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.

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.

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.

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.


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! 

NOVEMBER 11 & 12 . 8PM
Boston University Dance Theater
Boston MA