I Promise

Closed Sunday, Dec. 17
The Fruit, Durham

I didn’t expect to see less of ShaLeigh Dance Works’ I Promise on opening night than I had during a rehearsal the weekend before it opened. But Friday’s premiere at The Fruit showed the degree to which technical elements can alterand even obscurean emerging work of art.

Alex Maness’s unconventional lighting designs have enhanced shows throughout the region for a decade. His amber Fresnels and low footlights gave I Promise the golden glow of a tent show. But in places, the lightingand the pastel-to-crème-colored costumes that gave ShaLeigh Comerford’s dancers a designer-fashion glosssignificantly softened and occasionally erased the social struggles, coercion, and violence she said were at the heart of her striking choreography.

As it begins, the piece directly addresses imbalances in interpersonal and intercultural relationships. Megan Rindoks, a white woman, singlehandedly stares down a larger, racially diverse group, forcing them backward into a corner. But that crucial establishing dynamic was lost in shadows behind Dana Livermore and Anthony Nelson’s mid-stage pas de deux. Also obscured was Livermore’s distress at the start of a sequence set on a commuter trainso much so that her eventual collapse seemed to come out of nowhere.

Talented dancers struggled to recapture the authenticity and desperation I had witnessed in the rehearsal of a scene depicting endless falling through relationships. But it remained deeply disturbing when a solemn Majid Bastani appeared to be grimly writing, with both index fingers, on Rindoks’s compliant visage as well as his own.

I have now seen two different faces of I Promise. In rehearsal, its nuanced social metaphors and raw emotional realism reminded me of Pina Bausch. In the performance, design elements smoothed over some of the starkest verities Comerford and her ensemble had discovered. Which is the true face of this work? Most likely, the answer lies somewhere between the two.