With “I Promise,” ShaLeigh Dance Works addresses the nation’s polarization

Shaleigh Dance Works performed an excerpt of "I Promise" in Charlotte's Duke Energy Theatre in September. You can see the full-length work Dec. 15 to 17 in Durham.Dick Costa

How does our nation move forward when it seems like everyone is so divided politically and culturally?

That’s the kind of question that inspired ShaLeigh Comerford, artistic director of Durham’s ShaLeigh Dance Works, to create her latest work “I Promise.”

“It became a philosophical journey into a response to all the polarization we’re feeling,” Comerford said.

You can see the world premiere of the evening-length work at warehouse-turned-arts space Durham Fruit & Produce Company Dec. 15 to 17. Tickets start at $20 and can be purchased here, and you can watch a trailer for “I Promise” here.

Eight dancers, whose backgrounds include skill sets from ballet to martial arts, will move as one during “I Promise” as well as break into duets and trios throughout the piece’s four sections, which emphasize imagery of rioting, rebellion and togetherness.

Dec 15-17 at The Fruit in Durham NC! Tickets here: shaleighdanceworks.com/i-promise @didaseason #shaleighdanceworks #ipromise

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The work is partially a response to “I Have a Dream,” the famous speech delivered by Martin Luther King, Jr. during the 1963 March on Washington.

“I was thinking about how Martin Luther King, Jr. handled the civil rights epidemic,” Comerford said. “Instead of being a part of the conflict, he found a way of being a part of change. I was asking myself what is so special about ‘I Have a Dream?’ It takes you out of your opinion and takes you into what you wish you could see.”

Anthony Nelson, one of Shaleigh Dance Works’ six members, agrees with that correlation.

“‘I Promise’ is both a response that yes, I promise to keep this alive, but it’s also a response to everything that has happened since ‘I Have a Dream,'” Nelson said.

“I Promise” is more than a dance to him — its movements have touched him deeply, especially during the final scene.

“It’s the very last image the audience will see when the lights fade,” Nelson said. “We’re tapping on our hearts, that’s all I’ll say. … In rehearsal a couple of days ago, going through the movement, I just started crying. I think the audience will be very moved.”

Connecting movement and emotion is one of Comerford’s biggest focuses. One of her main influences is time she spent in Israel studying with Ohad Naharin of Batsheva Dance Company.

“He created a movement language called ‘Gaga,'” Comerford explained. “What I learned in Israel I’ve synthesized with all my other training and created a way for the company find commonalities that don’t focus execution or form but how to connect to shared sensation in the body.”

Comerford started ShaLeigh Dance Works (“ShaLeigh” is pronounced like “Raleigh”) in 2005 with a premiere in Greensboro. She decided to restart it in 2014 (between moving to New York City in 2006 and traveling to countries from Belgium to Japan honing her craft, she didn’t have much time).

Comerford grew up in Roanoke, Virginia — where she was choreographing her siblings at the tender age of 6! — and earned a master’s in visual and performing arts from Hollins University, also in Roanoke.

Durham, though, has always had a special place in her heart.

“The American Dance Festival is phenomenal,” she said. “I got a great education from them and have been a part of the six-week dance school numerous times.”

In fact, Comerford is dedicating the performances to “father figure” John Brinkman, former ADF costume designer, who passed away earlier this month.

ShaLeigh Dance Works will travel to New York City to perform an excerpt of “I Promise” at the Association of Performing Arts Professionals’ annual conference on Jan. 13.

“I Promise” World Premiere

When: Friday, Dec. 15, 8 p.m.; Saturday, Dec. 16, 8 p.m.; Sunday, Dec. 17, 3 and 7 p.m.
Where: (The Fruit) Durham Fruit & Produce Company, 305 S. Dillard St., Durham
Tickets: Prices start at $20; buy tickets here (VIP tickets that include an opening wine and cheese reception with Comerford before the show plus reserved seating are available for $35)

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