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.
Did the dancers contribute to the process?
I usually have a very good idea, a good preconceived notion, of what I want to do when I choreograph. I walk into the room, and I’ve got the score in hand. And for this particular one, I also had all my steps planned out. And then it was the most wonderful thing to realize that working like that made no sense. It was a piece I had made for me. It was my movement. But then I got to the studio and there were the dancers, Alex [Antonijevic] and Elena [Lobsanova]. They are the vessel for the piece. I told them what I wanted them to do and then they did it differently. And it was beautiful for being an accident. I couldn’t possibly let my ego, or what I had originally intended, be more important than going down the avenue where those beautiful accidents were happening. So I took those beautiful accidents, and crafted the piece again, to make sense of my original vision. So it was a constant negotiation between what I thought I had here [points to his head] and what I saw there.
Did you enjoy the creative process?
Really, that was the best part of it all, to be involved in the process as it was happening. It didn’t happen at home, in front of my computer. It didn’t happen while I was listening to a Walkman. And it didn’t happen when I was in the studio dancing it myself. It happened when I was talking with the dancers. And you make deals, you know? You make deals with them. You say, let’s do it like that in this part, and you negotiate, and they say, yeah, okay. But then here, you say, I’d really love it if you did this, or, I need to see your line here.
Was that easy?
Of course, these are experienced dancers. And me also being an experienced dancer, I can say that mechanics and technique are things you can fix. And you can spend hours fixing. But the essence of the piece, and also the general idea of the construction of the piece, is where the magic happens. I just absolutely loved the process of creating the piece.
How does No. 24 push the limits of your own developing talents as a choreographer?
Well, I am concentrating with each piece I do to create a new vocabulary. That’s what thrills me when I watch new dance, to see different ways of moving: different shapes, different ways of connecting Point A to Point B. No one will reinvent the wheel in ballet. Dance has been done and redone so many times. But it is about how you get from one place to another, how you put things together, how you can make it make sense on the music. And I can’t say this enough. Music is what makes us relevant. It’s all great to go into sound design and to have dance with, you know, no music, just people breathing. I respect choreographers who go that route. But. I am a firm believer that music is at the essence of dance.
Did you study music?
Yes. I played seven years of piano and I took composition courses at the Royal Conservatory of Music. That was really to help me compose ballet music which I had started to do for [dancer-turned-choreographer] Dominique Dumais for her in Germany, for the Stuttgart Ballet. I’ve since done ballet scores for American Ballet Theatre and the Alberta Ballet as well. I’ve also studied classical guitar for six years. And I was part of a rock band called The Neurotics.
What did you play?
I played electric guitar, and I was a singer. I tried to, any way. But that was my whole plan. I was going to be a rock star.
So when were you going to fit that in? What hour of the day was free?
I played endlessly in grades 11 and 12. And we played some clubs, Battle of the Bands sort of thing. We played the El Mocambo [in Toronto] and some clubs on Yonge Street. That’s originally why I cam to Toronto, to learn English. I wanted to be a rock star. I liked dance. But I never considered it to be a full-time job until I discovered full-length ballets, their physicality and their stories.
So ballet happened when?
Ballet was all day and the music was at night. I’ve always been pretty productive. I wrote a lot of music after I got away from the band thing and started writing music for dance.
Where’s the music today in your life?
Today, it’s a bit on hold. I’ve been working on just one piece for ABT in New York, which will be for [acclaimed Russian ballerina and ABT principal dancer] Diana Vishneva for a show in Tokyo. I don’t know if she’ll like what I came up with, but we’ll see what happens. The choreography is now taking up all my spare time.
What’s next for you?
In July, I’m doing a workshop with the National Ballet of Canada. I have this idea that I want to create something big for the National Ballet of Canada but I don’t want to not deliver. So I told Karen what I wanted to do but that I wasn’t sure the concept would work and she said how about giving you a couple of days and a couple of dancers to work it out. If it works, great. If it doesn’t, we don’t have to talk about it.
That’s a wonderful degree of support.
It’s incredible support, because now I can develop this idea. She’s giving me time to create at home, within a safe environment, with people I love. So that’s at the end of July. As far as dancing, we’re going to Hamburg at the end of next week, to dance for John Neumeier at his prestigious Nijinsky Gala. It’s the gala’s 40th anniversary and he asked Heather and I to star in his gala.
What will you perform?
The first pas de deux from his ballet, The Seagull.
Also in July, we go on tour to Saratoga [in New York state] with the company. I will dance Four Seasons and Giselle. In August, Greta [Hodgkinson, a National Ballet dancer] asked me to create a solo for her, and I will work on that. I think I’ll use some Nine Inch Nails music for that. We’ll see.
Where do you think ballet is going?
Ballet is evolving, and I think it is evolving fast. I think it is definitely our responsibility, members of my generation, to keep it cool. I think it’s incredibly thrilling to approach new audiences, to get people to discover dance for the first time. I’m not saying that we just use rock music to achieve that. It’s about grabbing their interest in any way you can, whether through a story that’s really contemporary or a look.
What is creativity to you?
Creativity is the ability to see structure within the abyss of possibilities. Essentially there’s so much you can do as a creator if you have enough imagination, but you have to create the form. Stravinsky said it right: You can be someone with no rules and do whatever you want. But ultimately it is about creating new rules and making them fit what you create.
And sorry, but I have to ask. You are a dancer wearing Nikes. Why?
I have to keep my tendons healthy.
Your tendons? Why? Have you sustained an injury?
I did three years ago, and I was off for about nine months. A stress fracture in my tibia.
Did the recovery period alter your artistry in any way?
Of course. I started doing a lot of cross training. I’ve never not danced. So it put into question everything I knew. I began to wonder if ballet is really what I want to do, because I’ve always done it, or is it dispensable? But when I couldn’t do it any more, I actually missed it. When I came back to it I was that much more grateful.
You were hungry.