Canadian ballet star Guillaume Côté has performed on the international stages of Berlin, London, Paris and Milan. But home base is the National Ballet of Canada in Toronto, where the 31-year-old principal dancer this week takes not one, but two, star turns: first as the lead male dancer in choreographer George Balanchine’s sparkling Themes and Variations and second as the choreographer of No. 24, a pas de deux which the company is presenting as part of its mixed program at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. Married to fellow dancer Heather Ogden, Côté trained at the National Ballet School since the age of 11 after initial classes in his hometown of Lac-St-Jean, Que. Besides dance, Côté also studied music, creating his first musical compositions when at the ballet school. Today, he creates scores for other choreographers and companies around the world, including the acclaimed American Ballet Theatre [ABT] in New York. But when it comes to his own choreography, the multitasking dancer tends to look for musical inspiration elsewhere, drawing from composer Niccolo Paganini, as he does for No. 24, or industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails. This summer, Côté has plans to create new and bigger scale work for the National Ballet, which artistic director Karen Kain is happily facilitating. What the music will be is still up for grabs. Finding it is all part of what the bilingual Côté identifies as the act of creation. Here’s more of what he had to say during a recent interview at an espresso bar located close to his home in the Leslieville neighbourhood:
Ballet comes naturally to you. How and why did you first become involved?
My parents started a small ballet school in my home region of Lac-St-Jean. My parents’ families were very large. Dad is one of 13 and mom is one of nine children. To support my parents’ school, all my younger cousins danced ballet. That meant that there were lots of us. It was the greatest time ever. It made me really love to go to ballet. Then a teacher of mine realized I was talented and sent me to the audition at Toronto’s National Ballet School, and you know the rest.
And you’ve gone to the other side. You are a choreographer now as well as a dancer. What’s that like?
Well, to be honest, I was really afraid to go the other side, because I think of my own criticism of choreographers. When you start becoming an accomplished dancer you’ve seen your fair share of choreographers and in a certain way you start to feel like you can judge them. But now after stepping into the other side, becoming a choreographer myself, I feel like I can’t judge anyone any more.
But why were you afraid?
I was afraid of it because I didn’t really want to start at the bottom of something again. And that’s very hard because you work yourself up as a dancer and to get to a level of excellence, one could say, and then suddenly when you start as a choreographer, because you are at that level as a dancer, people expect you to be somewhere as good as a choreographer.
How did you overcome that fear?
Only when I gave up on that idea that I had to be excellent. I was like, you know what? I’m just going to admit to everybody that I suck at this and I’m just going to try, and I may completely fail, and I may fail at the first two pieces, but eventually I will want to do this enough that I will work on it and achieve something. I believe that, to a certain extent, everyone can become better at something if they work hard enough. This is not to say that I thought I would become a great choreographer. But I really did think I had some special ideas that I wanted to tackle and I was smart enough to figure it out along the way.
What is the idea you are tackling in No. 24, your work which the National Ballet of Canada is presenting this week at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre?
I started fooling around with this idea of doing something very virtuoso because at the time I was fascinated with Paganini’s Caprice. The virtuosity behind it is almost ridiculous. It’s almost a piece that is so ridiculously difficult that even violinists don’t really want to record it, because it’s so hard and so demanding. So I really kind of wanted to push the limits of physicality, of what I knew about physicality, in a way that would complement the dexterity and the skill that a violinist needs to have to play those pieces.