“Perhaps someday you will see our company members falling out of the sky in formation with internally-lit parachutes…”
Dancer Jess Chang interpreting “Cynthia Star” by Janet Elwin
“There are no lines in nature”, Eduoard Manet said, “only areas of color.” This may be true, but as a writer I am sympathetic to lines; they are directional, like nerves in the human body. They keep things neat, and they illustrate the energy and definition of a form. Quilter and Dancer Merli Guerra tested this statement at the coalface, reverse-engineering Manet’s statement in real life by translating two dimensions into three, when she attempted to “show the movement of a quilt” by representing the quilts’ spectral arrangements using the linear orientation of her dancers’ muscles, nerves and bones. She partnered with the New England Quilt Museum and curator Pam Weeks to project six of the quilts at NEQM’s Silk! exhibition onto her dancers’ bodies for Threading Motion Project, and somehow managed to give the quilts a sinuous life and movement of their own.
Luminarium is now three years old, and Merli and her co-founder Kimberleigh Holman, two young graduates of Holyoke dance school, still playfully push boundaries by blending dance, video and other forms of art in projects that center around light. It was a supermoon solstice the weekend of Luminarium’s Gala and I knew that their previous show Mythos Pathos had mysteriously escaped the power outage that affected many parts of Cambridge. “There might be something in that” said Merli, on the connection between the two. After the show I caught up with Kim and Merli to talk about choreography, breaking a company curse and some cryptic spoilers for a September performance called Secrets and Motion:
Luminarium interpreting “Gilding the Arbor” by Bethanne Nemeshand
What’s the reason that you both decided on Luminarium as a name for the company?
At the point of our founding, it became obvious to us that calling our company Holman & Guerra would sound far more like a law firm than a dance company. At that early stage, when we looked at the many mediums through which the two of us work, and considered the overlap between them, we recognized that our company’s underlying mission was to combine dance and light in a more integral way than most dance companies currently do. The hunt then turned to finding a name that would embody that presence of light in our work, and one long thread of emails later, the name “Luminarium” became a favorite among our early collaborators. The second half of the word Luminarium also alludes to a place, like in a locational sense. We like to think of our audience as being this place- we present a venue filled with dance, light, illuminated ideas for viewers to mull over and consider as a part of their audience experience. Over the years, these meanings continue to be a grounding focus of our work, and we’re thrilled to consistently receive glowing feedback (no puns intended) on the name and its relationship to our work!
What forms of dance do you incorporate in your choreography? Is it anything goes or is there some special ingredient that sets Luminarium apart from other companies?
Merli interpreting “Chasm” by Judith Content
“At the point of our founding, it became obvious to us that calling our company Holman & Guerra would sound far more like a law firm than a dance company.”
This is a great question. All previous dance training finds a way into our work at various times, be it intentional or subconscious. Merli has a background in ballet, modern, and Classical Indian Dance (Odissi style). As a result, her work often incorporates extensive use of the hands and face, creating an almost gestural component to the work. Kim merges her background in modern and various styles of jazz dance with a love for being off balance or upside down and the feeling of adrenaline. This combination leads to work that is constantly unravelling through the stage space in a large and ever-shifting way. We also have fantastic dancers with widely varied backgrounds of their own, and we enjoy working to their strengths to highlight Luminarium choreography.
In some of your pieces there is a delightful element of physical comedy, as if you are parodying some of the traditional interactions between male and female dancers – the lifts are done in a really unexpected way, I’m thinking particularly of your pieces It was 4am… or “Everything but Blue” when the lifts seem to have a “ta-da” quality to them. How much of this is intentional, and how much do you find inspiration in comedy and the comic potential of dance itself?
It all depends on the piece. There are many moments in our more serious work in which a difficult lift is accomplished seamlessly so that the audience merely enjoys the bodies in motion. Yet in the world of comedy, an easy lift can suddenly have a hilarious turn when giving our dancers the freedom of exaggeration. In the case of “It was 4am…”, the piece was as fun and comedic to make as it was to perform and watch. In “Everything but Blue’ there is a sort of comedy showcased, but it is borderline unintentional. Kim originally created this work for the stage (it was made into a film soon after), and the piece was intended an eight minute escape from the confines of everyday life and the typical theatrical viewing experience. Party dresses, ridiculous movement, trippy abstract jazz were paired together with serious intent, the humor was an accepted side effect. No one is immune from taking themselves too seriously, and every now and then it’s nice to create with no mental inhibitions or worries.
What sparked the idea of choreographing dances for the Quilt Museum?
Merli V. Guerra and Kimberleigh Holman
Merli actually just wrote a short blog entry for the Quilt Alliance answering this very question. To complement the filmed Quilt Vignettes, Kim decided to present a live piece in the museum space. While Merli was inspired by beautiful individual quilts, Kim found a broad sense of inspiration with similarities in creative process. She set three dancers, a trumpet player and a bassist, original poems and sixty feet of teal silk amidst the quilts in the museum, exploring the phases of preparation, process and product.
You seem to be attempting to bridge a lot of mediums in your shows – between video, sound and light – is there anything totally crazy that you’ve done or want to do that has never been attempted? I know the Andromeda piece (wearable lighting) seems to have been quite an undertaking…
Honestly, while we blend together a variety of mediums, things are typically created fairly organically. We don’t go out of our way to dream up elaborate schemes, as this could get gimmicky quite fast, but if a new piece lends itself to something outrageously beyond the norm we aren’t afraid to pursue it. In this sense, some of our ideas aren’t derived initially from dance. Perhaps we work off of a lighting idea or effect, a technical concept for a film, or a visual, sound or piece of music and then we create choreography that fits. Every piece has its own process and its own elements, and while we can’t predict where the future will take our work, perhaps someday you will see our company members falling out of the sky in formation with internally-lit parachutes… perhaps….!
What is the curse of the Urns Piece and how did Katie break it?
This would probably be too hard to explain in writing. Or, it would sound too ridiculous. We encourage anyone reading this to attend one of our shows and ask us in person… perhaps we will let you in on the tale!
You do a lot of outreach with Luminarium. How do you feel that dance can benefit kids and non-dancers? One of the teachers in a school you worked with mentioned something about the healing power of dance. What is this? How can we avail of it ourselves?
Most people don’t realize dance is more than a final product or a moment on stage. To dance is to express the inner thoughts, feelings and impulses of your body (to perform choreography is, of course, another thing entirely), and everyone should have the opportunity to do this. Dancing can allow you to process events in a nonverbal fashion, lead to self-discovery, and at minimum provide a great physical release. Part of our mission as an organization is to constantly give back to our community, especially to give youth the chance to try dance in a ‘safe’ environment and the opportunity to create movement themselves. Beyond learning how to move in new ways, we strive to let our participants know that world isn’t so rigid; answers aren’t right or wrong. If you don’t have the opportunity to pop into a dance class or try your hand at a composition class, block off a moment to sit, lay or stand in your living room, close your eyes, and let your body dictate what it wants to do.
I don’t want to give away – ahem – too many spoilers on your upcoming show Secrets and Motion, but can you tell us a little bit about it?
We can divulge a bit! Secrets & Motion is our large fall production: it will consist of several brand new pieces that have been carefully woven together. The show is obviously based on secrets but these are used in many different ways. Without giving away too much, we can say that you might see anything from historical secrets to contemporary secrets (some donated from this very community), written to whispered, or even depictions of how secrets are used as communication or affect those affiliated with them. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll marvel at our intriguing visual elements… you get the point! We are excited for the production’s debut at the Armory, September 13-15. Keep an eye on our Facebook page and various social media profiles, website and blog for more details and opportunities to get intimately involved with the show! For now, check out www.LuminariumDance.org/secrets