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.

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.


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.