ShaLeigh Dance Works: The In-Between

Friday, Mar. 13–Sunday, Mar. 15, 8 p.m., $15–$20

The Fruit, Durham   

The contemporary choreographer ShaLeigh Comerford made quite a leap from her first big show, at the Greensboro Fringe Festival in 2005, to her second, two years later, at New York City’s Judson Memorial Church, a historic flashpoint for dance theater. 

“I decided to apply for Judson Church and somehow got it, which was beyond me, because I didn’t have a company, I didn’t have money,” Comerford says. At the urging of her mentor, Tere O’Connor, she started frantically roping in dance and theater artists she knew, which included the late playwright and actor Richard Kirkwood. 

The resultant piece, Dedicated to [ ] because of [ ] (and vice versa), explored gender and violence through the lens of pop culture and politics. Its warm reception in New York opened doors for the new company called ShaLeigh Dance Works, which has made its home in Durham since 2014; Dedicated to served as its major local introduction at the 2015 American Dance Festival.

Seven works later, Comerford is established as a dance teacher whose “ShaGa” style is her somatic twist on Ohad Naharin’s Gaga dance vocabulary, and ShaLeigh Dance Works is premiering The In-Between at The Fruit this weekend. Like much of Comerford’s prior work, it combines a broad social inquiry—into the “complexity of identity, feminism, race, and queerness as the embodiment of what it means to be human”—with emotional movement and multimedia staging. We recently chatted with Comerford about the influence of theater upon her dance and the challenges of making independent work in Durham. 

INDY: To someone who’d never seen it, how would you describe the ShaLeigh Dance Works aesthetic? What’s its tradition, and what does it value?

SHALEIGH COMERFORD: Being socially conscious with the thematic material that I choose is really important to me. We’re very interested in underserved and suppressed populations, so that’s always a part of either our engagement work or our thematic work inside the show. 

As for movement, sometimes people think that we’re modern dance, but we’re really dance theater, and the movement that we do comes from a very personal and engaged place. We’re not the kind of company where I am just going to go into a residency and come back and ask the dancers to do it how I do it. 

I love diversity on stage. I like different body types. I like for people to feel like they have a platform for who they are, rather than be just a part of my vision. So there’s usually layered stories within any one inquiry. I think that will reach more people, and that is important to me; I do make work with my audience in mind.

When I was really little, I started acting, so theater will always be a part of me. I was working with [playwright] Richard Kirkwood in the first several pieces I ever created, and that aesthetic is still present in my work today. Unfortunately, the only reason I’m not working with Richard anymore is he passed away a year and a half ago, which was devastating, but I can still feel him with us. But text was a big part of my work, and now, with my movers, it is a big part of how we create. We do a lot of writing, a lot of talking, even if it doesn’t always make it into the final piece.

I don’t need to tell you that making independent dance in Durham is challenging. You seem to do better than many in consistently staging work and getting people there to see it. Can you tell me about how you build that kind of consistent community around your work?

Well, I gave up sleeping. [laughs] I drink more coffee and wine than ever before. 

I can’t say that it’s easy by any stretch of the imagination. I mean, we’re essentially creating work in an economy that doesn’t support artists beyond entertainment value. One of the things that keeps me going is, I’m incredibly in love with my dancers, and I want them to be valued as much off stage as they are on stage. I hope I succeed, but even if I don’t, maybe I carve a path for that to happen one day, and that would feel like a major success to me. 

But I look at all of this very much like participating in the dialogue of the value of the arts, the value of our dancers, and wanting to give them a real revenue stream, a real sense of worth. I think that we started doing that by showing more of our behind-the-scenes process. I thought that would help people see what goes into self-producing, what goes into building a team. 

Fortunately, we’ve just had a lot of support surrounding us, and that has helped keep me going in the moments that I just thought I couldn’t go anymore. But I often have to ask myself the singular question, “Could you not do this?” Because it is that hard. Until I answer, “OK, yes, I cannot do this,” I’m going to keep going. 

It feels so important to me to participate in a larger dialogue about dance because, as dancers, we’re not supposed to think about or talk about money. It’s kind of this hidden, secret thing. Yeah, we would do it without getting paid, because that’s how much we love it. But I think that if we can bring the creativity that we put on stage to our finances, then maybe something palpable can happen for the better. 

How does The In-Between build on your prior works?

I’m completely excited about the composers that we’re working with. The cool thing about this particular work, bringing in [DJ duo] Sand Pact, and also bringing Stephanie Sevilla for costumes, it’s been incredible to be bouncing off of collaborators that have influenced the direction of the work. That’s something that I’ve been hungry for for a long time. I’m excited about a kind of clearer aesthetic that can emerge from those kinds of relationships, because we definitely took a risk: This show is more vignette-ish than anything I’ve ever made before, and I feel that the music and the costuming help enhance a through line. In terms of Jeremy Kumin’s lighting design, too, it feels a bit more like a unified front, as opposed to separate parts coming together. 

Contact arts and culture editor Brian Howe at 

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