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Range of Mocean 

Mocean Dance's world premiere of Sorrows combines dark, clownish theatrics with vaudeville flair

Watching Estelle Clareton describe the band member that inspired her new dance piece for Mocean Dance is like attending a show in itself. The petite choreographer from Montreal stands on the Dunn Theatre steps, hunches her shoulders, spreads her arms in the act of holding an accordion and thumps her left foot on the next step. Hard.

"He has this makeup with this big, big smile, you know?" she says in her French accent, dropping the air accordion and spreading her hands from the middle of her mouth to the exaggerated corners, imitating a clown smile. "He's crazy, that guy."

Clareton's describing the lead singer of the Tiger Lilies and the songs behind one of Mocean Dance's pieces being performed this weekend at Live Art Dance Productions' presentation of their main stage show. Clareton's premiere piece, titled Sorrows, plays on the Tiger Lilies' carnivalesque music with a vaudeville costume flair, while the reworked second piece, Toronto choreographer Susie Burpee's Rescue Left her to her Plight, is more emotional than theatrical.

The local dance troupe's members---co-artistic directors/dancers Carolle Crooks and Sara Harrigan, dancers Melanie Ferro, Sarah Rozee and newest member, Quebecer Tania Jean---are particularly looking forward to this show because it's part of Live Art's subscription series.

"They [Live Art] bring a lot of artists in from across the country and internationally, so we're feeling pretty lucky to be a part of that season---it's a pretty big deal for us," says Crooks.

Not that Mocean isn't a big deal on its own. As Halifax's only full-time, contemporary dance company, Mocean's been raising the national profile of the east coast dance scene, setting standards for a business that can sustain itself even in Nova Scotia. Crooks, Rozee, Harrigan, Alicia Orr MacDonald and Lisa Phinney founded the troupe in 2001 by setting up a business plan and a board of directors before even placing one toe on the studio floor. Eight years later, the current dancers and members are benefiting from the founders' foresight.

Harrigan is taking a bit of a forced hiatus---a growing baby bump isn't easy or safe to dance with---but says she's enjoying the role of rehearsal director for this show. Even with Harrigan helping offstage, the dancers admit Clareton's piece has been pushing them into places they didn't know existed.

"The characters in the piece are extreme parts of human nature, exaggerated," says Crooks. She adds that this performance is more theatrical than their regular dance pieces---each dancer is her own character, in a performance within a performance.

"Another challenge with this piece is that we were going into some theatrical things that were kind of ugly and almost---not grotesque, but we're going into some ugly, dark things," says Crooks. "I'm not pretty in this piece."

Ferro agrees that Clareton's clown-like dark-humoured piece doesn't make for an easy performance. "Starting the piece is so scary because you know you have to go through this rollercoaster of emotions and different people and ideas in your head---it's emotionally and physically exhausting...by the end," she explains.

After Sorrows is finished, the lead ladies have 15 minutes to change out of their showy, vaudeville garb and prepare for Burpee's piece. Crooks describes Rescue Left her to her Plight as a performance dealing with themes of rescue, survival and desperation. It's not as theatrical as Clareton's work, but challenging nonetheless.

When asked how the dancers shift from one piece to another, there's an almost unanimous shrug. "There's something magic that happens backstage," says Ferro. "When you put the costumes on, put your hair up, you have those two minutes before you go onstage and there's a moment where you can transfer yourself into another place. So, hopefully it happens!"

Clareton has faith in the dancers' abilities to adapt. "I wanted something darker but also funny, you know? And this clowny aspect I wanted to work with---there are a few clowns here," says Clareton with a laugh, singling Crooks and Ferro out as most "clown" potential.

"Oui, I think it's the start of something."

Mocean Dance, January 22-24, Sir James Dunn Theatre, Dalhousie Arts Centre, 6101 University, 8pm, $16.50-$23.50, 464-3820, liveartproductions.ca.

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