A fresh, new dance group is quickly making upward progress on the Triangle scene. ShaLeigh Dance Works on Friday premiered its third offering, I Promise, in the intimate Durham Fruit and Produce. Like it’s venue, ShaLeigh is quickly becoming known in and out of Durham for its inclusive and adventurous programming. Indeed, a sense of communal gratitude from the audience and artists was felt on the opening performance as if collectively both were saying, “I’m so glad you’re here.” This love for the emotional experience of dance was immediately shown in artistic director ShaLeigh Comerford‘s opening remarks in which she dedicated the performance to her beloved (friend and advocate) John Brinkman. Anyone familiar with the Durham dance scene recognizes Brinkman, the long-time costume designer for American Dance Festival. The promise ShaLeigh saw, and Brinkman no doubt recognized, was honored in this stirring performance.

Another sort of honor was bestowed in the opening act: a spontaneous dance-commercial for a Durham gaming bar called the Atomic Fern began the evening. Framed as “the story of the Drunk Sugar Plum Fairy,” three of the men in the ensemble played versions of themselves playing a Christmas themed Dungeons and Dragons game. In typical magical realism fashion, the game and their own interactions with it became more real as the piece progressed, with a deranged doll and anatomical bomb thrown into the mix. This hors d’oeuvre of tongue-in-cheek dance was a snow-filled valentine to the bar – you can draw the conclusion that there must be more to the bar than D&D to play.

As an overture to I Promise, Duke Ellington’s “Three Black Kings” was a fitting choice. Written as one of his final works and inspired by the occasion of meeting MLK and talking American music with him, the piece set a hopeful, sentimental tone to what was about to come.

Oddly, the hope and promise that the overture conveyed took a while to resurrect. This did not hinder the work, as it explored a group that each stand for what they believe in before uniting, breaking apart, discriminating against each other, finally left to survive on their own.

The dancers, an ensemble of eight, began the evening standing shoulder to shoulder, yet mentally separated. Their blinds twitched, as if to break from the conformism in which they began this journey. When they did, they still stood as individuals, yet raising fists and reaching for a sense of hope, not wanting to see that everyone else is but themselves.

In the first half of the work, Comerford’s dancers existed on two simultaneous planes: one was the group itself moving together in the background while two soloists attempted to connect with mirroring one another’s movements before a sudden violent attack overcame them. In an effort to connect through difference, Comerford saw us as fighting and growing apart from each other when we really should unite.

The evening was a survey of the frustration we as Americans feel at this political moment. Groups are attempting to be heard and stand up for their rights while, in the process, we are alienating ourselves from one another. Comerford’s piece framed this in the abstract as described above but also in the literal in select tableaux that showed the subtle change from intimacy to harassment in relationships. In an exhilarating moment, the ensemble looked ahead, smiling, nearly glowing in a moment of blissful happiness. The moment suddenly ceased when each was pulled away and seized in violent gestures, terror now on their faces.

What this all led to was the final half when the violence teased at in previous episodes of the evening finally erupted against a cover of Tom Waits’ “Falling Down.” Two men fought, one never giving up even though he was obviously defeated. Following that, the group formed again, breathing sharply against their emotional fears and anxiety. We heard audio of presumably the dancers’ voices making promises to love themselves, be true to who they are, and make the world a better place. Breaking free from the group, two of them stood defiant, raising their fists, reaching for hope.

Your personal journey of I Promise may vary, but ultimately it will be haunting and hard to shake. Comerford has assembled a group of dancers whose passion is refreshingly honest, and they clearly understand the emotional journey of the piece, a testament of their talents and Comerford’s control as a director. What also elevated the evening was Comerford’s soundscape, in collaboration with Mike Wall – who also provided vocals on the Tom Waits cover. Alex Maness’ lighting was subtle and creative using little instruments to create sensitive, intimate moments when needed.

As its third production, the evening showed immense promise from ShaLeigh who, when equipped with more resources and funding, will no doubt make an influential mark on the wider arts scene. Given that parts of this evening will be showcases at Lincoln Center as part of the national Association of Performing Arts Professionals (APAP) conference, we can expect this soon. Until then, see this work and experience the hope that, nearly a year ago this same time, many of us thought we lost but have since regained.

I Promise repeats through December 17. See our sidebar for details.