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 2021

Every January, I take some time to compile all of the previous year's professional highlights and determine the top ten. Each time I do this, it begins with me saying the same thing: "I didn't accomplish anything this year professionally. How embarrassing that I won't even hit ten..." And yet, by the end of this annual ritual, I inevitably find myself surprised at how many steps forward I actually did take and, fortunately, this Covid-ridden year was no different!


2021 marked my third year choreographing for Rider Dances as a Guest Choreographer at Rider University. While Rider Dances 2020 remains one of my last in-person performances pre-pandemic shutdown, Rider Dances 2021 was 100% virtual. Rather than create a traditional screendance, I employed my newfound 360 videography editing skills to create a new virtual reality work titled Kaleidoscope. This short, 360-degree VR dance experience celebrates diversity and individuality, while reuniting dancers across multiple continents, time zones, and Covid quarantine statuses. You can experience Kaleidoscope in 360 here.


On April 19, 2021 (Patriot's Day), I launched The Time Traveler's Lens—my first AR/VR immersive performance illuminating the history of the colonnade ruins at Princeton Battlefield State Park in Princeton, NJ. Serving as both my MFA thesis work and Luminarium's 2021 Cultural Community Outreach Project, The Time Traveler's Lens invites parkgoers and remote viewers to experience five 360-degree extended reality (XR) films that merge history, technology, and contemporary dance into an immersive performance unfolding around them. As a former historical interpreter at Louisa May Alcott's Orchard House (Concord MA) and Paul Revere House (Boston MA), I am thrilled that this work is now a permanent feature of Princeton Battlefield State Park per invitation of the NJ State Park Service. Whether you're a Jersey local or on the other side of the globe, I invite you to experience The Time Traveler's Lens's five 360-degree XR films here.


April was a busy month. Not only did The Time Traveler's Lens become accessible to the public both onsite in Princeton NJ and remotely elsewhere, but I was invited to present on the work twice. I first presented "Heritage in Motion" at Our World Heritage's international Globinar 2.0, discussing my MFA research and decade of interdisciplinary work with dance and historic preservation in relation to my annual Cultural Community Outreach Project and The Time Traveler’s Lens. The presentation resulted in meaningful dialogues with organizations in California, Connecticut, Canada, and Benin (West Africa) to discuss possibilities for collaboration between my work and their own historic sites. I next presented “The Time Traveler's Lens: Using AR/VR and Choreographic Tools to Enliven Historic Ruins” for Harvard University Virtual/Augmented Reality (HUV/AR), a group of staff and faculty who are all exploring 360-degree, 3D, and immersive spaces at Harvard University. Again, the presentation has since resulted in fascinating dialogues with researchers at the university.


Also in April 2021, I created a new screendance film. Dance with Violoncello and Electronics was written by composer and colleague Melika M. Fitzhugh as a music/choreography collaboration with me back in 2017. The piece was reworked for film this spring, with myself as performer and played by internationally-acclaimed cellist Madeleine Shapiro. The film made its international debut at the prestigious New York City Electroacoustic Music Festival (2021), and was additionally screened as part of the international Global Water Dances event (2021). Choreographically, this work explores the quiet existence of water as it relates to community and ecosystem, performed in relationship to a manmade pond in central New Jersey, USA. Although manmade, this pond serves as a life force for wildlife ranging from deer to herons to water striders, and is a daily sanctuary for its human neighbors as well. Here, dance and sound echo the essence of this body of water—at times tumultuous, at others serene.


In May, I officially defended my thesis and received my MFA in Dance from Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University. My thesis explores what I have termed as the “palimpsest of self.” The term palimpsest originally refers to writing that has been rubbed out, yet traces of it remain. My creative and scholarly research investigates the notion that self can be viewed as a layered entity, much like how tree rings or rock striations illustrate a visual history or palimpsest of the whole. My current research expands on this by examining past identities of an historic site, while employing a combination of site-specific choreography, film, and 360-degree virtual/extended reality tools to create a viewing experience that is both immersive and co-produced between the participant and myself. 

A huge thank you goes out to all the faculty, staff, and dancers who were involved in my thesis work; to my cohort-mates for their camaraderie; and to the incredible family and friends who attended my defense for their virtual support—thank you!


July through August, I was thrilled to have my choreography like mercury in the palm of my hand included in Gallery 263's regional exhibition Chasing Light, which featured the work of 31 artists from across New England who utilize light as material or subject matter. This show was juried by Leah Triplett Harrington, curator for Now + There and editor-at-large of Boston Art Review. My 2019 duet like mercury began as an artistic abstraction of the “Janus molecule,” whose rare properties make it both medicinal and lethal. It has since grown to encompass the Panoptic nature of the microscope, observing versus being observed, and the implications of exposure. The piece is performed by Luminarium artists Victoria Kreutzer and Karina McKenna.


In August, I was fortunate to travel across Tanzania with local big cat biologist Sosy Maira (The Wild Source) creating a series of site-specific screendances in response to the ecosystems of Tarangire, Ngorongoro, and Serengeti National Parks. These "kinetic journal" entries take inspiration from the parks' landscapes, inhabitants, and daily events. All but one are now complete—stay tuned for their official release in 2022!


I was delighted to present my work with dance and technology at this year's Rider Dance Day—an annual event for current and prospective students at Rider University. Speaking alongside my impressive colleague Yoshi Tanokura, my presentation focused on the work I created on Rider students earlier that year (Kaleidoscope) using 360-degree videography and editing. As always, it was a joy to watch viewers engage with this virtual reality work, as their movements while twisting and turning to watch were equally choreographic in nature!


In the past, I would have listed each of these international film screenings as its own top-ten achievement, but 2021 was rich with film festivals both here and abroad. Instead, I'll consolidate them into one, noting that my films made their Japanese, Indian, and Georgian debuts this year, in addition to a myriad of other exciting screenings around the globe. Also of note, The One I Keep was awarded “Best Experimental of 2020” and For you, to mentor me was awarded “Best Art Narrative of 2020” at Teknochat Festivals’ VIP Fest: Best of 2020 in Barcelona, Spain, and Resistencia, Argentina, at the start of 2021!

The One I Keep and What seems so is transition, 7ArtsCafe Women in Dance Film Festival – Yokohama, Japan

For you, to mentor me, Visualis Film Festival – St. Petersburg, Russia

          like mercury in the palm of my hand in Chasing Light, Gallery 263 – Cambridge MA

In Revolution, Show Up & Dance – Verona NJ

Dance with Violoncello and Electronics, New York City Electroacoustic Music Festival – New York City NY

Dance with Violoncello and Electronics, Global Water Dances – International event

Passage, Crown Wood International Film Festival – Kolkata, India

The One I Keep, Circe Dance Film Exhibition – Tbilisi, Georgia

For you, to mentor me and The One I Keep, Teknochat Festivals’ VIP Fest: Best of 2020 – Barcelona, Spain, and Resistencia, Argentina
“Best Art Narrative of 2020” Film Award (For you, to mentor me)
“Best Experimental of 2020” Film Award (The One I Keep)

For you, to mentor me, Sensus Film Festival – St. Petersburg, Russia


Having taught master classes across the Northeast over the past decade and acted as a Guest Choreographer at various universities, I'm no stranger to working with students in higher education. Yet, to be hired as an Adjunct Assistant Professor at both Rutgers University and Rider University in 2021 to teach full semester-long courses on choreography, I found myself deeply fulfilled. I feel honored that these institutions view me as someone capable of this role. The students I worked with across both semesters were open and eager to learn. I so enjoyed helping these students further their own choreographic voices through this process, and look forward to future opportunities to help young choreographers navigate their artistic paths and grow. Thank you to my students for your willingness to experiment, laugh, and dig deep! (Above: My Rider students with my famous pup Banksy!)

And that's a wrap! Here's to another year of "not accomplishing anything professionally" in 2022!


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!