The principal dancer and choreographic associate at the National Ballet of Canada is one of the country’s (and the world’s) most accomplished men in tights. This week, Guillaume Côté, 32, will reprise his role as Romeo in the classic story of teenage love and loss. He shares some of the secrets to his success – including the only pre-show superstition he won’t break.
Focus on the craft, the career will follow
As I have grown up in my career, I have learned how important it is to focus on the task at hand. Of course, it’s good to think about the future and to be ambitious, but none of that matters if you are not producing quality work in the moment. When I was younger I was always thinking about how much I was dancing, where I was dancing as opposed to how I was dancing. A few years back I did a performance in Milan. I arrived the day of. You get in and you don’t have the time to practise and you are really fuelled by your will and ambition. The show was great, but I was not at the level that I should have been. Now I don’t put myself in those positions. I make sure that I’m not jet-lagged for a show, that I’m not flying in and meeting my partner for the first time three hours before. I want to know the stage, know the company and know that I can do my best.
Why you won’t see me playing Frisbee
I always say that dancing isn’t my job – it’s not a job, it’s a lifestyle. Since the age of 11, I have trained every day. Being a dancer is something you do from the moment you wake up to the second you fall asleep because you are living in your instrument, sort of like if an artist lived in their painting. It’s a wonderful and incredible thing, but it’s something you have to be constantly dedicated to. There are all kinds of sacrifices. I left my family when I was 11; I haven’t taken a real holiday in four years. We have to watch what we eat all the time, you can’t stay up all night, you can’t party on a Friday night, you can’t play most sports. I loved hockey when I was young. That’s something I had to give up because you can’t do anything that could jeopardize your body. I can’t play a casual game of baseball on the weekend because that could take me out for a season.
Netflix: the great equalizer
My wife [National Ballet principal dancer Heather Ogden] and I have a lot of friends who are outside the dance world, and Heather has a lot of cousins. That’s an easy salvation for us, because when we’re with them, we won’t discuss work. When we’re at home just by ourselves it can be hard not to fall into discussions of the day-to-day, but we try to keep work talk to a minimum. We put so much of our time and our energy into dancing. When we’re home we want to just relax, so we’ll watch Netflix or HBO. I love Game of Thrones. At first Heather thought it wasn’t for her – she thought it was like Dungeons and Dragons, but now she really loves it. We are also watching Orange is the New Black and House of Cards. That’s my favourite.
Superstitions are made to be brokenEarlier in my career, I had a bunch of superstitions in terms of getting ready for a performance, which is pretty common in the dance world. I would want to put my costume on in the same order, have makeup done at a certain time – everything was about repeating patterns and at a certain point it started to drive me nuts. I decided to adopt a new superstition, which is that I am never doing the same thing twice. That’s the only rule that I stick to when I’m getting ready for a performance: a routine of not having a routine. I will switch up the order, change the times and then in a few days I’ll forget how I did it a few days back, so it’s pretty easy to stick to. It’s the only ritual I can handle.
Learn from other people’s mistakesIt’s true that you can learn from your own mistakes, but I try to also learn from other people’s mistakes and other people’s successes. There are other dancers dancing exactly the same roles as I am dancing, so I will watch these artists very closely and try to learn – see what is working, what isn’t. Looking deliberately at other people helps to speed up my own process of trial and error. In playing Romeo in Romeo and Juliet, there are so many tiny decisions to be made. I’ll watch another dancer play the role and maybe I’ll focus on how he approaches the death scene. Maybe he’ll kiss Juliet’s hand before drinking the potion and I’ll decide that that doesn’t work, but then something else he’ll try will work tremendously well so I’ll try it out myself. The point is, you don’t have to make every mistake personally.
This interview has been condensed and edited by Courtney Shea.