Dance and photography converge to 'Dis/Re-member' war-torn Laos
A new exhibition at Art Produce — viewable from the sidewalk — features Doug McMinimy's photography of choreographer Khamla Somphanh's powerful work.
At dusk, against the rapidly dimming light of the sky, Art Produce gallery's floor-to-ceiling windows practically glow from the sidewalk of University Avenue in North Park.
Inside, larger-than-life photographs adorn the walls nearest the windows. Shown is a single dancer, captured by photographer Doug McMinimy, performing a recent work of choreography by local Khamla Somphanh. Closest to the front windows, two near-mirror images of the dancer — Lauren Christie — are set directly across from each other, one with her eyes open, one closed.
Somphanh's choreography is about her home country of Laos, and the fact that Laos is the most bombed nation per capita in the world.
The statistics are astonishing: in the 1960s and 1970s, during a CIA mission in Laos amidst the Vietnam War, some two million tons of explosives were dropped on the small nation. Just one percent of these bombs were detonated, and 80 million remain undetonated, effectively landmines scattered across the small country.
Somphanh was commissioned to create a piece for San Diego Dance Theater — but given the pandemic it made the most sense to choreograph a work for a solo dancer. She also couldn't imagine working on a piece that was frivolous, and felt compelled to tell the story of Laos.
"Former President Trump was our president at the time, and one of the first things that he did when he came into term was to remove initiatives that President Obama had instilled with the country of Laos," Somphanh said. "That was heavy on me. And it had also been heavy because I wasn't able to see my parents [in Laos]. I was worried about them."
Somphanh said that the bombs are undeniable and a part of every day life in Laos — in their omnipresence in the landscape, but also in their continuing tragedies.
The choreographed work, "Purposely Accidental," debuted in a virtual production in November 2020, and was also performed in-person in an outdoor Liberty Station showcase last spring. The virtual performance is no longer viewable online, so for now — until future performances are scheduled — a collection of photographs in a small art gallery is the only way to experience the work.
Eight images — printed on durable, adhesive-backed vinyl by local printer John Mireles — are arranged on the floor in a taped-off grid.
"[It's] an allusion to a grid you would make in a field when you're trying to clear it from mines," photographer Doug McMinimy said.
The images also afford a perspective that audiences may otherwise never get during a performance — both profoundly up-close and from above.
"By placing the photos on the floor, I wanted to give us just the faintest echoes of that anxiety as well, that you're suddenly very aware of where you're stepping," McMinimy said.
As he was working with the images after the shoot, he realized there was another chilling meaning he didn't intend: "As I started to look at them and work with them, I realized this is a bomb's eye view of the individual," McMinimy said.
McMinimy found Somphanh's choreography profoundly meaningful, but also, more than any other performance he'd photographed as a professional photographer, this piece lent itself particularly well to static images.
"There was something about the very strong gestural material in the dance that translates so well into a still image," McMinimy said. "Some dance, like for example, pirouettes — I've photographed a lot of pirouettes — I rarely find them very compelling as still images. They're very compelling as movement. So you have to find those things that translate into a still photograph."
Initially, McMinimy said he'd wanted to capture Somphanh's work chronologically, from start to finish. But the more he worked with the images — and the more time that passed from the day he shot the performance — the story took a new shape.
"The images impose their own logic," McMinimy said.
The title of the exhibition refers to both the meaning of Somphanh's dance as well as the act of deconstructing and reconstructing a choreography using still images. The exhibition feels far from static, though. McMinimy's photography, Somphanh's creativity and dancer Christie's expressive gestures seem to hum with momentum.
McMinimy took a circuitous route to get to the opening of this particular exhibition. First a dancer, he eventually turned to photography after primarily leaving dance to work and raise a family. At the time, he was living in rural Maine, and built his passion for photography in nature, walking his dogs near Acadia National Park.
It wasn't until he moved to San Diego that he began branching out into documenting dance performance.
"The flora is totally different here. The light is totally different here. None of that really worked with me, and I thought, 'What am I going to do with my photography?' And I realized I didn't have any decent photographs of me when I was dancing, and maybe that's what I should be doing for other people. So that's when I decided to kind of make myself into a dance photographer," McMinimy said. "Dance photography is kind of a homecoming."
McMinimy shot the performance when San Diego Dance Theater produced the piece outdoors, then collaborated with dancer Lauren Christie and Somphanh on a separate shoot, specifically for this project.
A choreographer is no stranger to handing off a personal, creative product to another artist — the relationship between choreographer and dancer is essentially transactional. Audiences add additional layers of interpretation.
"I think in the creative process, we have to trust what and how things come out. We can have an approach, but that's part of what we do because art is alive," Somphanh said.
While the images can mostly be viewed from the sidewalk, making an appointment to see the work indoors means visitors can step amidst the floor photography, and hear the dance's soundtrack and audio of a speech to the people of Vientiane, Laos by President Obama in 2016.
For now, the gallery, McMinimy and Somphanh are still determining what programming or artists talks they can pull off — the exhibition opened without a reception due to concerns about the current omicron surge. The exhibition will be on view through Jan. 29.
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