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Catellier Dance Brings Laughter and Paradox to Emory

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Courtesy Emory Dance.

“E” is the latest in an ongoing series of themed performances exploring the various elements of dance by Emory professor Greg Catellier’s six-member professional company Catellier Dance Projects. “Exploring the elements of dance through a series of themed performances” probably sounds about as fascinating to most people as “re-cataloging income tax files with new color-coded sticky labels,” but it should be here noted that “E” is actually energetic, witty, smart, engaging work that, like its predecessors, contemplates weighty issues from a smartly personal, transparently accessible, and deeply funny place.

Perennial Properties

“E” is the third in the series of four planned performances which have come at a rate of about one a year. The series began with “Tempo” examining the concept of time two years ago and continued with 2012’s “Star Trek”-inflected meditation on space “The Final Frontier.”

“E” starts off with Catellier entering a bare stage and beginning what appears to be a standard pre-curtain speech. Instead, he sets himself the admirable but quixotic task of creating a no-carbon-footprint show (the subject is energy, after all). He indicates a stationary bike, and a rider mounts it, powering a lamp connected to a generator. The first piece is a grim, musicless solo by Catellier in the sad, flickering light of the bike-powered lamp. The lamp goes out, and it’s decided that things should proceed in a more conventional way (the audience is asked to walk home to off-set any carbon usage by high-watt stage lights during the show), and the dance performance begins in earnest.

Courtesy Emory Dance.

Courtesy Emory Dance.

Catellier’s performances blend together elements of performance art, theater, humor and dance in a similar way throughout. His movement style–a sort of  whole body momentum-based series of athletic propulsions and turns–is not simple in terms of its physicality, but it’s also not simple in terms of the attitudes and motivations it demands from its performers. In an early duet, Catellier and dancer Alex Abarca adopt a different series of attitudes based on changing music: silly and funky to a classic R&B hit, broad and ominous to “O Fortuna” from “Carmina Burana.” A  knowing wink can become cloying if overdone, but the dancers handled the quick change and the satiric stance with a deft touch. (And there can be no doubt that these are the only people in town who look good in ironically tight gold and silver lame, the costumes this time around).

The F Word at Hunter Museum

In “E,” dance numbers often stood apart from the spoken word segments. (“Tempo,” the first in the series, I thought best weaved together the disparate threads of movement, personal reflection, universal issues, and humor). The sharper divisions between segments in “E” worked well in some ways: the dance often felt like separate, open territory for unfettered, unhurried, quiet meditation around often unanswerable, difficult, loud, worrisome issues like energy consumption, which is precisely the role it can serve. But the dance could also occasionally feel too removed from the subject at hand: a couple of the ensemble works, lovely as they were, might just as easily have appeared in any show, totally disconnected from the topic at hand. I don’t think the same could have been said for “Tempo” or “Final Frontier,” which more solidly meshed its approaches.

Courtesy Emory Dance.

Courtesy Emory Dance.

Catellier has a great facility at employing simple lo-tech elements that can be surprisingly trippy or visually dramatic: performers with headlamps circling dancers providing the only light for their movement; a dancer dragging a string of lights across the stage to divide it in half; a long-suffering intern on a stationary bike downstage throughout the show, creating a sad, consistent hum during moments of silence and transitions.

Humor often emerges from a comic, universal sense of inadequacy: the dancers set about performing plainly impossible or ridiculously challenging tasks (a carbon-free performance, dancing in ever smaller spaces, finishing a sequence of movements in a ludicrously short or comically generous amount of time). Perhaps there’s a comic sense of a larger inadequacy, the pleasant futility of dance, the laughable existential paradox of human existence and movement that’s delimited by time, space, energy.

By chance, the series has nicely paralleled my own arts coverage in the city: the first performance happened the first year I started writing about dance, and it’s coming up on about three years now, I suppose. Catellier has told me several times now what the final, fourth element of dance is, and by now I should remember it. The body, I think? Well, whatever it is, next year, when Catellier and his dancers take it on, I am so there.