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, 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.

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.

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