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.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Top 10 Professional Highlights of 2016

As a “doer” / “go-getter” with an always active creative brain, I often feel I’m running a race—trying to keep up with the many projects and ideas speeding past me, just out of reach. The result? I find it extremely difficult to acknowledge the ground I gain each season. Despite priding myself on being a deeply introspective person, I cannot seem to translate “completion” into “accomplishment.” That translation comes instead from those around me, who are able to look at the big picture. And while I frequently find it difficult to agree with those outside eyes, once each year I force myself to sit down and reflect: To allow myself the opportunity (though I view it more as a reluctant task) to pinpoint my top 10 accomplishments of the season.

1. Speaking, Presenting, and Performing at the State House

On Wednesday, February 10, 2016, Luminarium had the honor of performing in one of the most important buildings in Massachusetts. As a regular recipient of LCC grants, and a 2015 winner of the Massachusetts Cultural Council's (MCC) Gold Star Award, Luminarium was invited by the MCC to join its staff and prominent state legislators at the State House in Boston for the Local Cultural Council (LCC) 2016 Statewide Assembly, a private biennual event celebrating the LCC program. LCC volunteers from across the Commonwealth gathered at the capitol to explore arts and culture beyond their individual perspectives, connecting with community leaders and legislators to discuss the impact of projects that build creative communities through the arts.

Not only did I feel privileged to have my Phoenixial Cycle duet presented to such an artistic and high-powered audience (and to perform, myself, in Kim's Getting There is Half the Battle trio), but I was additionally invited by the MCC to speak on a panel at the event alongside distinguished arts colleagues Ben Taylor (musician), Scarlet Keys (Associate Professor, Berklee College of Music), and keynote speaker Sally Taylor (musician and founder of Consenses). And if those names sound familiar, yes, Sally and Ben are the children of famous musicians Carly Simon and James Taylor—an impressive panel to be sure! View photos of the event here.

2. Co-Chair of Arlington Cultural Council

2016 kicked off with another act of arts advocacy and local politics. A mere three months into my term on the Arlington Cultural Council (ACC), I was humbled to be voted into office as co-chair. During my year-long term on the ACC, I led council meetings alongside my equally impassioned compatriots, and acted as the ACC representative at events both small and large throughout the town, including: speaking in front of hundreds at Town Meeting; attending conferences and forums regarding the Cultural District (and instigating the movement for involvement from the ACC); introducing the Massachusetts Cultural Council's grant program opportunities to local artists through Arlington Town Day and other events; and speaking on behalf of the ACC on Arlington Public News. It was a challenging yet gratifyingly productive year, ended only due to my move into the city and my desire to refocus my efforts on the Boston arts community—my home now both in business and living address. Still, I continue to keep an eye on Arlington's ever-growing arts scene, and hope to one day return in a new capacity.

3. Modeling and Performing in a Retail Promo Video

Things not typically associated with me: hip hop, and modeling merchandise. Yet at the start of 2016, I found myself doing both for Empower Fitness—a company whose merchandise is sold under aliases at major stores such as Target, Walmart, and TJMaxx. Performing hip hop routines choreographed by the talented Gabby Pacheco, the two of us spent an aerobic morning showcasing the company's new product line for a promo video that would soon be pitched to the Target headquarters in Texas. Not a bad way to spend a morning, especially when leaving with both a healthy paycheck and swag!

4. Being Invited to Write for the International Fjord Review

I was absolutely delighted this Spring when founding editor Penelope Ford reached out, inviting me to write for the Fjord Review—an international online magazine for ballet and contemporary dance. Writing for the Fjord Review complements the work I do for The Arts Fuse as a senior contributor and selector of the weekly must-see dance picks (as well as my own independent writing as an artist) while expanding my peer base to across the globe. Canada, London, Italy, New York, Paris, Australia and Glasgow are just some of the regions covered by the publication's skilled writers. I have so enjoyed reviewing major productions as the Fjord Review's Boston-area critic, and look forward to sinking my teeth in further in 2017. Take a peek!

5. TEDxCambridge Commission and Performing at the Boston Opera House

Already high off our performance at the State House in February, Kim and I were further elated when, just days later, we were contacted for another prominent event at an equally famous venue. Luminarium was commissioned to create a new work as the sole opening act for the prestigious TEDxCambridge, performing in one of Boston's most noteworthy theaters (and home of Boston Ballet), the Boston Opera House. The new work, co-choreographed by Kim and myself, featured the full company along with imagery projected across a 50-foot screen created by animation artist Samo. The event on June 9, 2016, was the single largest TED Talks event in the world (even larger than the original TED Talk in Vancouver), with an audience of 2,600 viewers. Luminarium was honored and humbled to have been hand-selected for this position from the wealth of options comprising Boston's vibrant performing arts scene. I've always felt lucky to have stood on many important stages through my career, but this particular stage—this particular experience—left me, for once, speechless. Enjoy this behind-the-scenes documentary chronicling the day.

6. "300 Years": Celebrating the Wayside Inn Through Music, Film, and Dance

This year's annual Cultural Community Outreach Project (CCOP) took me back to my childhood—and for company member Melenie too, for that matter! Longfellow's Wayside Inn in Sudbury, MA, is a beautiful historic site known for being the setting of Longfellow's popular story collection Tales of the Wayside Inn. The event was perfectly timed, syncing up with the inn's 300th anniversary, and though rain held us back from our original date, the final event was sunny, warm, and well attended. This marked my fifth CCOP with Luminarium, and thanks to a grant from the Sudbury Cultural Council and book sales from last year's CCOP, I had the funds to include live music, three outdoor dance performances, and a film projected on the grist mill's walls. While Kim's piece explored the land, mine honored the mill and the history of the inn. As a special surprise, my aunt brought my Noni to the performance. I can't remember the last time she saw my work, and it made the afternoon especially memorable for us both. View photos, videos, and testimonials from 300 Years here.

7. Performing "Phoenixial Cycle" at the Outside the Box Festival

Luminarium was thrilled to be selected for this monumental Boston festival, resurrecting my 2015 work Phoenixial Cycle outdoors on the Tremont Street Stage. Out of all the works we submitted, I'm glad it was this one the festival chose. Not only did it give me an opportunity to revisit the work as a choreographer, but it pushed me as a performer to step into Dream's lead role due to scheduling conflicts. I created this piece with the goal of making a work that physically tired its soloist in reality—not just through acting—as the work revolves around the concept of "burnout." Well, it seems I succeeded. For all the times I watched the company patting Dream on the back for a show well performed (drenched in sweat and breathing heavy), I couldn't fully commend her until performing the role myself. How demanding! Now add hot stage lights under a tent on a 100 degree day on the Boston Common... Was I out of breath? Yes. But was the experience worth it? Always.

8. The Sheep Shoot

Dancing in the countryside... Each year, Luminarium performs in the Wiscasset Art Walk, and in 2015, the company was dancing alongside several beautiful sheep photos in Sylvan Gallery when the artist, Nina Fuller, approached us with the possibility of doing a photoshoot with her sheep in the future. I followed up earlier this year, and on the way home from the 2016 art walk, Luminarium stopped at Nina's farm, where the company mingled with its inhabitants on and off camera. I can't say I've ever done a dance photo shoot quite like this one before. While most of the sheep were skittish, Brenda (seen above) and Emma helped ease our way into the herd. With 30 sheep, two horses, a rooster, a donkey, and a mini horse, Kim and I had a blast performing on Lily Brook Farm, while giving our company members a new experience for the books. View the full series here.

9. Collaborating with Composer Mali Sastri on "The Hostess Diaries"

With an abundance of funding for this year's CCOP, I decided to take on a new challenge: Creating a work that would debut at the Wayside, but that would also be relevant beyond that specific venue. Reading through the inn's old journal entries known as "the hostess diaries," I became acutely aware of history repeating itself. From fires, to wars, to harsh New England winters, many of the old entries ring true for modern times, yet even when describing challenges and moments of sadness, the journals also continuously reference beautiful flowers adorning the rooms, joyous new meetings of strangers telling stories by the hearth, and excitement as celebrities stopped at the inn on their travels.

I feel honored to have had the opportunity to work with the wildly talented musician Mali Sastri (of the Boston-based band Jaggery) on this project. My original intent was to choreograph the work, then have Mali create a soundscore to match, but, as luck would have it, my choreography had to be put unexpectedly on hold as Kim and I turned our focus to our new commission for TEDxCambridge instead. Mali and I met for coffee on several occasions throughout these months, during which she did her own research for inspiration, and in the end, her music was created first. We went back and forth a little, tweaking it as needed, before I dove into three intense rehearsals leading up to the Wayside Inn event to finish what I'd started. The end result was a deeply collaborative new work that seemed to resonate with its viewers.

The challenge (and excitement) came when bringing it indoors to the Boston University Dance Theater later in the season for Luminarium's feature production Portal: Stories from the Edge. Suddenly lighting, sound amplification, and staging became a larger focus. Giving cellist Jonah Sacks his own light and space upstage so as to highlight him (not hide him, as is often typical with live music at dance performances) and hooking Mali up to a lapel mic, the dancers and I tweaked the choreography to incorporate both musicians as active performers onstage. Mali wove in and out, calmly inserting herself into the choreography as if the symbolic keeper of time, all while singing her lyrics with gritty strength and honey-like fluidity. In the end, this work is the piece I'm most proud of this season (aside from the work Kim and I co-choreographed for the Opera House, of course!). Thank you to Mali for being such an inspiring collaborator, and to the dancers (Amy, Katie, Dream, Alison, and Melenie) for being open to discussion and input while making this historically-relevant work. (And for joining me with giddy enthusiasm to dance in hoop skirts!)

10. "We Create" 2016-17 Cohort

This final 2016 accomplishment is one that will continue to expand into the new year. My days are typically focused on creating new work for Luminarium, freelance writing assignments, and graphic design for work. Sadly, there are projects that find their way into my journal that don't necessarily fall into those categories. For this reason, I'm beyond grateful to have been chosen for the 2016-17 cohort of We Create—"an annual festival in Boston that features the works of a selected group of the most talented women artists in Massachusetts," founded in 2013 by Puerto Rican artist, Marsha Parrilla of Danza Orgánica. For this festival, I'm working with long-time friend and Harvard PhD candidate Jenny Zuk to build an installation piece celebrating the vibrancy of those with disabilities. With the theme of "hidden stories," it has been a moving experience to connect with my fellow cohort artists, as they each dive into their respective works.

Those are the highlights of 2016. Here’s to another fruitful season for all of us in 2017!

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