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, January 3, 2021

Top 10 Professional Highlights of 2020

Each January, I reflect on the top ten professional highlights that furthered my work throughout the prior year. 2020 was a challenge for all of us, yet I am delighted to recognize that this year was no exception in furthering my growth as an artist in the fields of dance, film, and design.


Luminarium Dance Company celebrated its monumental 10-year anniversary this season, hosting and participating in both live and virtual events across Greater Boston and New Jersey. The year kicked off with generous funding from the Boston Cultural Council, who continues to support our community-engaged work, and ended with one of our most successful Year End Appeals to date. Thank you to our supporters, audience members, collaborators, mentors, and (most importantly) dancers for making our vision a reality all these years. When Kim Holman and I founded this company back in 2010, we chose "Luminarium" as a name, as its definition is two-fold, stemming from the word “luminary,” which is defined as “a body that gives off light,” and more importantly, “sheds light on some subject or enlightens mankind.” Today, we are now an award-winning contemporary dance company, regularly hailed for our unique combination of dance, light, and enlightenment, and we thank you for helping us achieve this position in the dance community.

Merli V. Guerra's River Stories, 2020. Photo: Rider University.


I was thrilled to return as a guest choreographer for Rider University's 2020 Rider Dances production, as the dance department's students are truly some of the most hard-working, dedicated undergraduates with whom I've had the pleasure of working. Using shimmering fabric and classical Odissi-inspired movement vocabulary, this commissioned work for nine dancers interweaves storytelling, spatial patterning, and intricate rhythmic precision while evoking a sunset reflecting on the river.

Merli V. Guerra's ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQ—STUVWXYZ, 2020. Photo: John Evans.


I began the year continuing my work with Intellectual / Developmental Disability (I/DD) self-advocates across New Jersey. From September 2019 to March 2020, I conducted oral histories with these incredible people in collaboration with the Rutgers University MFA in Dance program and coLAB Arts organization. The resulting dance theatre work, ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQ—STUVWXYZ, calls attention to the struggles and accomplishments these self-advocates face. What daily dignities do we take for granted? What does "self-advocacy" mean to those in the I/DD community? Evoking moments of accomplishment and perseverance, ABC highlights the day-to-day overlaps of I/DD and neurotypical communities. This work was created in collaboration with Luminarium 2019 Satellite artists Paolo Arante, Emily Cornish, Nik Palivoda, Camilla Poniz, and Noah Teeling and served as Luminarium's annual Cultural Community Outreach Project. Stay tuned for future presentations of the work across the East Coast! 


In a year when my personal travel plans were canceled, it was exciting to witness my screendance films continuing to travel the globe. The One I Keep (2013), performed by long-time Luminarium company member Jessica Chang, has been featured in international festivals and periodicals including: WomenCinemakers - Special Edition (Berlin, Germany), ViDEOSKiN (Yukon, Canada), Cefalù Film Festival (Palermo, Italy), Women in Dance Leadership Conference (Philadelphia, PA, USA), and now Europa Film Festival (Barcelona, Spain / Resistencia, Argentina), in which it was honored to receive the "Best Experimental" film category award. Excitingly, the Boston Globe published this news and highlighted me as a "gifted filmmaker"—thank you, Boston Globe!


Luminarium's company members are deeply gifted individuals whose talents extend beyond the theater. Long-time company member Katie McGrail is additionally the Children's Services Coordinator at Beth Israel Lahey Health at Home and Assistant Director of Camp Erin Boston. Through this work, and her work as the pre-school group leader for HEARTplay After-School and HEARTplay West, Katie referred me to the organization as a graphic and web designer back in 2019. Since then, it has been a delight working with Katie and Jennifer Wiles—Director of HEARTplay, Camp Erin Boston, and Children's Services at Beth Israel Lahey Health At Home—on HEARTplay's many brochure, mailing, and most recently, website needs. I rarely take on freelance web design projects these days, due to the sheer number of hours required for such projects, but redesigning websites for inspiring organizations such as HEARTplay brings me joy and satisfaction that is difficult to pass up. Not familiar with HEARTplay? Take a peek at their newly redesigned website!


In December 2019, I premiered my latest screendance film For you, to mentor me at Luminarium's Season 9 feature production Luminarium in Concert. I was thrilled when this year the film was screened by the international SounDance Film Festival in Spain and Argentina, where it was awarded "Best Choreography" and "Best Narrative Dance"! Hailed by SounDance Film Festival as "a film brimming with love, grace and sensitivity," For you, to mentor me follows a mother-daughter relationship shifting over time, featuring a multigenerational cast of women ages 4 to 60, and newborns 11 to 19 days. Dance and film are used to highlight a growing young woman's thirst for independence, and a mother's desire to nurture, guide, and mentor. The Boston Globe praised the film as "poignant," and I am grateful to continue sharing its message with both Greater Boston and the international film scene.


In May, Luminarium partnered with Monkeyhouse to co-produce a national version of Luminarium’s 24-Hour ChoreoFest, supported by Monkeyhouse's Covid Collaborations project. Not only was this year’s ChoreoFest fully virtual, but it was our largest ChoreoFest yet with four weeks of participants and guest speakers joining us from across the country. We loved seeing our supporters tune in each weekend, sending in questions and engaging in post-performance Q&As, and feeling like a community amidst the isolation of quarantine.


In October, the National Dance Education Organization (NDEO) hosted its 2020 National Conference. Along with my MFA colleagues Amber Hongsermeier and Kimberlee Gerstheimer, our presentation "Community Engagement: Exploring Benefits from an Historical, Practical, and Social Work-Based Approach" was selected for the conference. As dance artists and educators, we presented a three-pronged approach to community-engaged dance, discussing historical context, contemporary examples, necessary logistical tools, and reciprocal benefits of this field of creative work. Including movement and group discussion, our presentation examined the past, present, and future of community-engaged dance while highlighting examples of Luminarium's decade of community engaged programming, and we were grateful to our attendees for joining us in this important dialogue.


Spain and Argentina weren't the only countries The One I Keep traveled to this past year. In October, it was screened at the 28th Quinzena de Dança de Almada International Dance Festival in Almada, Portugal. As our country continued to battle Covid-19 and navigate live performances and events, it was particularly moving and encouraging to see this international festival inviting viewers inside a physical theater, with our own film highlighted in the festival's promo reel! As the film's choreographer and cinematographer, I was asked to speak about this work for a special behind-the-scenes viewing for festival-goers, viewable here.


In a year with few in-person events, I was eager to work collaboratively with dance colleague (and 2020 ChoreoFest alum) Moriah Ella Mason on a site-specific outdoor work in Princeton, NJ. Throughout the summer and fall, we met on a wooden platform along the Delaware & Raritan Canal, generating choreographic material based on the canal's rich history. The final work, titled CANAL or Time is a Conveyor Belt and the Only Winners are these Basking Turtles, was created for both live performance and film, viewable from the trail across the water or by canoe / kayak from the canal itself. Thank you, Ella, for including me in this project!


I'm allowing myself an 11th item this year, as it's a large one: In October, I presented my MFA Thesis Prospectus for Rutgers University's faculty, staff, and my own thesis committee, and was thrilled to be promoted to candidacy. Each season, I lead Luminarium's Cultural Community Outreach Project (CCOP)—a custom-tailored annual event that integrates history, choreography, and the arts to celebrate a town’s cultural and historical landmarks. This year's project is a large-scale site-specific installation performance spanning 2020 through 2021 that focuses on the storied history of the colonnade at Princeton Battlefield State Park in Princeton, NJ, and it doubles as my thesis research for my MFA in Dance. The production will be presented in April 2021 using Augmented Reality to immerse visitors inside a series of choreographic works inspired by this history, and currently features the return of Luminarium Satellite company members Gabriella Boes, Victoria Kreutzer, and Nikola Palivoda, along with new Satellite members Dane Burch, Anna Fredeen, and Elizabeth Malone. It is one of the most challenging CCOPs I've tackled thus far, and equally engaging to work on as an artist. Stay tuned for further developments in 2021!

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Creative Projects for "Framily"

Over the past two years, I've managed to squeeze in some additional artistic projects not for my career, but for my "framily." Enjoy this sampling of creations that brought me joy to make, while pushing me to continue trying new things as an interdisciplinary artist. Simply click on each image to enlarge!

Botanical Seating Chart
Botanical Seating Chart. © Merli V. Guerra, 2019.

It isn't every day you get Elizabeth Taylor as your client! But at the point my college roommate Ellie saw the finished product hanging on the wall of her gorgeous barn wedding reception, she was now "Elizabeth Taylor." Perhaps it was three years of living within candy-throwing distance of me, or helping me with art projects around the campus, but for some reason, Ellie got it into her head that I could create a hand-painted, garden-themed seating chart for her upcoming wedding, despite the ever so small hurdle that...I'd never once painted. Lucky for Ellie, it turns out painting and drawing are two very different skills, and I quickly caught my stride. Voila! A hand-painted seating chart with garden beds mapping the table layout, and vintage botanical sketches denoting who sits where. Truly one of the most enjoyable design projects I've ever had the pleasure of taking on!

Garden Bed Painting. © Merli V. Guerra, 2019.
Botanical Seating Chart. Design © Merli V. Guerra, 2019.

Botanical Seating Chart. Design © Merli V. Guerra, 2019.

Cozy Turtle Nap Mat / Sleeping Bag
Cozy Turtle Nap Mat / Sleep Bag. Turtle Design © Merli V. Guerra, 2018.

In late-2018 I had the honor of helping two of our closest friends decorate their Hawaiian sea-themed nursery for their very first child. Not only did they trust me enough to design a full-wall mural, but Sean and I have had the joy of watching this little cutie grow into an adorable, active toddler. So what better way to welcome this smiley lil bumpkin than with a custom designed, handmade sea turtle nap mat that's also a sleeping bag? I'll admit this sucker was quite the challenge to build from scratch, but in the end, I wished I'd made it a wee bit bigger so I could thieve it for myself! With a plush pillow head, padded nap mat body, and blanket shell, this turtle is ready for daycare, preschool, and beyond. The tail might actually be my most favorite detail—allowing the turtle to button up into a bundle for easy transport. It's amazing how much smaller this cozy turtle seems to be getting every month, as this sweet boy keeps on growing!

Detailing. Turtle Design © Merli V. Guerra, 2018.

2.5 Weeks. Turtle Design © Merli V. Guerra, 2018.

4 Months. Turtle Design © Merli V. Guerra, 2018.

Whimsical Drawer Knobs
Whimsical Drawer Knobs. © Merli V. Guerra, 2019.

Not long after discovering I had basic painting skills, I offered my new-found services to another set of friends. They, too, were expecting their first child, and had scored a gorgeous, all-wood nursery bedroom set for a steal, minus the fact that it needed painting. While they tackled painting the dresser white, I offered to spruce up the old wooden knobs, as they'd been considering buying new, prettier ones. Using paint from my art supply closet and a clear lacquer spray, I dove into painting a sweet little collection of fanciful drawer knobs to welcome Baby T. into her nursery. The end result was far from a Monet, but paired with the whimsical animal prints above the dresser, they looked just perfect. Can't wait to see this chubby-cheeked cutie—and her brand new nursery—post-Covid!

Blue Pansy Drawer Knob. © Merli V. Guerra, 2019.

Butterfly Drawer Knob. © Merli V. Guerra, 2019.

Dragonfly Drawer Knob. © Merli V. Guerra, 2019.

Iris Drawer Knob. © Merli V. Guerra, 2019.

Marigold Drawer Knob. © Merli V. Guerra, 2019.

Sunset Peony Drawer Knob. © Merli V. Guerra, 2019.

Cornflower Drawer Knob. © Merli V. Guerra, 2019.

Pink Poppy Drawer Knob. © Merli V. Guerra, 2019.

White Pansy Drawer Knob. © Merli V. Guerra, 2019.

Daffodil Drawer Knob. © Merli V. Guerra, 2019.

Glory-of-the-Snow Drawer Knob. © Merli V. Guerra, 2019.

Orange Echinacea Drawer Knob. © Merli V. Guerra, 2019.

Plumeria Drawer Knob. © Merli V. Guerra, 2019.

White African Daisy Drawer Knob. © Merli V. Guerra, 2019.

Custom-Tailored Growth Chart
Design © Merli V. Guerra & Lovisa Lane, 2019.

Covid has prevented us from visiting Scruffy the bassador and his little sister for the last six months, so it's a good thing we gifted her a growth chart! With the inspiring and ever-enthusiastic Lovisa Lane as my partner, we embarked on creating a custom-tailored growth chart, choosing colors that matched the nursery, and creating stencils that tied in our friends' love of science and all the neighborhood pups—including actual heights of each of the dogs when playing, begging...and yes, counter surfing. The best part about a growth chart is you can take it with you when you move, which Team Scruffy has done three times in the past year alone!

Design © Merli V. Guerra & Lovisa Lane, 2019.

Design © Merli V. Guerra & Lovisa Lane, 2019.

Design © Merli V. Guerra & Lovisa Lane, 2019.

Design © Merli V. Guerra & Lovisa Lane, 2019.

Design © Merli V. Guerra & Lovisa Lane, 2019.

Rustic Boats: "Fetching" Home Decor
Rustic Sailboats. © Merli V. Guerra, 2018.

Long before tiny humans came on the scene, our pups had already brought us together with local neighbors who soon became fast friends. On one particular trip to the Poconos, I distinctly remember Sudarshan teasing me as Banksy, Ollie, and Scruffy raced around the lake fetching sticks, with me collecting them too! Driftwood DIY boat decor had been circling Pinterest for a while, so I decided to take it for a spin and make some pup-fetched keepsakes from our Poconos adventure to gift our friends. Now, we're the last family still living in the old neighborhood, while these sweet little (slightly chewed) boats have sailed out to NYC and Pennsylvania with Mr. Ollie and Sir Scruff.

Meet Me at the Nest Pillow
"Meet Me at the Nest" Pillow. Design © Merli V. Guerra, 2018.

Thinking back to when the first of our neighborhood friends moved on from a condo to a full-fledged house, I was beside myself. Ira and Shaina were moving from a home literally 20 steps away from ours to one 45 minutes by car. It may not seem like a large distance—and truly, it isn't—but nothing can replace the joyous spontaneity that arises when your friends are a short jog across the street... To help ease the disappointment, I stayed up one night cutting stencils and making them a house-warming pillow to remind them of their framily at "The Nest," as we all lovingly refer to our neighborhood. Now, this sentimental pillow sits invitingly (and colorfully!) against a stunning red chair in our friends' forever home. 

Banksy [Piranha-Puppy Nala] Guerra Connolly

It should be noted that in all but one of these instances, our friendships were initially started thanks to our sweet pup Banksy introducing herself and getting the conversation going. Thank you, Lady Banks, for continuing to bring such wonderful people into our lives, and for being patient with me every time I take over the living room floor with a new creative project.

Want to become Banksy's friend too? Follow her shenanigans @BanksySighting on Instagram!

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Something borrowed, something blue...

For me, marriage is about commitment and partnership. I never grew up dreaming of the perfect wedding nor what my dress might look like, and for a proposal, I insisted a Ring Pop was all I needed. (And a Ring Pop I got!) In my eyes, marriage was about the act of promising permanence, rather than the materialistic flourishes of a pricey wedding. 

But when Sean insisted on a traditional wedding rather than an elopement, I decided (in my typical scholarly manner) to research the origination of the popular rhyme "Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue."

First off, American brides are missing out on arguably the most exciting line of this old verse! It turns out the original English version includes a final line, "and a sixpence in her shoe," signaling financial prosperity. You better believe I found a sixpence to add to my conveniently hollowed shoes...though being the rebel I am, I went with an Australian sixpence boasting a kangaroo and an emu. (Because who doesn't want a kangaroo in their wedding?)

For something old and something new, I turned to jewelry—with a fresh pair of earrings and sophisticated bracelet by Kendra Scott for the "new," and my great-great-grandmother's bracelet for the "old," symbolizing lineage and family who could not be present at the event.

Yet "something borrowed" had me stuck. The tradition calls for brides to borrow an item from someone in a healthy marriage, in essence a role model. Meg and Bob Marsden immediately came to mind. As longtime neighbors of my parents (and essentially a third set of grandparents for me), I grew up popping by their home regularly to show them my latest Halloween costume or, in later years, to chat with Meg about the latest fashion trends while she pointed out the "handsome young men" jogging by (who she had stopped with her walker earlier that week to casually inquire if they were single!). Meg was a role model of brains, humor, and tenacity. Her sharp wit never left her, even as her body deteriorated with age, and the supportive steadfastness of her marriage with Bob never ceased to amaze me. I particularly recall one occasion in which Meg discussed this and even proffered me advice: "Wait until you're 30 to get married," she advised, "That's what I did. You don't know who you are as a person until you're 30, and that's the most important thing to know before you marry."

Fast-forward many years later to Sean and me driving down the highway to visit my mother in Concord, MA... I had just told Sean how I wished I had something physical to "borrow" from Meg beyond her excellent advice; something tangible. Not being a member of Meg's family, I had no physical token from our friendship after her passing, only the memories of moments shared. Sean heard me, and it was because of this car-ride conversation that we both stood eerily stunned in my childhood home a few minutes later when my mother handed me a perfectly preserved envelope, saying, "Look what I found in my stack of old files today! I was just about to shred everything, but decided at the last minute to sort through it—and look, somehow this note from Meg was in there!"

I couldn't believe the timing of its unburial. There, in my hands, was the physical token I had hoped for in this cheerful note from Meg (dated 14 years prior), allowing my fingers to touch the indentations of the ever-familiar luscious handwriting.

That night, Sean and I enjoyed Restaurant Week at a Concord restaurant neither of us had previously tried, and I ended the day by emailing my father in Paris to tell him of the note's synchronous unearthing. In the morning, I awoke to a reply with yet another overlapping—my parents had dined at that same restaurant only once: the day of Meg's funeral.

Wanting to keep Meg close during the wedding, I dashed to my local Joann Fabrics, and immediately spotted a beautiful blue lace that would be perfect for making a simple pocket on the inside lining of my dress to hold Meg's note during the ceremony. Without reading the label, I walked up to the cutting counter, was handed a slip of paper and my folded blue lace, and headed for the register. It wasn't until I began getting antsy in line that I finally noticed the name of the color blue I'd selected: "celestial" (synonyms: "heavenly," "ethereal"). "Ok, Meg," I whispered under my breath, "You don't have to be quite so obvious."

So although my desire for elopement was thwarted by my ever-traditional husband, I am grateful to have delved into the symbolism of this traditional verse to bring good tidings. The strength of Meg and Bob's marriage was present physically and metaphorically that August day, and as I tucked Meg's note into my dress that afternoon (while Sean waited under a celestial blue sky), I remember laughing and shaking my head upon finally realizing—in a matter of weeks, Sean and I would both be turning 30.

This entry is lovingly dedicated to Meg and Bob Marsden of Concord, MA. 

My Marbles on a quiet floor entry from 2012 speaks more about my wonderful friend Meg.