Sunday, November 16, 2014

Behind-the-Scenes: From Director Merli V. Guerra's Sketchbook

For those of you who attended Luminarium's 4th Anniversary Gala & Showcase back in June, you may remember seeing your first sneak peek of The Sleeprunner, with a solo set on Katie McGrail, revealed from underneath a sheet as she struggles to sleep.

When I first set this solo I didn't yet anticipate that it would continue beyond the two minutes Katie then performed. It wasn't until my third week into being Green Street Studios' pilot Choreographer in Residence (in tandem with Kim) that I was able to delve further into the realm of sleep vs. sleeplessness. With mentors Jean D'Urbano and Wendy Lawson present for my weekly showing, I performed a new solo, and the three of us discussed at length the bigger picture questions of where we go when we sleep, who we are in that moment, and how this solo could be extrapolated into a larger group. Thus began my new quartet Insomni.

Gabriella Pacheco and Katie McGrail in rehearsal for Insomni, Scene II of The Sleeprunner.

For anyone who knows me, Sleep and I have never had a stable relationship. As a child I had night terrors, as a teen my parents frequently found me sleepwalking in circles around the kitchen table, in college I was teased relentlessly for my full-out comatose conversations in the middle of the night, and now as an adult I am consistently battling my way to sleep after hours of tossing and turning--trying to "shut off" my creative brain. In fact, it wasn't until about nine months ago that I once got a night of sleep so solid that I woke up in the morning to find the air in front of me eerily crystal clear and my brain fully charged--an incredible feeling that I will probably be chasing for the next quarter century!

How does this relate...well, as a choreographer I find that I am often driven to create new work symbolically. My forte is not in the movements themselves, but rather in the thoughts behind them, driving them. For this new work, I came into the studio with only a vague sense of who these three other dancers were as they crawled onstage from the shadows to join Katie in her fretful slumber. Yet as my work with Amy, Rose, and Gabby unfolded, I began to find myself somewhat confused by these strange little "sleep gremlins" as I affectionately called them, and found myself struggling to understand why I was compelled to create these characters, and why Katie at moments was allowed to coax them into slumber themselves. It was not until a fresh set of eyes peering over my shoulder led to a description that has since helped me finish the work: "You know," he said, "this reminds me of the hierarchy of thoughts that keeps my brain from quieting down when I'm trying to go to sleep." Ah ha--hierarchy! (Thank you, Sean Connolly.) With this new way in which to view my own work, I now knew how to approach my dancers, promptly telling Katie to think of Gabby as "that simple chore you can easily check off the list washing that dish in the sink." I then pegged Rose as the next tier ("doing your laundry") and handed Amy the title of Head Sleep Gremlin ("doing your taxes"). With this new hierarchy of gremlinage in place, the five of us confidently and swiftly banged out the final seven minutes of the piece.

Katie McGrail finds herself caught in a struggle against the Sleep Gremlins of her brain...
Insomni, Scene II of The Sleeprunner.

So while I won't leave you with the ending (sorry, you'll have to come see the show to see how the Gremlin vs. Katie battle plays out), I'll give you one final fun behind-the-scenes trick to viewing Insomni when it debuts December 5th. I gave myself a new choreographic challenge (or rubric, really) while working on this quartet. In order to further enhance the feeling of being stranded between sleep and sleeplessness, whenever the hands are guiding the dancers' movements, the right hand is always the instigator while the left hand is calming the dancer back to sleep. It may sound like a nitpicky detail, but it creates for the performer a sense of duality within the body as one side consistently awakens as the other attempts to relax... And now it will be our little secret (for those of you who read this entry) to keep your eye out for this as you watch the scene unfold!

Enjoy the show,

Merli V. Guerra, Artistic Director

December 5 . 6 . 12 . 13 @ 8pm
Multicultural Arts Center, Cambridge MA

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