Gregory Catellier is funny — in a thoughtful, low-key, unexpected way. For example, his dance company’s mascot and T-shirt design is a baby ostrich (don’t ask, it’s a long story), and the Depression section of his new evening-length work “E” — premiering January 24-26 at Emory University’s Schwartz Center for Performing Arts — is set to the song “Walking on Sunshine” by Katrina and the Waves.
“The most embarrassing thing about my work,” the Atlanta-based dancer-choreographer explains, “is that I never start out thinking I’m going to make the audience laugh. But then something happens and I think, ‘Oh, that’s funny. We should do that.’ I think humor is serious business. It engages an audience.”
I met Catellier in the Dance Studio at the Schwartz Center, where he was working on the lighting for “E.” With his solid, down-to-earth presence and salt-and-red-pepper beard, he looks more like a lighting director than a dancer. Which, in fact, he is. Catellier is the resident dance lighting designer at Emory. He also teaches modern dance technique, fitness for dancers and principles of design.
And, as artistic director of Catellier Dance Projects, he works collaboratively with dancers, composers and video artists to create robust, multi-media works.
With his extensive experience as a lighting designer, if anyone should know dance lighting, it’s Catellier. “I can’t choreograph without thinking about lighting,” he says. “I just can’t do it. Sometimes I think about how I can shape the space with light, then later I think about how the dance is going to fill the space.”
Catellier’s “E” is the third in a series of four evening-length works, each based on one element of dance: time, space, energy and body. It features six dancers, including himself, and explores different types of energy: environmental, physical, emotional, musical and electrical.
Of the four elements, Catellier finds energy to be the most ephemeral. His challenge was how to make energy tangible for an audience. The answer involves, well, a lot of humor.
“One person is on a treadmill throughout most of the piece,” he says. “The treadmill is attached to a bicycle, and the person on the bicycle is creating the energy to power the treadmill. This is what cracks me up. You have a person on a bike producing energy so someone else can get a workout. It’s the most ridiculous thing, right? It makes me laugh.”
If not for financial, and practical, constraints, Catellier might have used 20 bicycles, all hooked up and powering the lights. “The audience would have to get on the bikes in order to see the dance,” he says. “Each person could raise their hand when they were done, pass it off to someone else. It would have been fun. But I just didn’t have the money.”
Humor and contemporary dance don’t go hand in hand that often. Modern dance pioneer Charles Weidman had a sense of humor, and Catellier feels a certain sympatico with him. Mostly, Catellier looks outside the dance world for inspiration. He’s a fan of British comedian Eddie Izzard and his stream-of-consciousness, Monty Python style. He says that one of his favorite books is Steve Martin’s “Born Standing: A Comic’s Life,” because “it shows how thoughtful you have to be about humor.”
Beneath the humor, Catellier sees “E” as a political statement about how Americans use energy.
“We are all interested in this problem of energy yet don’t seem to be able to do anything about it,” he says. “Most of us still drive our cars and seem stuck in our need to use electricity. I don’t know anyone personally who has a blender that’s run by a bicycle, but I know they’re out there. If anyone should know that person, it should be me.”
Humor is so integral to Catellier’s life and work that it seems ironic that he cites Yvonne Rainer, the 1960s postmodernist dancer-choreographer, as his greatest influence; she is hardly a comedienne. But like Rainer, Catellier crafts functional, objective movement, shorn of narrative and obvious technique.
“People sometimes say my work looks pedestrian,” he admits. “I guarantee you it’s not. My dancers will tell you that too. I think it’s the relaxed body posture. That’s one of the things we hold on to from the Judson Church era.”
Like many postmodern choreographers, Catellier enjoys the collaborative process. His dancers’ input “sometimes validates what I’m thinking, but at other times I’ll think, ‘Oh, that is so much more brilliant than what I was thinking.’ Sometimes it opens up a whole new world to me.” Clearly in love with his dancers, he thinks this particular cast is “just off-the-charts beautiful.”
As we complete our wide-ranging chat, Catellier recalls that a friend once told him that what he really does is make dance essays. “That is the best thing I’ve ever heard about my work,” he says. “And I will never use it as a marketing tool. Can you imagine that? Come see a dance essay?” He shifts in his seat, and laughs.