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.

Friday, March 20, 2015

The mind never quite forgets... Or: Early sketches of the Storybook Project

Years ago, I proposed an elaborate film project for a grant-that-shall-not-be-named involving projecting images of quilts onto dancers below and capturing it all on film by dangling from the ceiling with a camera. Ok, so I'm nutshelling, and yes my proposal was much more articulate and thought out than it sounds (there were copious diagrams involved), but needless to say the seemingly overly-complicated proposal was swiftly rejected and soon my notes settled into past pages of an old notebook.

But it's funny how the mind never quite forgets. Your ideas are always lying in wait, branching out, dropping new fruitful thoughts that leave seeds of their own, and one day several years later, you realize your proposal is actually en route to completion! Just...through a newly manifested work.

It turns out my project first saw the light of day through my 2013 collaboration with the New England Quilt Museum. Leaving the ceiling alone and relying on the good ol' ground instead, I projected a series of quilts onto my dancers, creating six short films, later dubbed the Threading Motion Project: Quilt Vignettes. These graceful and lively works have been showcased in exhibitions as far as San Jose, CA, and most recently were selected for the 2015 Glovebox Film Festival. (View my thoughts on this project here.)

The seeds of my proposal then settled once again as I focused my energies on an entirely new project. Last year's Night at the Tower in Arlington brought new artistic successes, receiving the Massachusetts Cultural Council's prestigious Gold Star Award, yet it also affirmed the beauty of integrating art from the community into a new public performance. (View photos, videos, and testimonials on Luminarium's snazzy blog here!)

So now it's 2015, and I'm finally making the connection that my original proposal—which saw its first public setting in 2013—has somehow mingled with last year's project to create a new breed of apple on the tree. That's right, pull out your ladders and harnesses...I'm heading up to the ceiling!

Simplified, my project is this: Step 1) Collaborate with the Eric Carle Museum (the country's very first storybook museum and home to many of my own favorite books as a child) to collect drawings and paintings from children ages 0–middle school. Step 2) Project these images onto my dancers from above to create a series of 12 photographs:

A "digital sketch" of what my dancers might look like
from above.

A "digital sketch" involving the full company filling the canvas.

Note in this "digital sketch" that because the dancers are on the floor,
I can arrange them upside down and all around. Fun for kids...and me!

Step 3) Create a picture book. Yet with step three, I wondered: Do I create a narrative? Or does each image offer its own story? In an effort to include more voices from the Amherst community, I've chosen to embrace the latter, and plan to reach out to local writers from high schoolers through adults to create short stories or poems based on the final 12 photographs we've created.

As this "digital sketch" shows, I plan to couple one final photographic image
with one poem or short story. Each spread therefore represents the artistic
talents of two members of the community of varying ages. Each spread might
also include something for the book's younger readers, treating each image
as an I Spy book, such as asking "How many dancers can you find?"

And finally, Step 4) Return to the Eric Carle Museum triumphantly in the fall, with book in hand. My co-director Kim will use her kid savvy to create a short live performance using our company and the raw images received over the year as a special treat for visiting families (currently slated for either Oct 11 or Nov 1), and a film version of the book will play in the museum's video rotation throughout November in honor of National Storybook Month.

So there it is! My new apple—or should I say project—is ripe for the picking. Now I just need to find a catwalk and a camera...

(This project concept and all resulting materials are copywritten by Luminarium Dance Company, 2015.) 

Friday, March 13, 2015

Preview: Lost in Time

For anyone in Boston this coming weekend, I highly recommend checking out Paradise Lost's Lost in Time, combining dance and physical theatre in a debut solo production that promises to be fresh and unexpected. With works that look at the company’s past, present, and global future, Lost in Time gives its 14 actors, performers, and dancers a chance to embrace nostalgia, comedy, and social justice.

Below is an interview with its director (and a dear arts colleague of mine) Tyler Catanella. Enjoy!

1) Who came up with this fantastic idea of past, present and future? What do you feel you're saying to your audience?

The theme of passing time came up repeatedly in the rehearsal room, and then my production team and I had the eventual brain-baby to configure the show in the format of acts representing the past, present and future of our company. Since our work gravitates towards telling real human stories, we wanted to tell the real story of the growth of Paradise Lost. From its original days in dark college rehearsal studios to its eventual future in spaces like the Multicultural Arts Center we perform in this weekend, we have come a long way! We couldn't be more proud of where we come from, where we are now, and where we are headed.

2) What has been the biggest challenge of producing the company's first solo show? And the biggest thrill?

Our biggest struggle has been keeping the spirit of collaboration and theatrical improvisation while packaging a clean, replicable product that we can efficiently deliver to audiences. But as we have discovered in re-setting and creating work for our inaugural season, this is a fight worth fighting. Lost in Time perfectly represents that struggle and moves our material forward. Seeing all of the new work come to life in unexpected ways has been the greatest thrill.

3) What is the one thing you hope audience members take away from Lost in Time?

We hope that audiences leave feeing like they now have the power to be the person they want to be. Dance should not be limited to the people who can perform the coolest tricks, or turn three times more than everyone else—dance is for everyone! To translate that to life means to realize: You are enough. This is the final message of the show, and I hope that people leave the theatre carrying that truth with themselves.

Paradise Lost: Lost in Time
March 13, 8 p.m.; March 14, 2 p.m. & 8 p.m.
Multicultural Arts Center
Cambridge, MA

Sunday, March 8, 2015

The Terrycloth Travelers

When you're sailing the Caribbean for seven days with picturesque views floating across the horizon, the last place you'd likely want race back to is your windowless cabin below deck. But when that same cabin is home to an ongoing battle of creativity, resourcefulness, and comedic panache, well, suddenly it becomes the highlight of your trip.

Sean and I first met our friendly cabin steward Don in the hallway, where he greeted us by name, recommended a few activities, and parted ways with a broad smile. In the evening we returned to our first of many towel creatures, sitting stoically on our bed. Cute! I shouted, But what is it? A dog? A bunny? I set it aside carefully on the nightstand and thought no more about it.

Day 1: Dog-bunny

The next day we returned to find our dog-bunny gone, and a new towel friend in its place. Ok, we agreed, this one's easier. It's an elephant—very cool! Again, the childhood stuffed animal collector in me didn't want to see our new towel creation unravel, so I gingerly lifted it and set it aside on the nightstand.

Day 2: Elephant

By evening three, Sean knew the best way to convince me to swing by our room to drop off a few things was to taunt me with the mystery of what tonight's towel surprise would be. Sure enough, the thought of a new one quickened my pace and we soon navigated the maze of hallways and disconnected floors back to our room.... And both immediately burst out laughing.

Day 3: Manatee

A manatee, wearing my shades (and looking pretty fly, might I add), was sitting in its predecessor's stead. Giggling, we dashed off a note and headed out the door just in time to be greeted by Don from down the hall: Hello, Sean and Merli! How is your stay? You are having a wonderful time? We quickly assured him we were, with Sean adding, By the way...love today's manatee. Got a kick out of that!

Apparently a little acknowledgment of his talents and appreciation of his skill was all Don needed. Thus began our 3-day battle to out-clever each other in the field of creative towel folding...

Our note to Don.

Don's note to us.

First came the following little gem: A Playboy Bunny, blowing a kiss.

...and the accompanying "Sexy Playboy Bunny."

Day 4: Blowing a kiss!

One day and one towel folding class later, Sean and I concocted the following:

Game on.

Day 5: Meet Donatello.

What a sassy pair they make! Note the "shell" made of a towel thieved from
the pool, and the perfectly constructed tail thanks to our towel folding class.

That night we came home to find the TV blaring and two unexpected cabin guests relaxing on our bed...

Day 5, evening: Well, well, well... Who do we have here?

"I was hoping you'd walk in thinking it was the wrong room!"

"The eyes? Oh yes.... I cut up a mardi gras necklace."

As a parting gift, we left a final note and repurposed our monkey's head for a slithering snake, but as always were shown at the end of the day how it's really done.

A note goodbye.

Day 6: Monkey turned snake!

Our final reply...

Day 6, evening: ...and a far better snake.

So while Sean and I certainly spent our fair share of time sipping free champagne and perusing fine artworks, it was our terrycloth travelers that really added the creative touch to our Caribbean adventure.