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Sarah Hampson: The Interview

The National Ballet's pas de deux, on stage and off Add to ...

Heather Ogden shoots a surprised look at Guillaume Côté.

"You knew it was going to be in three years?" she asks, incredulous.

"No, well, I didn't," he replies, bowing his head a bit in embarrassment. "I knew that maybe at a certain point..." he trails off, sheepishly.

Both principal dancers with the National Ballet of Canada, they're often paired to perform the lead roles in the company's popular narrative ballets, including Romeo and Juliet, Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake (which opens March 11).

He has been recounting how he proposed to her last year. They'll marry this summer.

Their prince-and-princess romantic tale began in 2007, when they realized they meant more to each other than a perfect dancing partner. After that turn of events, Mr. Côté went to Florence for a month-long guest performance, and while there, he walked the Ponte Vecchio every day, where he discovered a little ledge off limits to visitors. It was a very private and romantic spot, affording a perfect view of the river and the sunset. "And I thought, 'When I'm ready, in a couple of years, if I'm still with Heather and feel the exact same way that I feel now, I'll take her here and ask her to marry me.'"

Did he get down on one knee?

"Both knees," he says.

"It was pretty storybook romance, and Guillaume started acting really weird, " Ms. Ogden says, giggling. "He started fumbling with his bag, and I'm like, 'Oh my God!'"

"You people have no idea how stressful it is," Mr. Côté explains, shaking his head; miffed at our hilarity over his engagement nerves.

"He said how he was here so many years ago, and he already knew."

"And that I was crazy about her then," he says, picking up the narrative. "And that I couldn't picture my life without her."

Mr. Côté and Ms. Ogden had both joined the company around the same time - in the late nineties, becoming principal dancers in 2004 and 2005 respectively. Mr. Côté, who was born in Lac Saint-Jean, Que., had been a student at the National Ballet School in Toronto, while Ms. Ogden, who was born in Toronto, trained at the Richmond Academy of Dance in Vancouver. They danced together in the corps, the usual route for all new members of the company, and soon they were pushed together as a dancing partnership.

"It's an aesthetic thing," Ms. Ogden says. "You have to have the heights right." She is on the tall side for a ballerina - 5 feet 7 inches. Mr. Côté is 5 feet 11 inches. "You like to look good together on the stage," she explains. "And I think we have dancing that complements each other."

She pauses.

"And obviously there's some chemistry," she adds with a smile. "The first thing we did together was Romeo and Juliet. That was a good test. That was in 2002."

But if they both felt attracted to one another then, they didn't act on it. They were both in other romantic relationships, Ms. Ogden says. "But Guillaume was always pretty clear that the door was open," she explains, throwing him another look.

Overtly?

"No, no, but I would do little things," he explains.

"He's got that French thing going on," Ms. Ogden teases him. "He's not shy." She flicks her glance to him again. "He's a flirt."

Aside from their lack of romantic availability at the time, and even after, when they were both single, Ms. Ogden was afraid that a personal involvement would jeopardize their professional one.

"I was a bit less into the fact that it could be problematic," Mr. Côté puts in, just to set the record straight. "I always had a bit of a crush on Heather. She was more responsible in the way that she knew you need a certain love maturity in order to get into a relationship with someone you work with. Obviously, when you're in the studio with someone, you're at your most vulnerable. Ballet is an art form where we're all making choices; we're all putting our own hearts on the line every day, and if the other person corrects you or that other person needs to feed off you, it's tough if you're a couple [in real life]because you can take things very personally."

The intimacy, both physical and emotional, of dancers in a studio is very strong, regardless of whether they're involved off-stage or not.

"I think that when people dance together, there's a certain closeness you wouldn't have with someone in a company that you didn't dance with on stage," Ms. Ogden says. "You see them on their crappiest day. You see them at their best and worst."

"And dancing together builds an incredible friendship," Mr. Côté adds.

She nods, looking at him as he speaks.

"Your strong passion in life is shared with someone else. Dancers are a bit nutty, because dance is not a job. It's more like a lifestyle." Their romance began after Mr. Côté had come back from time away in New York. "We were chatting on the phone a lot more, and I kind of missed him, and I thought that was weird," says Ms. Ogden. When he came back to Toronto, they went out to dinner, "and things felt different right away," she says.

Their private life together has helped their professional one, they both say. "Obviously, there's a lot of communication work that has to be done in a relationship," Ms. Ogden says. "And so I feel that it has improved our in-studio relationship. We know each other so well. We know each other's weaknesses. We push each other's buttons." She laughs. "There's a level of comfort."

On stage, when she feels uncomfortable in a position during a complex dance routine, she can make a little noise no one else can hear - she demonstrates with a little noise of distress in her throat - so he can reposition her. And he explains that he now thinks of their performance as a whole. "Most people usually focus on what they have to do, and the partner helps you do what you have to do. But now with Heather, I take on the pressure of her show, and she takes on the pressure of mine."

Still, that doesn't mean they don't need to act on stage, even if they're often portraying lovers. "The last time we did Romeo and Juliet, we were involved [romantically]and Magdalena Popa [principal artistic coach]told us we were being too familiar, too real, too smooth, and that it had to be more awkward," says Mr. Côté. "You're Romeo, a 15-year-old boy. You're not Guillaume who's a 28-year-old in love with the person he works with."

Ms. Ogden smiles shyly again. And how old is she?

"Twenty-nine," she says with exaggerated dismay.

"Yeah," says Mr. Côté, just under his breath. "She's an older woman. A cougar!"

She bats him on the knee. Laughs. "Oh, don't get him started!"

Follow on Twitter: @Hampsonwrites

 

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