Trump-inspired Dance

ShaLeigh Dance Works performs ShaLeigh Comerford’s “I Promise” as part of Durham Independent Dance Artists’ third season.

Performances take place at 8 p.m. Friday (Dec. 15) and Saturday (Dec. 16) and 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Sunday (Dec. 17) at Durham Fruit & Produce, 305 S. Dillard St. Durham, NC.

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The Trump Presidency has provoked protests and other responses nationwide. In Durham, NC, it has also sparked creativity in the form of new work by contemporary dance choreographers.

The premiere of ShaLeigh Comerford’s “I Promise” this weekend (Dec. 15-Dec. 17) as part of Durham Independent Dance Artists (DIDA) third season marks the fourth such work influenced by the Trump-led Administration.

The other three works were also presented as part of DIDA’s third season.

First, Tommy Noonan performed his solo, “John”, (Oct 16-Octs. 17, 2016). He also performed “John” at the American Dance Festival this past summer (2017).

Then, Renay Aumiller premiered “boneglow” (June 2-June 4, 2017).

Also, Killian Manning debuted “Uncle Sam Wants YOU!!!” (Nov. 1-Nov. 5, 2017).

ShaLeigh Comerford clearly recalls the moment when her inspiration came. “When President-elect Trump mentioned that he wanted to build a wall, I knew it was time [to create a new dance]. The polarization was just skyrocketing,” Comerford said in a phone interview.

So, she assembled a six-member cast from different backgrounds, cultures/nationalities and focused on what they had in common rather than on what separated them.

“I was thinking more about common threads such as our flesh and bones,” she said.

Comerford titled her new work “I Promise” as a commitment to carry forth the mandate that Martin Luther King Jr. had expressed in his 1963 speech “I Have a Dream” in which he called for people to relate to each other with a sense of acceptance of difference instead of prejudice, Comerford added.

Since founding her company ShaLeigh Dance Works in 2005, Comerford has aimed for diversity in her performers.

“I was born [in Roanoke, VA] with an inclusive attitude,” she said, attributing this to the fact that she has mixed ancestry: Irish and Native American (Cherokee).

The [“I Promise”] cast had one really big conversation on the Trump Presidency. We wanted to create something good from [the] dark,” Comerford said.

“Everyone is so saturated with the negative every day,” the choreographer said of news coming out of the Trump Administration.

“Art gives people a chance to think and listen. It’s such a great place to question,” she said of how an audience can benefit from her work as well as other artists’ creations.

To create “I Promise,” Comerford had to change the way she has made dances in the past. Instead of solo-dominated, character-driven narratives, she focused on predominately ensemble work to illicit emotional responses from the audience, she has said.

The tension cast members had experienced as a result of actions taken by the Trump Presidency comes across in some of the visceral movements in “I Promise,” the choreographer added.

The ensemble work could suggest a tribal effort. The choreographer has said she finds hope in the way “I Promise” draws on the image of rebellion. “To rebel, you need something worth fighting for,” she said.

In addition to changing her approach to dance-making, Comerford also had to “build bridges” between the three dance vocabularies: modern, ballet and Gaga that she employs in her new work.

Comerford had traveled to Tel-Aviv, Israel to study the innovative movement language known as Gaga with its originator Ohad Naharin and the Batsheva Dance Company.

And, she has drawn on what she learned in work such as “Alo” that premiered during the first DIDA season (2014-2015). In it, when the group of dancers, on the floor, shake violently, this brings to mind one of the prompts used to train dancers in Gaga. In this prompt, dancers are asked to imagine that their bodies are spaghetti in boiling water. The aim of Gaga is to encourage dancers to move in new, unexpected ways and the effect can be quite startling in performances.

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