April 28, 2021

Choreographer Captures the Past in Unique Interdisciplinary Work

CLASHING IN FRONT OF THE COLONNADE: Dancers from Luminarium Dance Company portray warring soldiers in Merli V. Guerra’s production of “The Time Traveler’s Lens,” described as “an extended reality immersive performance illuminating the history of the Colonnade at Princeton Battlefield State Park.”

By Anne Levin

It would be an understatement to label Merli V. Guerra a Renaissance woman. The Lawrenceville-based choreographer, whose multi-disciplinary “The Time Traveler’s Lens” takes place in Princeton Battlefield State Park, has also been a graphic designer, a magazine art director, an interpreter at the Louisa May Alcott historic house in Concord, Mass., and a filmmaker.

She is currently a candidate for an interdisciplinary master’s of fine arts degree in dance at Rutgers University. “The Time Traveler’s Lens” debuted April 19, in celebration of Patriot’s Day, on the website of Luminarium Dance Company, the troupe Guerra co-founded and directs. It is a five-video series that is serving as her thesis.

“I’ve been creating these pieces since 2012 with my dance company,” said the 33-year-old native of Concord, Mass. “I find different historic sites and express those sites through dance, in a new way. This one uses 360-degree videography and interdisciplinary choreography to create this extended reality production.”

Viewers can see “The Time Traveler’s Lens” through mobile phones as “augmented reality,” either on the battlefield grounds or elsewhere. The videos are available for watching on smartphones or other devices.

Many of Guerra’s dances, films, and video art installations are site-specific. Her company has performed at a water tower in Arlington, Mass.; the New England Quilt Museum in Lowell, Mass.; the Seacoast Fringe Festival in Portsmouth, N.H.; her alma mater Mount Holyoke College; and elsewhere.

Princeton joined the list when Guerra became fascinated by the Colonnade in Battlefield State Park, the site of the 1777 Battle of Princeton that helped turn the tide of the Revolutionary War. The Colonnade is the surviving section of a mansion that once stood on Arch Street in Philadelphia. It was designed by Thomas Ustick Walter, the architect of the U.S. Capitol Building. The Philadelphia mansion was demolished in 1900 and the columns were moved to Princeton where they adorned a mansion known as Mercer Manor, which was demolished in 1957. They serve today as a marker for the nearby gravesite of 36 unnamed American soldiers.

Guerra had moved to Lawrenceville with her husband four years ago when he got a job with Bristol Myers Squibb. He was here first, and he told her about the columns.

“Before I moved here, he had come down for an internship, and would tell me, ‘There is this beautiful architectural ruin in Princeton that is just screaming you,’” Guerra said. “When I moved down, and was working at Princeton University Press, I would pass it every day. I knew it would be a huge undertaking to do a piece about it, because it has so much history, so I put it on hold. I didn’t want to rush things.”

When Guerra began her thesis work a year ago, she started thinking about the Colonnade again. The thesis “surrounds this idea of ‘palimpsest,’ which is an act of when you’ve written something and you erase it, and write over it, and you can still make out what is underneath,” she said. “I thought the Colonnade would be perfect. Because with historic sites like that, I try to look at what they are like now but also go into the past, through layers of time, and make them new again.”

Dance is only part of the equation in Guerra’s work. But it is the key component. She studied ballet and modern dance before discovering Indian dance, which became her focus. She performed professionally with an Indian dance company before coming back to Boston.

“I felt there wasn’t a company doing anything with video and dance in the way I wanted to do,” she said. “I didn’t feel like the Boston scene had the type of interdisciplinary performance I was looking to accomplish.”

With a fellow alumnus from Mount Holyoke who shared her interests, Guerra started Luminarium. She formed a satellite company in New Jersey when the pandemic put a stop to her travels back and forth between Lawrenceville and Boston.

“These six dancers are all incredibly talented and very open-minded,” Guerra said. “For one part of the piece, I asked them to paddle board up the D&R Canal. They were all ready to do it. None of them fell off, but I learned very quickly that they were not very good at paddling.”

Once she decided to focus on the Colonnade in Battlefield State Park, Guerra began talking to the National Park Service. “I got a wonderful tour from Will Krakower, who was a huge help to me,” she said. “He found an old newspaper clipping that said the columns were shipped on canal boats up the D&R Canal in 1901. A lot of people don’t know that history.”

Guerra describes the movement in the work as “a hint of classical Indian. But that being said, one of the pieces is based on the Battle of Princeton, and it is a very acrobatic duet,” she said. “What’s fantastic is one of the dancers has a background in color guard, so he knows military-based color guard tricks and flourishes. The other one is much more of a modern dancer, who has a focus on tumbles and barrel turns. He’s the American, because they are so scrappy. The other one is the British soldier. While I guided a lot of the movement, a good amount came directly from them. They were excited about that.”

A goal of Guerra with “The Time Traveler’s Lens” is to get people to go to the park. It is free to watch at the site via mobile devices. To view it remotely, there is a $10 fee. Either way, “You see layers coalescing all at once,” Guerra said. “There is no first, second, or third piece. I wanted people to choose their own adventure.”

Visit luminariundance.org/time for access.