Spaced more than twenty feet apart, dancers Ay-Jaye Nelson and Majid Bastani lean forward and reach toward each other. Tension builds as they exchange longing looks before they run into a fierce embrace. But, rather than parting, their hug only intensifies in the moments that follow. As the dancers intimately grapple at center stage, each desperately stretches his arms behind and beyond his partner, toward two dancers who are now reaching out from opposite corners of the stage.
Finally, the two men force their way past each other and violently embrace the two new dancers running toward them. The new pairs hug, intensify, and struggle as before. They keep reaching past their partners toward new ones, a procession of insatiable need repeating through a seemingly endless line of partners, always waiting, always grasping.
"It's such a terrifying thing," choreographer ShaLeigh Comerford says about her unsettling new evening-length work, I Promise. "Easily, it's the hardest piece I've ever made." That's a considerable statement, coming from an award-winning local choreographer whose advanced techniques and intricate structures have been seen in Tokyo, in New York, and at the American Dance Festival and the North Carolina Dance Festival.
Durham Independent Dance Artists presents the premiere of I Promise this weekend at the Fruit in Durham. Its various sequences probe a series of uncertain encounters with the Other. Some delve into personal interactions between characters of different genders; others explore cultural or national intersections. Because they approach and feel one another out before the stakes escalate in many scenes, we repeatedly find ourselves scrutinizing dancers' clasped hands on first contact for signs of cooperation, conflict, or coercion.
"I basically feel this piece is a response to living through the past year rather than a statement about it," Comerford says. As the tumult of the 2016 elections has "trickled down into our lives, polarization has become so pervasive." The result, the choreographer says, has been turning us into "a nation of others."
That would explain the mistrust we witness when dancer Megan Rindoks reaches across cultural lines to Jonh Blanco's character, who at first accepts and then proudly repels her supplication. Comedy and drama ensue later, when different sexes, classes, cultures, and agendas come into contact on a packed commuter train. After that, a haunting meditation on the cycle of abuse in domestic relationships spills into a pugilistic, visceral group beat-down set to Tom Waits.
"It's a vulnerable place for me as a choreographer and for the dancers," Comerford says. "We've had to give in to all the things that make us want to put up a block to protect ourselves." But in a culture in which so many schisms have erupted, Comerford believes "the only gap that can be closed is the gap of flesh and bone."
Hints of this are visible throughout I Promise. Comerford cites Camus's The Rebel and Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech as key inspirations.
"Clearly, there's a lot more inequality to address now," she says, "but when you can't find a solution, imagining what it looks like is a way of carrying a dream forward." Comerford's vivid imagination is clearly on display throughout this thought-provoking new work.