photo: Merli V. Guerra.

And look how good it looks under that gorgeous
Larry Pratt photograph!

There's certainly more touch-up left to be done. No denying
that. But I was too excited to not document it post-tape peeling.

Old trunk; new look.
Photo: Merli V. Guerra.

Giving the past a modern home.
Photo: Merli V. Guerra.

So that's my latest project! Luckily, both Sean and my roommate Katie (who, by the way, deserves a huge shout out for awesomely helping me tape and untape this sucker) like it a lot, so I couldn't be more pleased. In the end, it is a bit too small to use as a coffee table, but it fits perfectly in the nook beneath my Larry Pratt photograph, and looks as though it was meant to live there all along.

I'd call this project a success. Do you?

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Choreography, as told through clay.

Over the past couple of days, Kim and I have been discussing the concept of choreographing a dance piece to a fugue, specifically a Bach fugue. Intrigued by Kim's entry detailing the process from the choreographer's point of view, her adviser at Goddard recommended that each of the performers weigh in on what they find challenging as well. I am one of those performers.

The result was fascinating: All three of us handed Kim very different takes on what we found "challenging" inside the work (Read our responses here). Yet even more fascinating was the sudden realization that came to mind as I wrote my response. For the first time, I found myself putting a clear visual to Kim's style of choreographing versus my own.

We are both sculptors. Not literally, though I suppose my years of ceramics training somewhat counts! But that's beside the point. Conceptually, we are both choreographic sculptors.

When Kim and I walk into the studio, we each face a large block of clay. Yet while I'm a chiseler, Kim—I'm realizing—is a thrower. Traditionally Kim takes longer to dive into actual phrase work. She sees that block of clay and chooses to first soften it, add some water and break it down. She kneads it, works it, all before ultimately throwing it on the wheel.

Throwing clay on a wheel.
From Bethan John's Trying My Hand at Pottery at West Dean College. blog.decoratorsnotebook.co.uk

For me, I walk in with chisel in hand, deciding where to make the first blow. Like David staring up at Goliath, I'm anxiously excited to make that first mark on my work. Yet right from the beginning, I'm creating a finished product. Whether I start in the middle, chiseling a torso, or start at the end by chiseling a foot, my work unfolds in fully developed sections with very little editing left in the end.

Auguste Rodin, Thought, 1886-89, marble.
reclaimbeauty.blogspot.com

Intriguingly, this is how I work as a writer as well: Schools adore the "first draft, second draft" approach—a style I abhor for myself, as I prefer to carefully fine-tune every sentence, every paragraph to satisfaction before moving on to the next. As a result, in school my "first draft" was always my final, with teachers searching for changes to give me, and often coming up empty-handed. (Sorry to ruin your syllabus, past teachers! I'm not trying to be a perfectionist; it's just how I create.)

But back to clay. Once Kim's clay is on the wheel, a beautiful ever-shaping, ever-shifting experimental process unfolds. With each rehearsal, the clay spins steadily in her hands, with fingers gently nudging for new intricacies to appear. So too is this true in the studio, where often it feels as though Kim's our quiet, all-knowing tour guide gradually exploring the terrain of the piece as we go.

And then there's me: Chiseling away again, this time on a limb, a head, a set of sturdy shoulders. Occasionally I step back and look at my work. I like it. Sections of my clay are now sharply defined, while the rest still stands there, daunting, as a solid cube of untapped territory. I look over at Kim's. What the hell is happening there… She's spinning her amorphous blob of clay in her hands, occasionally ripping off chunks and rethrowing them on the wheel. I wish her all the best, but wow, I have no idea where she's going with that.

Back to my block. I glance at the clock and realize the deadline for the grand unveiling isn't all that far away, so I turn back to my work and begin to connect the sections: An ankle to connect calf to foot; a few missing vertebrae on the back to connect the spine… I stand back again—This time I see a full person greeting me in return, with just one small corner left to tackle. Truthfully, I'm nervous. There isn't much time left, and I don't want to chisel it the wrong way. But hey (I remind myself) at least I'm way ahead of Kim. How is Kim, anyway… Jesus! What the hell??

Kim sits across from me contentedly glazing (aka "layering the final sound score onto") her now fully formed masterpiece. Of course it's a kangaroo. How did I not see it before? It was in there the whole time! And now there it is, glazed, ready to present, finished…

But this isn't a race, and as Kim wanders off to rig up the lighting for our works' display case, I'm left staring at that one final unchiseled chunk. We both tackle our blocks of clay with the same amount of excitement, vigor, and purpose—we just each form the clay in our own unique styles. (But seriously, why does Kim always have to magically finish at that exact point when I get stuck.)

So that is my metaphor for who we are as creators, as told through clay. I can't say I have a definite answer for how I manage to consistently get past that final clay-corner hurdle, and yet I somehow always do. Sometimes it requires taking the piece home with me and staring into its eyes until it gives me the answer; sometimes it requires talking aloud with my sig other (Sean) who helps remind me what my goal for the piece has been all along; sometimes it requires picking up my sketchbook and literally sketching out possibilities until I choose the right one. Yet somehow—always—I cross that hurdle; Kim's thrown clay magically takes its shape; and we present our odd, yet striking, little duo in our display case on time and together to a sold-out crowd.

With our feature production Spektrel just seven weeks away, I wonder what corner will be left for me to chisel this time?

I'm thinking the hands… There's just so much I need them to be holding this show.

SPEKTREL
October 27 . 29 . 30 . 31
Multicultural Arts Center
Cambridge MA

Monday, August 24, 2015

Amherst Storybook Project: The Reimagined Twelve

After months of planning, promoting, gathering, and reimagining, on Saturday, August 8th, the moment I'd been waiting for finally arrived. There I sat (or hovered, really) on a large spider web-like netted "floor" suspended 16 feet off the ground, with my ever driven, ever game-for-anything company members beneath me. With Kim by my side as photography guru and a stockpile of tech devices—laptop, cameras, projector—sagging around us, we began shouting instructions from the dark abyss.

Kim figures out shutter speed as the dancers
prepare below. Photo: Merli V. Guerra.

Merli laughs while jiggling the netted floor.
Photo: Kim Holman.


What made this photoshoot tricky was mechanics. Sadly, 16 feet is just too short a distance to project images to the full size needed, which meant we needed to break each image down into multiple shots, placing the dancers in their (uncomfortable) poses atop a large white backdrop covering the floor as we went.

So while each image began something like this (with the projector autokerning out of control with each shake of our netted floor, and the pomegranate far too small for Brittany to fit inside)...

Brittany sits patiently as we correct kerning and size
on the projector. Photo: Kim Holman.

...by the end, we'd adjusted everything to get just the right shot:

After shouting instructions that included "Tuck your knees!"
"Relax your feet!" "Make a C-curve with your back!"
"Twist your face an inch towards us!" and
"Perfect!! DON'T MOVE", we finally captured the final shot.
Direction: Merli V. Guerra. Photo: Kim Holman.

Final step? A little color correction (as the eye picks up colors very differently than a camera does, especially when using a video projector for lighting, which often creates a blue tone when captured on camera), and many hours of carefully layering the photograph into the original photograph of the artwork creates the final image that our eyes saw from overhead—and more importantly, what my brain imagined weeks before!

"Eve"
Composite photograph by Merli V. Guerra.

Part of the "Amherst Storybook Project."
Featuring performer Brittany Lombardi,
with artwork by Julia Griffin, age 29.

Photographic elements shot
by Kimberleigh A. Holman.

© Luminarium Dance Company 2015.

That is why many of the images you'll see below are labeled as "composite photographs." This doesn't mean that we digitally "cheated"—it simply means that multiple photographs were layered together to construct the final image. Take Jack be nimble, pictured here:


"Jack be nimble"
Composite photograph by Merli V. Guerra.

Part of the "Amherst Storybook Project."
Featuring performers Brittany Lombardi, Chun-jou Tsai,
Tyler Catanella, Amy Mastrangelo, and Melenie Diarbekirian,
with artwork by Joshua Donovan, age 14.

Photographic elements shot by Kimberleigh A. Holman.
© Luminarium Dance Company 2015.

Any sane artist would simply photograph all five dancers from above, then digitally copy and paste the central black and white square on top of them. Yet as a perfectionist, I knew I could not live with myself cheating in this manner. Though it made this one of our most difficult images to shoot, for each shot, we enlisted two other company members to hold a four-foot sheet of poster board across the dancers, while lining it up perfectly with the projection. So while the final image is a composite of five separate photos carefully layered together, I can sleep soundly knowing that everything I'm presenting to the public once existed as a real, physical image that could be viewed from overhead in the space. It may be a minor qualifier to some, but to me, it speaks volumes to the project as a whole: Physically connecting visual art and dance.

Tyler and Dream hold their poses as two dancers carefully line up the
poster board above them. Photo: Nikki Girroir.

Amy relaxes for a moment as Nikki rearranges Melenie's legs peeking out
from behind the poster board. Photo: Kim Holman.

Another tricky image was Gabby's solo, which I imagined to be an homage to Guido Reni's Aurora, often referred to as Aurora Bringing in the Dawn.

Guido Reni, Aurora.
Courtesy of studyblue.com

The moment I saw 5-year-old Libby Smith's beautiful image of the sun rising over the hills, my mind raced back to my Orchard House days. Of all the rooms in that beautiful old home, it was May Alcott's room (the youngest of the sisters, and inspiration for Amy in Little Women) that I loved most. As a young artist, May sketched practice works on the walls of her room, and below one window to this day is a beautifully detailed sketch of the famous fresco, having borrowed a reproduction from Ralph Waldo Emerson to practice her people-drawing skills.

Alison helps us scale the image to the correct size, as Gabby lies patiently
under the sheet. Photo: Kim Holman.

In a fanciful, dreamlike surge of inspiration, the idea came to me to remove the bottom backdrop, and instead use a king-sized sheet against the black floor to create an image of a young woman (with the golden hair of May Alcott and the golden glow of Aurora) flying across a darkened sky with the sunrise billowing behind her. The end result is quite possibly my favorite of the series:

"Bringing in the dawn"
Composite photograph by Merli V. Guerra.

Part of the "Amherst Storybook Project."
Featuring performer Gabby Pacheco,
with artwork by Libby Smith, age 5.

Photographic elements shot by Kimberleigh A. Holman.
© Luminarium Dance Company 2015.

So after many hours of effort on the part of the performers and photographer, and many days of effort piecing everything together post-shoot, I welcome you to enjoy these reimagined twelve images.

Next step of the project: All writers based in the Greater Amherst region are encouraged to send us short stories and poems inspired by these images for inclusion in the culminating book for our Amherst Storybook Project. Submit your writing here!


"Bursting (with Joy)"
Composite photograph by Merli V. Guerra.

Part of the "Amherst Storybook Project."
Featuring performers Tyler Catanella and
Amy Mastrangelo, with artwork by
Hayden Rodrigues, age 7.

Photographic elements shot by Kimberleigh A. Holman.
© Luminarium Dance Company 2015. 

"Morning Rituals"
Composite photograph by Merli V. Guerra.

Part of the "Amherst Storybook Project."
Featuring performer Melenie Diarbekirian,
with artwork by Kalyani Kastor, age 17.

Photographic elements shot by Kimberleigh A. Holman.
© Luminarium Dance Company 2015.

"How it feels to move"
Composite photograph by Merli V. Guerra.

Part of the "Amherst Storybook Project."
Featuring performers Nikki Girroir and Chun-jou Tsai,
with artwork by Sunali Rae Driver, age 2.

Photographic elements shot by Kimberleigh A. Holman.
© Luminarium Dance Company 2015.

"Party Lights"
Composite photograph by Merli V. Guerra.

Part of the "Amherst Storybook Project."
Featuring performers Tyler Catanella, Melenie Diarbekirian,
and Amy Mastrangelo, with artwork by Maya Guerra-Greene, age 2.

Photographic elements shot by Kimberleigh A. Holman.
© Luminarium Dance Company 2015.

"Red Riding"
Composite photograph by Merli V. Guerra.

Part of the "Amherst Storybook Project."
Featuring performer Nikki Girroir,
with artwork by Johanna R. Guiod, age 12.

Photographic elements shot by Kimberleigh A. Holman.
© Luminarium Dance Company 2015.

"Summer"
Composite photograph by Merli V. Guerra.

Part of the "Amherst Storybook Project."
Featuring performers Nikki Girroir, Gabby Pacheco,
Nikki SaoPedro-Welch, and Alison McHorney,
with artwork by Tsukiko Tome Bhowmik, age 7.
Photographic elements shot by Kimberleigh A. Holman.
© Luminarium Dance Company 2015.
 

"Beneath"
Composite photograph by Merli V. Guerra.

Part of the "Amherst Storybook Project."
Featuring performer Alison McHorney,
with artwork by Marit Gubrium, age 7.

Photographic elements shot
by Kimberleigh A. Holman.

© Luminarium Dance Company 2015.

"Self-Portrait: Creativity in Motion"
Composite photograph by Merli V. Guerra.

Part of the "Amherst Storybook Project."
Featuring performer Merli V. Guerra,
with artwork by Piper Nyala, age 2.

Photographic elements shot
by Kimberleigh A. Holman.

© Luminarium Dance Company 2015.

"Honey Hands"
Photograph by Merli V. Guerra.

Part of the "Amherst Storybook Project."
Featuring performer Kimberleigh A. Holman,
with artwork by Emilia K. Mann, age 17.

© Luminarium Dance Company 2015.



Luminarium's Amherst Storybook Project is supported in part by a grant from the Amherst Cultural Council.