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Guillaume Côté and Robert Lepage have collaborated for Hamlet: Prince of Denmark, a new dance theatre adaptation of Shakespeare’s play.Stéphane Bourgeois/Handout

Guillaume Côté had gotten a haircut, and Robert Lepage noticed.

“Something’s different about you, Guillaume,” Lepage said during a recent Zoom with his collaborator. Côté, who has arguably been the face of Canadian ballet for two decades, was in Toronto on a rehearsal break. Lepage, the filmmaker, theatre creative and all-around arts icon, was speaking from Quebec City. And even on a video call, he was dialled in to aesthetic details.

A slightly sweaty Côté raked his fingers through his hair. “I had it cut,” he said. “I thought it looked more royal.”

Hamlet: Prince of Denmark, a new dance theatre adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, premieres at Toronto’s Elgin Theatre on April 3. Côté stars and choreographs, Lepage directs. But evidently creative control does not extend to hair.

“I have no control of Guillaume’s life outside the studio,” Lepage said, laughing jovially.

Hamlet marks the second collaboration between Lepage and Côté, a 20-year principal dancer at the National Ballet of Canada. Their first, Frame by Frame, which made its debut at the National Ballet in 2018, melded film and live dance to chronicle the life and work of photographer Norman McLaren. Conversations about working together, however, began in 2012.

“It was a very long courtship,” Côté said. The slow creative process was partially owing to scheduling logistics, but also partially a choice. Lepage, 66, prefers to work over long hauls that include intense creative spurts, whether he’s developing a new Cirque du Soleil show, a multimedia chamber music concert or a Ring Cycle for the Metropolitan Opera.

In ballet, the standard creation formula is to give a choreographer a few weeks, a studio full of dancers and a premiere date. There’s little room for trial and error, and that’s the situation Côté wanted to avoid. A bare bones Hamlet premiered last summer at Festival des Arts de Saint-Sauveur, run by Côté and former National Ballet soloist Etienne Lavigne. The new show has also been workshopped at Le Diamant, Lepage’s theatrical headquarters in Quebec.

“That was such a luxury,” Côté said of the festival performance before an audience. Each iteration has nurtured the bromance between Lepage and Côté. Hamlet will make its debut under the auspices of Show One Productions, Côté Danse and Ex Machina, Lepage’s production company.

“We’re good friends,” Lepage said. “We’re very aware of our intimate lives and all that, and where we are in our careers. I think we care a lot for each other, and that makes the collaboration all the more precious.”

Côté, 42, grew up watching Lepage’s early work on television, including his acting in the series Montréal vu par… At 11, he left northern Quebec to train at Canada’s National Ballet School, where he received complimentary tickets for the Canadian Opera Company. He vividly recalls getting to see Bluebeard’s Castle – at an age when the violent opera was borderline inappropriate – and Nightingale, Lepage’s first forays into directing opera.

“It blew my mind,” Côté said. “I’d never seen an opera, but I’d also never seen the stage used in that way. And I was able to put two and two together – that the same person who was the stage director was the personality I saw on television.”

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National Ballet of Canada principal dancer Guillaume Cote, and Carleen Zouboule in Hamlet: Prince of Denmark.sasha onyshchenko/Handout

Côté joined the National Ballet 1998 and ascended to the rank of principal in 2004. He married fellow principal Heather Ogden in 2010, and they have two children. Although no longer together offstage, Côté and Ogden have long been public faces of the company.

Lepage first saw Côté dance on television. When he finally watched his future collaborator perform live, around 2020, “I was very, very impressed,” Lepage said. That the two eventually discussed Hamlet is unsurprising, given their joint experiences playing the melancholy Dane.

Elsinore, Lepage’s 1995 one-man reduction of Shakespeare’s longest play, was groundbreaking for its use of projections that have since become de rigueur in the performing arts. “Visual wizardry – and not the play – is the thing in Elsinore, critic Markland Taylor wrote in Variety.

Côté danced his first Hamlet in 2012, with Ogden as Ophelia, when the National Ballet imported an adaptation by American choreographer Kevin O’Day. He found that version more about psychology than story. It was only through dancing Alexei Ratmansky’s exquisite Romeo and Juliet, and listening to the choreographer quote words from the play in rehearsal, that Côté realized he wanted to revisit Shakespeare both as a choreographer and as a dancer.

“That was a huge drive for me,” Côté said. With help from Lepage, the goal was to develop a Hamlet who was “not a moody teenager who doesn’t get want he wants,” but a man keenly attuned to both his own inner struggle and political power dynamics.

“I’ve always been fascinated by this play,” Lepage said. “You can never say you’ve staged your definitive Hamlet. That’s why I’m happy to be entering the play through another door.”

Hamlet is one of Shakespeare’s most dance-adapted dramas, according to The Oxford Handbook of Shakespeare and Dance. The first known ballet version premiered in Italy in 1788. In early 19th-century France, a rival to Paris Opera Ballet staged Hamlet with a happy ending. But the most famous adaptation was likely Robert Helpmann’s 1942 one-act version, which starred Margot Fonteyn as Ophelia and portrayed Hamlet as very much insane.

Neither Lepage or Côté think Hamlet was crazy. Their adaptation is faithful to the text, with the exception of casting Natasha Poon Woo as a female Horatio. The cast of nine also includes retired National Ballet principal Greta Hodgkinson as Gertrude; older performers with theatre, dance and circus backgrounds as Polonius and Claudius; and a capable breakdancer as Laertes.

“We have an ideal cast of dancers,” Lepage said.

Both Côté and Lepage hope Hamlet will eventually tour. Composer John Gzowski’s original music is recorded. The sets are relatively simple, including three tables and a wide blue swath of fabric, suitable for drowning Ophelia. As Lepage put it: “There’s no razzmatazz.” But how long Côté intends to dance Hamlet is unclear. In February, he announced his retirement from the National Ballet at the end of the 2024-25 season.

A dancer’s career fortunes can turn on the twist of an ankle. Like mature silver-screen Hamlets Kenneth Branagh and Laurence Olivier, Côté said, “This is my attempt to do it before it’s too late.”

Even when actors employ dialogue, “Hamlet is a very, very physical play with a lot of action,” Lepage said. There’s a castle to defend, spies to stab behind the arras and the fencing-match finale. “It’s not a bunch of people standing around saying, ‘To be or not to be.’” But Lepage has great confidence in his fortysomething star. Côté may have opted to perform Hamlet with shorter hair, but “he has all the right body parts to do this,” the director said.

Côté laughed, gesturing magnanimously with his free arm.

“And they are still attached,” he said.

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