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.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Labyrinth Piece: Constructing the Set & Score

It’s been some time since I last posted an entry, but it’s not for lack of thoughts to post! Over the past month, my two works in Luminarium’s upcoming feature production PORTAL: Stories from the Edge have each given me reasons to write. Unfortunately (or rather fortunately) these same moments have given me such a boost in creative energy that instead of writing, I’ve been diving straight back into the work. Still, I always find it helpful to put these struggles and revelations during the creation process into words—partially as a way of sharing the behind-the-scenes of my work with others, but also to remind myself years later about the work’s journey (at a point when often I’ve become so used to the finished product that I forget the path it took to get there).

At long last—as we head into these final 2.5 weeks (wait, what?) leading up to the proverbial curtain rising—I am forcing myself to stop in my tracks and jot down various progress reports on the twists and turns that have led these two works to this point. Enjoy!


Crawling out of the Labyrinth:

The last time I posted about the Labyrinth piece, it was to chronicle my somewhat comical realization that strapping branches to my dancers’ arms to create a human labyrinth, and forcing myself to invent a series of characters from an Alice in Wonderland / The Secret Garden mashup, had pulled me too far from my original mission. I then turned to research, and created a list of sections I felt were key to personifying the allures and fears of “slowing down,” as described by all those I polled. Since then, my work has finally begun to feel relevant again, both to society at large, and (equally important) to myself as an artist. This is the work I intended to create.

Yet to do that, this piece has me working in every facet of performance, from stage to set to lighting to score. And while I sincerely hope it all blurs together smoothly two weeks from now, here’s a glimpse into some of these facets of the work, isolated.

SET DESIGN

After taking my idea of “labyrinth” and breaking it down to figure out why I kept gravitating towards the visual of a maze, I came to realize that really what I envisioned wasn’t a maze so much as the visual of grass growing to the height of a tall hedge. This hedge would then have the potential to act as a barrier between the fast-paced world in which we first find our soloist, and the slowed-pace world we’re now in.

This discovery soon led me to creating stage mockups with a set of five tall panels, and the ingenious idea of purchasing large-scale foam board for a sturdy, lightweight set piece. And what an ingenious idea it was, two days later, as I found myself battling my way through the wind down the street with what felt like a 40x60” screaming and kicking child. And ohhh, how right I was to buy something so sturdy, as I struggled for 20 minutes to fit it into my car (pausing occasionally to do the casual car lean for passersby) and ultimately another 10 minutes desperately trying to score it with my keys to break off the foot that didn’t fit. What a great material!

Two weeks later, my living room is now packed with five dismantlable 30-by-80-inch free-standing panels, along with one very patient fiancé.


SOUNDSCORE

This piece largely revolves around the old idiom “The grass never grows under your feet,” meaning the person is ambitious and always on the move. They don’t have time to pause before the next project begins.

For a while now, I’ve envisioned beginning the work with a newscaster-style podcast playing to the sound of crazed typing, ending with the words “well I’ll tell you one thing… The grass never grows under her feet!” This would then be followed by the words “But what if I let it?” spoken from the mind of the soloist onstage.

This is all well and good, but where does this voice-over come from?

Taking pen to paper, I sculpted my own version of a prologue—a poetic stream of consciousness that at once combines the elements of fear and delight slowing down can bring us, while also drifting through the metaphor I’ve envisioned from the start. Here now is that poem, which will be read by the sultry-voiced Laura Castello:

The grass never grows under her feet... I hear—time, and time again...

But what if I let it?

What if I allowed the grass to consume me whole—wrapping around my arms and legs until I sink into the comforting bed of blades beneath me... Who would I be then? Awash in lush greenery, hiding my body, my mind, temporarily from view...

A moment to breathe—a moment.

A stopped clock gifting me with time to reconnect... Reaching through the tall grass to find a friend's hand, and reveling in the quiet joy of basic human connection.

But in truth? I think my greatest fear is that I'll be forgotten there, overgrown.

If honest—

I fear I'll disappear.


Those are the updates for now. Stay tuned for the final creation!

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Labyrinth Piece: Stripping it Down & Starting Fresh

A Seed of an Idea:

Earlier this season, I became interested in exploring through choreography a phrase that has been used to describe me time and time again by those older and wiser than myself: "Well, the grass certainly doesn't grow under your feet!"

Introducing this concept first to my co-director, then to the company as a whole, I was surprised to find that not a single person had heard this expression before—and some even misinterpreted it when trying to puzzle it out. It's moments like these when I revel in the intricacies of the English language! To one person, it came across as a positive phrase; to others, a negative. Yet ultimately, this phrase is meant to be complimentary: Implying that the person at hand is so active that the grass never even has a chance to start growing before they've moved on to the next task or adventure.

Last year I tackled the concept of burnout, and the vicious cycle it creates. As a dear friend of mine wrote in the press "Guerra’s piece [Phoenixial Cycle] turns a torturous, generation-wide phenomenon into a beautiful, haunting performance." These words were both touching for me as the choreographer, but also eye-opening. I was amazed to find that this largely autobiographical piece was in fact completely relatable to a much broader demographic than I initially realized. The goal for this season? To create another personal yet relatable work—in some ways, a partner piece to last year's.


The Divergence:

As I proceeded to sketch, ponder, research, and reflect, I became completely at odds with myself as to how this new work should manifest. Case in point, this blog post was originally titled "Labyrinth Piece: Early Conundrums—Balancing Humor & Depth" in response to my choreographic brain spitting out two polar opposite moods in the studio: One, my comedic side; the other, my introspective. In an attempt to bridge the two, I began feeling frustrated—frustrated one week with the potential for this poignant piece to be undermined by its initial humor as "campy"; the next week, frustrated by my inability to seamlessly flow into the Alice in Wonderland meets The Secret Garden fantasy world I'd envisioned. After several rehearsals of shaping the dancers into a human maze and a two-hour trip to the nearest Michaels craft store, I returned home with an armful of pricey willow branches, kulu sticks, and plastic topiary along with one more thing: The realization that absolutely none of this was necessary. Standing in the living room with an army of hair ties keeping a rubber fern strapped to my arm, I found myself giggling, How the hell did I end up here?



– pause –

At this point, I share that last paragraph with my fiancé, telling him where I am now, where I was, and the thoughts I now have in store as I continue to write this post in an effort to solidify them. "I love that concept," he says without bias. "Me too," I answer, "I only wish I'd reached this point back in July!" "It's an iterative process," he wisely reassures me, "You needed to go through all those steps to know how to best move forward to this final place. So you have three rehearsals left...you've got this."


– resume –


Returning, Researching, Scrapping & Sketching:

Stripping my piece of everything, I returned to my initial thoughts in my journal, and reread that key phrase: "The grass never grows under your feet" with my character's voice scrawled in pencil after, But what if I let it? What if I allowed the grass to consume me whole, wrapping around my arms and legs until I sink into the comforting bed of blades beneath me...

After all that, my original image of a woman standing in the circular glow of a downcast spotlight, with vine-like hands reaching to grasp her ankles each time she paused (before ultimately sucking her into the dark) still struck me with the same poignance and excitement as it did on Day 1. With this as my core once more, I put aside the comedic opening, put aside the pressure to invent fantasy world characters, and instead turned to research as my guide.

I'd like to take a moment to sincerely thank all those who wrote in response to my prompt What is your biggest fear about slowing down your life? What is most alluring to you about slowing down? The responses were fascinating in their interconnected from one person to the next, and it truly helped me in formulating the final visions I now plan to hit the ground running with come Thursday evening:

Slow-Motion vs. Speed
A lesson in slowing down

When you're driving fast, pedestrians seem to be moving in slow motion, but as you slow the car down, your speeds begin to fall in sync. Similarly, I see my central character moving full speed with all those around her moving in slow-motion. As she pauses—taking a deep breath—the others momentarily quicken. Gradually, as the soloist reaches a meditative breathing pattern, the rest build their tempo to match hers. She has now slowed down to their pace; they are in sync.


Mirrors
Looking at herself; rediscovering herself with a handheld light; running the light along her body as if bathing herself; cleansing and starting anew

Many spoke of the allure of rediscovering themselves through slowing down. I see my main character standing in front of a semi-circle of mirrors—just her and her own reflection—lighting each part of her body as she reconnects with herself.


Wall
Feeling cut off from the world; alternatively feeling like the king of this new space

Perhaps most interesting to me were the comments I received from those who consider themselves fast-paced individuals who have slowed down, whether due to age or physical limitations. While many described the positive feeling of being fully in control of their now smaller domain, they also admitted a sense of loss in terms of connections with the world at large—be it through coworkers, students, etc. Here, I see my main character pushing against a wide wall, keeping her from the people on the other side. She has two solos here: One that is tightly-wound representing the fear of being disconnected from others, and another that is large and flowing as she enjoys her literal and metaphoric space.


Flashlights
Disappearing

My own fear of slowing down is the idea that I'll disappear; that I may be forgotten by others, and no longer be important to society. Others spoke of this issue similarly, albeit with varying terms such as no longer feeling "relevant," becoming "valueless," or feeling like others have full control when you have none. To personify this, I see my main character standing in the dark, with her body fully lit by flashlights. One by one, the flashlights are turned off—she loses a knee, a hand, a shoulder—until she fully disappears. She is at the mercy of those lighting her, as she gradually slips away. 



Now time to get back into the studio and make this happen! 



PORTAL: STORIES FROM THE EDGE
NOVEMBER 11 & 12 . 8PM
Boston University Dance Theater
Boston MA

Thursday, June 30, 2016

A Pivotal Moment: Performing at the Boston Opera House

Apologies in advance to my readers: This post takes a more rambling approach than I tend to use, but one thought led to another, and it felt too circuitous in the end to force it into a more linear format. Enjoy!

People often ask me where my love of dance originated. To be honest, it seems to have lived inside me since the moment I could freely move my limbs. When I was old enough to talk, I repeatedly concerned my parents with a straight-faced story about my true identity being a professional dancer who lived in a pink house, and that my "real" family missed me. Alter ego aside, my dance career did start young, and was encouraged by a supportive family (yes, my actual one) and a network of mentors with whom I still keep in contact and thank for their help along the way. 

A glimpse at a time when performing made me feel timid, rather than charged.

Despite this encouragement from the outside, I was always aware of the fact that fulfilling my goal of becoming a professional dancer/choreographer would be a challenge to say the least. I started taking formal dance classes at the age of six, which—sadly—is considered "late" in the ballet world. Yet as I grew, I discovered both my set-backs and my strengths. What I lacked in turnout and height, I made up for with stage presence.

"Stage presence." What an interesting term. The dictionary defines it as "the ability to command the attention of a theater audience by the impressiveness of one's manner or appearance," and this is certainly true, but for me the term is two-fold. Whenever I perform in a new space, I find I have not one favorite moment, but two. Who doesn't love that instant when the stage lights rise, heating your skin, your face, as you connect with the viewers in the dark abyss through the intricacies of movement? Yet equally powerful is the moment just prior, when the tech crew has shifted its focus away from the performers; the performers have wandered off to eat, change, and apply their makeup; and the stage just sits there, not as a magnificent focal point, but as an insignificant structure awaiting the production.

That is the moment I love most. When the only "stage presence" left in the theater is the presence of the stage itself.


Kim and I pry ourselves awake for our first meeting with TEDxCambridge, at the very non-Luminarium hour of 8am.


In February, Kim and I received a call from TEDxCambridge, inviting us to open for their spring 2016 TED Talks. The call could have gone a far less glamorous direction, but instead we soon found ourselves creating a newly-commissioned work for the single largest TED event in the world (even larger than the original TED Talks in Vancouver), performing for an audience of 2,600 viewers in our city's most celebrated theater, the Boston Opera House.


Wandering around the block, we spy our event featured on the Boston Opera House marquee. Photo: Merli V. Guerra.

The process was as exhilarating as it was daunting, but in the end, Kim and I found ourselves walking around the block—exhausted, excited—chatting about how solid we felt about the work we were about to debut. It was our first commissioned work of this magnitude coupled with our first time co-choreographing in four years, and we had successfully created a piece that the full company felt proud of, allowing ourselves to work somewhat commercially without compromising our artistic integrity.

Kim feet and my feet, standing on this monumental stage.
Photo: Kim Holman.

Our walk ended back inside the theater, standing on the stage. And thus my "stage presence" moment began. Here was this mighty, famous, historic theater whose gilded walls gleamed in the light. But who was she really? I took a moment for myself to commune with the space—a spiritual pre-performance ritual of mine—feeling the weight of the people whose energies graced this same spot over the years. The floor creaked under my feet in patches, while others pushed back against my legs. The ceiling mural somehow felt farther away now, and I wondered who painted it—were they as scared of heights as I am? The backstage opened up to reveal a colossal, cool cave of inspiration—what set design couldn't one build in here? And as Kim and I exited to return to the group, I marveled at how quickly all the backstage passages had become second nature to travel.


Soaking it all in, and fully embracing the evening to follow. Photo: Kim Holman.


A few weeks before the production, I brought my mom to see Boston Ballet for her birthday, and we made a whole day of it. Amusingly, it wasn't until halfway through the performance that she suddenly realized which theater we were in, and that this was the same stage Luminarium would be performing on in June. The conversation shifted back to one of my earliest memories of seeing Boston Ballet perform—back then at the Wang Theatre. My dad had brought me and my friend Ginny to see Swan Lake. I remember sitting in a booster seat, peering down at the dancers, completely mesmerized. Even more vivid, I remember my dad sneaking us around a corner in the lobby—as the adults laughed and mingled, sipping their wine—and surprising us with our own intermission beverage of choice: Juicy Juice, with a snack of Teddy Grahams.

24 years later, here I was. Sipping cocktails at the Ritz Carlton after party for the event's VIPs; chatting with corporate sponsors; and laughing with my company members, my friends, about the last-minute trials of the performance a few hours earlier. I wonder what that little girl would have thought—sitting cross legged on the floor, sipping her juice box and enjoying her snack—if a young woman in a black dress suddenly turned around, winked, and with a reassuring smile said "This will be you someday. You'll perform on the same stage as Boston's finest; your work will be shown to the region's smartest audience; and you'll be surrounded by artists you admire and who support and admire you right back."

What would she have thought...

Backstage, the company huddles together one last time before the show begins. Photo: Luke Fogel.

Below are two videos from this mile-marker event in Luminarium's evolution. The first is a 5-minute documentary giving viewers a look into the company's experience behind-the-scenes. The second is the beautiful, professional footage taken of the performance itself.

Many thanks to all who were involved in the creation of this work and to all who encouraged us throughout the four months leading up to its debut!




Sunday, June 5, 2016

From Old & Battered to Farmhouse Chic

Later this summer, I'll be making an important move. For the first time in my life, I'll be sharing a home not with a roommate, but with Sean! My new "forever roommate," if you will. As we prepare for the move, and I continue to sort through all my belongings—donating everything from dresses to furniture—I recently found myself staring at the ugly banged up dresser shoved in the corner of my room. That's what I need, I thought, I need a shiny new dresser for the new move!

After a month of casually searching the internet for dressers, I quickly became discouraged. For a few hundred dollars, you, too, can be the owner of an Ikea-style faux-wood dresser; and for real wood, double or triple that price! That's when I eyed my dresser with new appreciation. Despite being an old, gauged up, terribly stained garage sale find from my first move, at least it was wood. With new determination, I decided to try my hand at refinishing it to something a little more Pinterest-worthy.

And how happy I am to see it was worth it! For a mere $48.20 of supplies (new knobs, stain and polyurethane, wood filler, sandpaper, and some brushes), my $40 yard sale salvage is now a piece I'm proud to place in Sean and my new home this August.

Enjoy these before and after photos, and maybe you'll find there's something in your own home that needs a refresher this summer...



Before:





The first thing I did was remove that terrible baseboard. The moment I did, the whole piece became so much airier and lofty.



By far the dumbest move I made was deciding to sand down the entire piece by hand. For anything being painted, the process of sanding was meditative and rewarding. Yet that darn top, with its deep cuts and thick stain, proved to be quite the challenge.





At one point, I looked down after an hour of forceful sanding to find a resting alpaca staring up at a forest. Maybe the wedding is too much on my brain these days.




After:







Bring on the August move!

Friday, March 18, 2016

The Wayside Inn: Early Sketches

Each season I push myself to chronicle the development of the major projects I embark on through Luminarium. It's amazing how quickly a few still images floating across my mind turn to active ideas, planning, and physical motion. Even in the one month since sending Kim my first sketches, I am now further engaged (and steadily en route to being fully "entrenched") in the project. Thus, let the documenting begin.

It's probably getting old by now to read this sentence, but for those just joining, every season I create and lead Luminarium's Cultural Community Outreach Project—using dance and art to highlight a local cultural or historic landmark. Past examples have taken me to Concord (Celebration of Preservation, Louisa May Alcott's Orchard House, 2012), Lowell (Threading Motion Project, New England Quilt Museum, 2013), Arlington (Night at the Tower, Arlington Reservoir Water Tower, 2014), and Amherst (Amherst Storybook Project, Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, 2015). This year marks the monumental fifth iteration of this annual endeavor, and—thanks to a grant from the Sudbury Cultural Council—will highlight the 300th anniversary of the historic Wayside Inn of Sudbury, MA.

So much has already begun to develop since my initial concept of presenting three new works, each one celebrating the Inn's 300 years while focusing on an integral aspect of the landmark: The Inn, the gristmill, and the land. The project began in September with a cold call to the Wayside Inn; the grant application was then submitted in October; funding was awarded in January; and in February I sent Kim the following preliminary notes and images darting through my mind for the event:


The Film
(Focus on the mill)

Either a piece filmed inside the mill, or projected onto various parts of it—including potentially the waterfall. 

Digital sketch for Merli V. Guerra's upcoming project at The Wayside Inn, 2016.

The Petticoat Piece 
(Focus on the inn within the greater context of the world) 
This is the piece I'm envisioning expanding upon (or if I finish it in time, simply re-showing) for our Feature Production. I've been culling through the inn's journal entries from 1920 onwards (will need to inquire about older ones), and I'd like to use snippets about the people who stayed, the greater context of the war overseas and some beautiful quotes from the inn keeper at the time about wishing everyone could feel the joy and peace felt at the inn. It was a meeting ground for people reentering the country, and those shipping off. Some really incredible stories passed through this space! 


Current Sketch (different petticoats to symbolize different eras) 

Digital sketch for Merli V. Guerra's upcoming project at The Wayside Inn, 2016.

Alternatively: Giving each dancer 3 (layered) slips, one per century to gradually reveal, from multi-hoop to single-hoop to pencil slip.

The Land
This is where I'm stuck. I don't necessarily think I need to stick to the idea of the land if I want to change it, but so far nothing's really struck me for how to move forward.

One extra or alternative piece
I have an idea for one piece: To have it be a comical, quick-paced rundown of the history of the place, good for kids. We'll see...


One month later, these thoughts have since expanded, brought on new creators, and rehearsals have officially begun. Kim felt inspired by the concept of the land and has since taken that work on, and Mali Sastri of the powerful band Jaggery will be joining us on this project as we create a new work coupling her impressive music talents with our choreography. All in all, the project is off and running!

In the meantime, Luminarium has since created that "extra" piece—portraying 300 years of history through a delightfully whimsical 3-minute performance piece—and last night held a special video shoot for the project. We've all seen plenty of beautiful photos of dancers capturing their kinetic energy through the use of flour, but we're tackling this genre from a new angle: The Wayside Inn is home to a 1920s gristmill, using 18th century milling machinery. It is now one of just three remaining operational gristmills in Massachusetts.

In honor of this mill, I'm now working on a new film that will merge dance and flour, to be projected onto performers during the event this July. I've since set aside the waterfall projection concept (though I'm sure this will return in future years). Take a peek at these film stills caught from last night's shoot—step one is now complete.

Film still from Merli V. Guerra's upcoming film for The Wayside Inn, 2016.

Film still from Merli V. Guerra's upcoming film for The Wayside Inn, 2016.

Film still from Merli V. Guerra's upcoming film for The Wayside Inn, 2016.

Film still from Merli V. Guerra's upcoming film for The Wayside Inn, 2016.


View the rest of the image here, and stay tuned for further updates on this exciting project!



Luminarium at the Wayside Inn: 300 Years of History
Sunday, July 10 at noon, 1:30pm, and 3pm
The performance cycle will travel from the barn, across the field, along the brook, and end at the mill. Viewers are encouraged to join the journey at any point of this 30-40 minute performance.



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

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Arts Advocacy in the Great Hall of Flags

Each season, I find myself marveling at an experience I never could have imagined back in 2010 when Luminarium first started. Back then, Kim and I were new to the world of Boston performance venues, to grant-writing, and to speaking on behalf of the arts. With each year that passes, we've continued to expand our experiences, knowledge, and reach—and this week brought a new highlight to the company's memory banks.

Six months ago, the Massachusetts Cultural Council (MCC) reached out to me to inquire if Luminarium would be interested in performing at its prestigious Local Cultural Council (LCC) Statewide Assembly. This day-long event is held every two years in the beautiful Massachusetts State House, celebrating the efforts of the state's 329 local cultural councils, while encouraging state legislators to help these councils fund and further the arts.

Matthew Kyle and Chun-Jou Tsai perform Merli V. Guerra's Phoenixial Cycle at the LCC Statewide Assembly
at the Massachusetts State House, 2016. Photo: Merli V. Guerra.

We were of course thrilled to participate in this event, and immediately began planning. There were some amusing anecdotal hiccups along the way, but in the end, we were proud to present two of Luminarium's recent works: The opening duet from my own Phoenixial Cycle (with performers Matthew Kyle and Chun-Jou Tsai), and Kim's Getting There is Half the Battle (featuring a new cast of myself, Amy, and now Kim!).

Matthew Kyle and Chun-Jou Tsai perform Merli V. Guerra's Phoenixial Cycle at the LCC Statewide Assembly
at the Massachusetts State House, 2016. Photo: Merli V. Guerra.

Blanketed under the quiet glow of a gray afternoon, the company performed in the beautiful (and appropriately named) Great Hall of Flags to perhaps our most appreciative audience to date. We often pride ourselves on our accessibility, performing for audiences made up of art-lovers and new-to-dance viewers alike, yet to have this experience of performing in a room full of the state's top arts and culture supporters was as fulfilling as it was daunting. Fortunately, the energy in the room was palpable, and the hall echoed with uproarious applause following each piece.

Matthew Kyle and Chun-Jou Tsai perform Merli V. Guerra's Phoenixial Cycle at the
LCC Statewide Assembly at the Massachusetts State House, 2016. Photo: Mercure Photography.

Matthew Kyle and Chun-Jou Tsai perform Merli V. Guerra's Phoenixial Cycle at the LCC Statewide Assembly
at the Massachusetts State House, 2016. Photo: Mercure Photography.

l. to r. Amy Mastrangelo and Merli V. Guerra perform Holman's Getting There is Half the Battle
at the LCC Statewide Assembly at the Massachusetts State House, 2016. Photo: Mercure Photography.

l. to r. Kimberleigh A. Holman, Amy Mastrangelo, and Merli V. Guerra perform Holman's Getting There is Half the Battle
at the LCC Statewide Assembly at the Massachusetts State House, 2016. Photo: Chun-Jou Tsai.

l. to r. Amy Mastrangelo and Merli V. Guerra perform Holman's Getting There is Half the Battle at the LCC Statewide
Assembly at the Massachusetts State House, 2016. Photo: Chun-Jou Tsai.

At the Assembly, I found myself wearing not only my performer/choreographer cap, but my speaker cap too, with the opportunity to engage in a discussion near and dear to my heart: How to further enrich communities through the arts. It's the topic that keeps my annual Cultural Community Outreach Project fresh with new ideas each season, and it's a discussion best had with those who are actively engaged in and/or funding the arts in their communities day in, day out.

Merli V. Guerra introduces her co-director Kim Holman and fellow Luminarium company members to keynote speaker
Sally Taylor. Photo: Mercure Photography.

For this event, I was told that I presented the perfect "trifecta" for the panel: As an 11-time LCC grant-winning artist, as recipient of the MCC's prestigious Gold Star Award, and for my recent work on the "ground floor" of the LCCs as Co-Chair of the Arlington Cultural Council. For these three reasons, the MCC invited me to speak as an active member of the LCC community whose reflections would serve to link the panel back to the LCC volunteers filling the room.

It was an honor and a privilege to sit on a panel comprised of Sally Taylor (musician and founder of Consenses), Scarlet Keys (Associate Professor, Berklee College of Music), and Ben Taylor (musician) as MCC Executive Director Anita Walker led the lively discussion as moderator.

Massachusetts Cultural Council Executive Director Anita Walker introduces the morning panel. Photo: Mercure Photography.

l. to r. Sally Taylor, Merli V. Guerra, Ben Taylor, and Scarlet Keys. Photo: Ed Cohen.

l. to r. Sally Taylor and Merli V. Guerra. Photo: Mercure Photography.

Merli V. Guerra speaks on the morning panel at the Local Cultural Council
Statewide Assembly, 2016. Photo: Mercure Photography.

Merli V. Guerra speaks on the morning panel at the Local Cultural Council
Statewide Assembly, 2016. Photo: Mercure Photography.

This panel invitation came at the perfect moment: After six years of working in the arts field, it was only in the past year that I finally acknowledged that the work I put forward extends far beyond myself, my company, and my immediate community. My work instead touches hundreds—thousands, at moments—through the very basic acts of encouraging young artists to grow and explore the world, acting as a mentor to new artistic entrepreneurs, and offering guidance to those entering the realm of grant-writing and government funding. No longer do I describe myself simply as an interdisciplinary artist, but—proudly—as an arts advocate as well.

My snazzy new business cards, kicking off 2016...

All in all, we could not have asked for a more receptive audience for Luminarium, nor could I have asked for a finer group of panelists and MCC staff to work alongside leading up to this event. Goodbye for now, State House... I wonder when we'll next perform inside your prestigious walls?

l. to r. Amy Mastrangelo and Merli V. Guerra perform Holman's
Getting There is Half the Battle at the LCC Statewide Assembly at the
Massachusetts State House, 2016. Photo: Mercure Photography.

Luminarium Dance Company at the Massachusetts State House, 2016. Photo: Ed Cohen.

Monday, January 4, 2016

My Year in Review: Top Ten Professional Highlights of 2015

Each year, as our worn out calendars are replaced with the new, I prompt myself to compile a list of the past twelve months' most significant professional accomplishments. It's a (somewhat tedious) task I encourage everyone to tackle, if they don't already. For me, I find it both enlightening and reassuring. Each year speeds by quicker than the last, and it's easy during the lull to feel that nothing has been accomplished. Forcing myself to choose my "top ten" moments helps me to focus my sights on goals for years to come, while simultaneously allowing that often-ignored voice inside my head to say "See?? You did so much this year!" So here it is: My Top Ten Professional Highlights of 2015.


Luminarium receives the 2015 Gold Star Award from the Massachusetts Cultural Council,
alongside the Arlington Cultural Council.
 
1. Night at the Tower Wins the MCC's Gold Star Award
So often artists work without recognition. We don't necessarily mind it in the moment, and over time it becomes the standard to go unnoticed and under paid for hours upon hours of extra labor. Then there are the moments that astonish us: 2015 started with a bang when I learned that my Night at the Tower performance—my largest (most exhausting) Cultural Community Outreach Project to date—had been chosen as one of just three projects (out of 5,000+ across the state in 2014) to receive the Massachusetts Cultural Council's prestigious Gold Star Award. To be recognized in this way is an incredible feeling, and gives weight to the work I've done thus far. Equally exciting was my interview with Dan Blask of the MCC. Take a peek!


The clay version of Margaret Lyster Chamberlain's work.

2. From Flesh to Clay to Bronze
Each year, for the past three years, I've been fortunate to work with some of New England's finest visual artists as their model. The first was with light painting photographer Larry Pratt, traveling to his studio in Falmouth, MA, and wading into the darkened waters of Cape Cod. The second was projection art photographer Judith Larsen, whose work has been featured worldwide, and was most recently honored with the Spirit Award at Maud Morgan Arts (an event fellow dance model Melenie Diarbekirian and I were excited to attend this summer). This year brought a new experience when the talented sculptor (and old family friend) Margaret Lyster Chamberlain asked me to drive down to her studio to model for her newest sculpture. The experience was beautiful. Meg's work, though stationary, is full of motion—as if an impressionist painting has come to life in 3D. For this particular project, the end result was never meant to look like me; my role was to strike the pose and allow Meg to study the anatomy of my muscles, bones, and even the way my hair brushed back across my shoulder. Meg's work has been requested in the past as well—my favorite being her piece The Leave-Taking, a commission by Quinnipiac University for Ireland's Great Hunger Museum. It was a wonderful experience to take a peek behind the scenes at her work, and to help in a small way with her new creation.


The Arts Fuse, Boston's online magazine for dance, film, literature, music, theatre, and more.

3. A New Role: Senior Contributor at The Arts Fuse
2015 brought several shifts in the Boston dance community. As Debra Cash stepped into the pivotal role of Executive Director of the Boston Dance Alliance, it left an opening on the staff of The Arts Fuse—Boston's online arts magazine for dance, film, literature, music, and theatre. I feel honored to have joined this fantastic publication as a Senior Contributor, and the critic who selects the Fuse's weekly coming attractions in dance.


With You, performed by Emerson Dance Company, 2015. Choreography: Merli V. Guerra. Photo: Nick Eaton.

4. Guest Choreographer at Emerson College
When the Executive Board of Emerson Dance Company (through Emerson College) selected me as the spring semester's Guest Choreographer, I was thrilled. The position gave me the opportunity to work with eight talented students dedicated to their craft—one of whom we later cast in Luminarium's professional production Filament. Over the course of the semester, I created a new piece centered around relationships and the daily interpersonal webs we weave. The work, With You, debuted in April to an enthusiastic audience of roughly 360 viewers on the Mainstage of the beautiful Emerson/Paramount Theatre, as part of Emerson College's Spring 2015 Showcase Momentum.


As usual, Concord Teacakes outdid themselves with this gorgeously decorated cake, reminiscent of our 2014 postcard!

5. Luminarium Celebrates 5 Years
As Jeffrey Gantz so adeptly pointed out in his recent review of Luminarium's work in the Boston Globe, "In the dance world these days, making it to your fifth season is no small achievement. And Luminarium Dance Company, which was founded in 2010 by Merli V. Guerra and Kimberleigh A. Holman, has not just endured, it has created 51 original stage works and is host to an annual 24-Hour ChoreoFest." As we end our 5th season in Boston, we now have 52 individual works, 16 self-produced performances, and 9 dance-on-camera films to our name. The work Kim Holman and I have been able to accomplish together (along with the tireless energy of our dancers, and generosity of our supporters and staff) is astounding. Whether presenting our work formally on stage, speaking as mentors to young artists, bringing dance to disadvantaged children, or breaking barriers through our public outreach events, our mission has remained the same: luminarium (luminary) - n. 1. a body that gives off light 2. sheds light on some subject or enlightens mankind.


Tyler Catanella and Merli V. Guerra in Idle Reverie. Photo: Ryan Carollo.

6. On the Road: Performing in Southern Vermont Dance Festival
In addition to traveling along coastal Maine this summer to perform in the Wiscasset Art Walk for a second year, Luminarium made its Vermont debut this July at the Southern Vermont Dance Festival. We submitted all six works from our 2014 feature production The Sleeprunner, so I was initially surprised when it was Idle Reverie that was selected for SVDF's prestigious Gala Performance. This quirky, edgy, and oh-so-relatable duet follows the inner musings of what could be described as “platonic pillow talk,” and—despite being choreographed faster than many of my other works—has resonated with viewers, critics, and presenters more than I ever anticipated! So, on a sunny summer Friday, I enjoyed the charm and good food of Brattleboro, VT, with family, then performed Idle Reverie with dance partner Tyler Catanella later that night alongside notable companies and choreographers from throughout New England. The performance marked 5 out of 6 New England states in which my work has been professionally shown... I'm coming for you, Connecticut!



7. Appointed to the Arlington Cultural Council
The ripple effect of Night at the Tower's success extended beyond its ensuing press, media, awards, and support: It shifted the way I viewed my work and its direct involvement with the community. I'd always prided myself on using my yearly Cultural Community Outreach Project to highlight a local cultural or historical landmark through art and dance, yet Night at the Tower left me with a growing urge to help beyond my annual project. If this work could have such a powerful impact on a town through just one night, then I wanted to become a more active part of the community on a regular basis. Synchronicity struck again, as I was soon approached by members of the local cultural council. After attending several meetings and formally applying, I found myself standing in Town Hall before the Board of Selectmen—a group who already knew me and my work better than I could have expected—and was officially appointed to the Arlington Cultural Council in September. I joined just in time to help the council determine which proposals would proceed for 2016 funding, and now cannot wait to serve as the liaison to several of these creative artistic ventures.


Opening address at the Boston Young Alumnae Speed Networking Event.

8. Speaking Engagements & Panels
As always, the year was peppered with various invitations for speaking engagements and panels. These events and private meetings are not only an honor to participate in, but are moments I genuinely look forward to throughout the season. This year I had the opportunity to weigh in on the Boston dance community's future with its key funders and presenters behind the scenes; served on the Cambridge Arts Council's Dance Review Panel to determine 2016 grant funding alongside distinguished local dance experts Jean Appolon, Brenda Divelbliss, Joe Gonzalez, and Pamela Newton; and once again spoke at the Boston Young Alumnae Speed Networking Event, where I was introduced as "Mount Holyoke's biggest bragging right!"—A lofty title to be sure, and one I hope to fill over time.


Chun-Jou Tsai and Matthew Kyle perform Merli V. Guerra's Phoenixial Cycle. Photo: Ryan Carollo.

9. Taking Pride in My Work: Phoenixial Cycle
It's been a few years since I've added a single piece as one of my top accomplishments. Phoenixial Cycle—which debuted at Luminarium's feature production Spektrel—is my heftiest work to date, and quite possibly the most ambitious as well. From set design to costume design and from simple sketches to living, breathing choreography, this work challenged me and my dancers in new ways, with an end product that prompted some of the most glowing feedback I've ever received. As Celina Colby of Trends & Tolstoy so eloquently voiced, "Guerra’s piece turns a torturous, generation-wide phenomenon into a beautiful, haunting performance." Others raved that it gave them "chills" and "so much to think about." To know that my work managed to reach beyond the stage and touch so many viewers on a deeper level is all I could ever ask for in a work, yet this piece was also a joy for me to watch as I stood in the balcony show after show. My dancers were not just going through the motions; they were fully embodying the spirit of the story I sought to convey—to the point where, at times, I couldn't remember how I even thought of the movements they were now dancing so passionately.

Amherst Storybook Project by Merli V. Guerra, Luminarium Dance Company.
Preview and/or purchase the book online.

10. My First Self-Published Book
I remember sitting in a cozy restaurant in Stowe, VT, with Sean this past March, talking out the details of my Amherst Storybook Project. He listened carefully, offered his own thoughts on the work, and ultimately complimented me on the idea. "But," he reminded me, "didn't you say this year's project would be more low key?" "It is!" I exclaimed optimistically. In comparison to the permits, weather snafus, politics, and expenses of Night at the Tower, the thought of creating a book (indoors, nonetheless) seemed simple enough. Yet as the number of participants involved grew from 5 to 12 to 34, the demand for a purchasable product increased far beyond my initial plans. The solution? Give myself a crash course on self-publishing and pull the trigger. The final book (of the same name) came out gorgeous, and arrived just in time for our culminating event at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, MA, this November. After performing in front of the children's artwork and presenting a few company favorites, we sat down for a Q&A with the audience—many of our most thoughtful questions coming from the kids! There are two moments from this collaboration that I'll carry with me always: 1) Watching the joyous meetings between young and old as the artists, writers, and dancers met and signed each other's books, and 2) Knowing that the famous Eric Carle himself held my book in his hands one week later, along with a note thanking him for all he's done for children's book art and literature. A fantastic way to end the project.


#happiness

11. "Duration of Relationship: Forever"
And yes, this year there's a bonus 2015 highlight. It may not fall under the category of "professional," but it is certainly a milestone. On November 3, 2015, I was recovering from the intensity of a recent show week—and simultaneously coming off the flu—when my night (and my life!) took a major shift. Never have I been in a relationship built on such mutual respect and pride in each other's work; someone who sees the value of a balanced lifestyle, from smart saving to joyous traveling and nights on the town; someone who irritates the hell out of me for knowing me better than I know myself (but two can play that game); or someone whose entire network of family and friends is as warm and welcoming as my own. Yes, Sean Patrick Connolly. Let's do this.