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.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Review: On These Tracks

On These Tracks by SPUNKandCOmpany Dance.
Photo: Rob Loud.

Last night I had the pleasure of viewing SPUNKandCOmpany Dance's newest performance On These Tracks. Held at Green Street Studios in Cambridge MA, the show received a full and appreciative audience.

For those in the field of dance, this performance certainly did not offer anything new, nor did it push boundaries. From costuming to choreographic structures, the show played out like a series of college composition classes, with each new piece acting as a study. Yet simplicity is not always negative, and by the end of the night, it became clear that these nine new works had engaged the audience on a quieter, more intimate level than any comp class could.

SPUNKandCO's mission behind the scenes as a "strictly collaborative" ensemble is heightened by the strong individuality encouraged of each dancer on stage. Performers Kara Fili, Jillian Grunnah, Andria LaRocco, Miriam Lundgren, and Tara McCrystal each bring their own unique qualities to the work--from body type to movement style to emotional interpretations of the work--and by the end of the night, we feel we know each of them personally as a result.

Collectively, On These Tracks benefitted from this as well. Inspired by Steven Millhauser's novella Enchanted Night featuring "quirky characters who intersect, collide, and nearly miss each other, illuminating the inherent closeness of us all," the performance offered a series of moments, and in each the characters found new ways to connect through physical and emotional intersection. With the stage set bare and wing-free, and the thought behind each new work inherently simple, On These Tracks urged viewers to relax, observe, and (for once in the world of art) to not over-think. With time, these simple scenes added up to create a whole that snuck up on us: Our own internal introspection.

Though a largely somber series, works such as Grunnah's Peek-a-Boo and Fili's Out to Play offered much-needed comedy and a breath of fresh air, keeping the overall feel of the show light and charismatic. Visual and choreographic repetition between the first and last works (Restless and Dawn, both facilitated by McCrystal) helped the show come full circle, while the sheer brevity of McCrystal's solo work Recall left the audience satisfyingly caught mid-breath. Still, it was the final work that pulled the audience inside the performance for the first time. Drawing back the curtain to reveal the theater's masquerade from its ordinary daily studio, and bringing the dancers downstage within feet of the audience, Dawn allowed us to feel intimately connected to these five characters, while even tempted to join them on their trek. Wonderfully aiding this final moment was the show's lighting designer Jon Bonner, whose lighting choices helped connect the dots beautifully throughout the evening.

In the end, if your goal as an audience member or regional presenter is to support a production pioneering new possibilities in the world of dance, On These Tracks may leave you wanting. But if you are a thinker, a reader, an onlooker, or a daydreamer, On These Tracks will offer you an outlet to put aside the theatricality of professional dance, and instead enjoy the freedom of sincerity through movement.

Learn more about SPUNKandCOmpany at their website.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

My Year in Review: Top Ten Professional Highlights of 2014

Hard to believe another year has come to a close. So much has happened and continues to unfold, but after sifting through the events of the past year, it's safe to call these ten my top professional highlights of 2014:

1. Calling to You's return to Boston

Merli V. Guerra and Joe Gonzalez, leads in Calling to You.
Deborah Abel Dance Company. Photo: Liza Voll, 2014.

The year began with the Boston return performance of Deborah Abel Dance Company's Calling to You to a packed house, and was likely my last time working with Joe Gonzalez as my fellow lead performer and partner. (Enjoy Philly, Joe!) The production is now in talks of heading back overseas in the coming season. Stay tuned for the next grand adventure, currently slated for Brazil.

2. Judging the Boston College Annual Showdown

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

Early in the year, I was invited to act as a judge at the 2014 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). The evening was an absolute blast, and I was given the delightful opportunity to indulge my inner Simon Cowell.

3. Swank. So much swank. (And also speaking)

Mount Holyoke College Speed Networking Panel at the Lenox Hotel, Boston MA.
Merli V. Guerra, Guest Panelist.

This spring was the season of attending swanky arts events and speaking on panels... In addition to judging the BC Showdown, I was invited to: Speak at Mount Holyoke College's 2014 Breaking Barriers: (Re-Defining) Entrepreneurship Conference on its Innovation in Art & Design Panel (alongside keynote speaker Alicia Stewart, Senior Producer of CNN's In America); speak at the Mount Holyoke College Speed Networking Panel as its youngest panelist (Lenox Hotel, Boston MA); and mingle alongside fellow grant awardees at two different Cultural Council award celebrations, one with Kim at the Mayor's Office, City Hall in Boston, the other in Arlington. All in all, a busy (yet rewarding!) spring.

4. Designing Art New England's largest issue to date

With print media facing serious concerns competing against online periodicals, I was proud to watch Art New England continuously grow in size and revenue throughout 2014. This year marked the company's 35th year as New England's leading art magazine, and I'm fortunate to have a front row seat on its progress as its designer and Production Manager. The July/August 2014 issue was not only the largest issue ever printed in its 35 years, but my most favorite cover to date.

5. Night at the Tower: Award nomination for my largest Cultural Community Outreach Project to date

Luminarium's Night at the Tower
Photo: K. Holman, 2014

Never in my years of work in the field of bringing art and dance to the greater community have I felt more passionate about an event as this one. Night at the Tower was a huge success despite a myriad of obstacles: Months of government red tape, creating new permits, acquiring equipment, harnessing electricity, dodging tornado warnings and a huge hurricane, and oh ya...creating new choreography! In the end, this event was exactly what it aimed to be: An evening to enjoy this 90-year-old local landmark, while celebrating the town of Arlington through its history, its children, and its art, while fostering community through the joy of professional dance. Beautiful. As if this wasn't thanks enough, Night at the Tower was recently nominated for Massachusetts Cultural Council's prestigious Gold Star Award for being an "exemplary cultural program" that "celebrates diversity, fosters collaboration, showcases artistic excellence, and provides learning experiences for people of all ages and backgrounds." Having led the annual Cultural Community Outreach Project for Luminarium for the past three seasons, I am so grateful for the nomination, as this event was by far the most exceptional we've produced in our time here, and the town of Arlington could not have been more welcoming, supportive, and engaged. For press, testimonials, photos, and videos of Night at the Tower, click here.

6. Reigniting my Classical Indian Dance training: Teaching at Endicott College and performing at Mount Holyoke College

Merli V. Guerra performing with Nataraj Dancers at Mount Holyoke College.
Photo: Jim Coleman.

Much of my choreographic style stems from my training in Odissi classical Indian dance. I've been a member of Nataraj Dancers since 2006, traveled with my guru to India in 2007, and performed on tour with the company in Japan in 2009. Since then, I've stayed connected to the company while creating my own work in Boston. This year I was fortunate to join the company in reproducing an older work "Songs of the River" for Mount Holyoke College's 2014 Faculty Showcase. It was wonderful reconnecting with past colleagues, professors, and fellow performers, though strange to realize I no longer overlap with the current student body! Still, wandering into the lobby following one rehearsal, they quickly made the connection between their new performance peer and the college dance major featured on the giant banner above our heads at the lobby entrance. As I continuously find, I am often famous and nameless in a single moment. 2014 also led to teaching two master classes in Odissi at Endicott College, as part of the Dance Department's World Dance Course. Though I find teaching modern stressful, I thoroughly enjoy teaching Odissi in a master class format to all ages, especially at the college level, since I began my studies of the form during college myself. In 2015 I hope to return to Endicott and perhaps add more to the list!

7. From model to the MFA

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

Those who know me know that I'm a fairly steady person, but that doesn't mean I lack adventure. Periodically opportunities arise that I once never thought I'd do, and modeling nude was certainly one of them. Yet here I am in the photo above, attending a chic VIP opening night celebration at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, standing next to world-renowned artist Judith Larsen, having modeled for a new series of video projection photographs. Learn more about the process, and see the final images here.

8. Somerville Arts Council

Each year Kim and I work hard applying for grants, from large to small, local to national. It's often difficult to understand the inner workings of how the grant selection process unfolds. How are these decisions made? How are the monies divided once chosen? This year I had the fortune of serving on the Somerville Arts Council's Guest Panel for Dance, Theatre, and Multidisciplinary Arts, reading all applications, viewing support materials, discussing each with my fellow arts panelists, and ultimately deciding the money provided to each awardee. I now have a deeper understanding and appreciation for all that these councils do, and look forward to serving on another panel down the road.

9. Two TV interviews

Kim and I have had a busy season, and are grateful for all the press Luminarium received throughout 2014. New to this season were TV interviews! Enjoy the two above: 1) My interview with Arlington Public News regarding Night at the Tower and 2) Kim and my interview with Glenn Williams on Boston Neighborhood Network's It's All About Arts.

10. The Sleeprunner: Triumphantly ending Luminarium's 4th season with three sold out shows

Luminarium's The Sleeprunner was our largest production to date, and by far one of the most talked about productions we've created. As we head into 2015, Kim and I are excited to continue shaping and perfecting this show to the fullest, with hopes to bring it back not just in Boston, but beyond. Stay tuned for more Sleeprunner action in Season 5, and in the meantime, a huge thank you to all who came and packed our theatre with giggles, gasps, and applause.

Ok, 2015. It's time to top last year and make this season the greatest to date...no pressure!