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.

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...


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.


Bring on the August move!