Principal dancer and choreographic associate Guillaume Côté is, in many ways, the face of the National Ballet of Canada. He joined the company in 1998 and was promoted to principal in record time, dancing leading roles with the company since the age of 19. His good look and romantic style (not to mention his in-company love story) have made him a quintessential prince but the ballets of John Neuemier have demanded something much darker from the National’s leading man in recent years, a challenge he’s risen to with great success. Perhaps his most dramatic transformation to date came in Neuemier’s bold adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire where Guillaume took on the brutal role of Stanley Kowalski and earned an Outstanding Ballet Performance nomination (an award he’s won once before, for 2012’s Hamlet).
Do you remember the first ballet you ever saw?
Oh, man. Actually, because I grew up in Quebec, there wasn’t really any live ballet, other than the older kids in my ballet school. But when White Nights started being available on VHS, that changed my life. Obviously, Baryshnikov was very manly, and [ballet] was attractive to me all of a sudden, because it was athletic, and it was a display of virtuosity as well. But what touched me the most was that it seemed to me that it came from a place of a real person dancing and expressing real feelings, and real emotions, and a real human being. It wasn’t about fairies, and pretty tutus, and things like that. As a young man, [those things] didn’t really do it for me. But when I saw him do something called Le jeune homme et la mort, which was Roland Petit, which was a ballet, a story written by Jean Cocteau. It was more of a concept – a young man who was visited by his own death, a young artist living in Paris, and this really wonderful, beautiful woman comes in and she’s representing his death. I just remember it was this abstract thing, but I understood it all, and I must have been nine or ten. It was quite powerful. So from that point on, I thought, “Okay. Well, this is really something that I’d like to pursue.”
But you’d already been dancing before that?
Yeah! The funny thing is, I started dancing when I was maybe four, just because my parents were involved in the ballet school up north in Quebec. They really wanted to bring culture to the area. They had wanted to start a theatre company, but they didn’t know anyone in theatre. But they had a friend who was studying dance at the University of Montreal. When she came back home to Lac-Saint-Jean, my parents helped her found the school.
My sister was part of it, and my cousins were part of the ballet school as well, so it was just a no-brainer that I did ballet. But it wasn’t really ballet. It was just me throwing myself around the room, playing hockey with the ballet shoes and whatnot, but I was in the environment, so I never questioned it. It wasn’t like, “Do you wanna dance?” It was just part of what we did.
I would assume Quebec is very culturally active because television is boring- there’s not that many TV shows developed in French that are really good, that belong to Quebec. I didn’t watch any TV. I basically just danced and played sports. It was interesting that way. My parents were schoolteachers as well, so they really liked culture and music.
At what age did you move away to go study ballet?
I was ten the first time that I came to the ballet school. I went to ballet school at l’école supérieure for one summer when I was ten years old. I didn’t like it so much, just because there weren’t enough boys at the time. It’s very much a girls’ world, especially in the younger days and the younger ages. So then I decided I was going to try the National Ballet School, in Toronto, one year later, and I loved that. I came to the ballet school when I was eleven.
Was it hard to leave home?
Of course. The first few months were very difficult. But the funny thing was that summer school lures you in, because summer school’s a lot of fun. It’s a lot of really exotic classes. You’ve got a lot of flamenco classes, Indian dancing – you’re in these groups where it’s low-pressure. They’re kind of auditioning you quite intensely, but you don’t notice, because you’re going to Canada’s Wonderland, and you’re going to a bunch of stuff. Growing up, in Lac-Saint-Jean, I wasn’t really exposed to the big city stuff, so it was very exciting for me.
When I came for the year, then it’s a different pace. You go to school all day, and then you dance till 7 pm, and the training’s really crazy. It’s much, much different. For the first few months, I was a little bit panicked. But I was lucky – I had a few really great older mentors in the ballet school, and they helped me a lot.
After two months, it was actually much harder for my parents to deal with their kid being away than for me, because I think kids just adapt. I adapted so well to my environment. I started a band. I focused on music. I studied composition at the conservatory, which I loved. So I had a lot of things going in the big city, and I had my group of friends. So I didn’t miss home, but I think my parents thought that I would be here for maybe a year or two, and eventually go home, but I never did. So that was tough on them.
You’ve spent your entire career in Toronto at the National Ballet. What is it about the company that keeps you here?
I’ve spent my career here as a full-time member of the National Ballet, but I’ve had the chance to dance a lot of other places. What keeps me here [is that] I think the people that had huge impacts on my life are people who decided to invest themselves in the place where they knew they could make some kind of difference. From dancing at a young age, I started casting in New York. I danced at the Met, and I danced in Berlin, and I danced with the Royal Ballet, and the English National Ballet. And at some point, I fooled around with the idea of dancing in London, or dancing in New York.
What’s interesting is when you dance in London and New York, and get nice reviews, then people at home treat you differently. It’s this weird thing where people suddenly take you more seriously. But I didn’t dance differently when I danced there, so the one good thing [was] that it gave me some recognition at home for doing those things abroad. But it’s one thing to move to New York- and a lot of people do- it’s another thing to stay home and try to make our home better, and to try to also just make the art form go forward, and invest yourself in a place.
I always invested myself in the National Ballet, because I believed in the National Ballet. I also felt gratitude towards the National Ballet School, as well as the company, because they hired me very young, and then I got pushed very young. But that’s not why I stayed. Ultimately, I stayed because Karen Kain took over at the right time. She took over at a time when I was in negotiations to go away, and then she was very smart because she basically said, “Well, as long as you stay here, then you can guest wherever.”
I did [perform with other companies as a guest artist] for a few years, and then she started tightening the leash a little bit after that, because it got tough to negotiate me being away so much. But it was very smart of her, because she let me go see what the grass was on the other side, and you test it out. As wonderful as other places are at first, there’s always the issues of that particular place. And then I met Heather [Ogden], of course, and we fell in love. Heather is also a very loyal person, so she decided that she was always gonna stay in Canada. Then we decided that this is a great company, and we had a good relationship with Karen, so we decided to make this home.
What have been some of your favourite performances with the company over the years?
Obviously, my first show of Swan Lake when I was 19 was very special. It was with Sonia Rodriguez. I was the youngest person to perform that role in the history of the National Ballet, so that was interesting.
Then there was the opening of our Romeo and Juliet, the Alexei Ratmansky Romeo & Juliet with Elena Lobsanova. That was very, very special, because it was a new work coming into the repertory.
Then Nijinsky was the other thing that changed my career. Because, as wonderful as the classical works are, you get to a point in your career where you kind of go, “Okay, well, I’ve played Albrecht [in Giselle], and I’ve played Siegfried [in Swan Lake] so many ways in so many places in so many different productions. I’m looking for something perhaps more human. Something deeper overall to dive into.” Then John Neumeier came to do Seagull. I was actually injured the first time he came, and then he came back. I worked with him as a kid in the ballet school, and I worked with him in Hamburg guesting there, because he invited me and Heather to go and dance in Hamburg. Then he gave Nijinsky to the National Ballet. That was when the next phase of my career started, where I started discovering John. The opening of Nijinsky in Toronto was very special for me. Also, Nijinsky in Paris at the Champs-Élysées, and the audience’s reaction was really quite overwhelming, so that was really special.
You’re actually nominated this year for a Neumeier role- Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire. What was it like working on that adaptation for its Canadian premiere?
It was interesting, because it was at an important time. There’s so much going on politically about the treatment of women, and that particular story – so interesting in the way that it’s written for real people, with faulty, faulty personalities. My role is very disturbing in a way, and to try and embody that character was very out of my comfort zone. I’d been a prince for so long- even Nijinsky is more of a precious character- this role was something else altogether.
I had to really go into something that I’d never gone into before, but what John does a lot, and what is very necessary, is seclude you into the narrative, and you dive into Blanche’s psychology right from the get-go. John puts you in a room, and he asks for all the hours of the day to be dedicated to him, and he sits everybody around a circle and tells you exactly every moment of this particular ballet and what he has in mind for every second of it.
What he does do is allow you to interpret it the way you want, and even make slight changes. But if he doesn’t like it, he takes you out. So it’s really odd, because he gives you all this freedom, but then you have to make sure that he likes it. That’s why it’s very hard to work with him, because he asks so much of you, and if he doesn’t like it, then it’s for nothing [laughs]. But if he loves it, then it’s a really, really fulfilling thing, because then you go along in this journey with him, and resetting the work for him that was set originally in the early 80’s [when] the world was such a different place. He went straight in, he reset this work and revamped it into something really fresh.
I was nervous even doing the rape scene, and it’s very graphic. Just watching it on video, I was going, “Wow. Especially now. I don’t know how people will react to this”. There were a few rehearsals where we went full out, and there was an audience, people watching, and it was a bit too much. But luckily, onstage in the right context, and when you go from the beginning of the story to the end, you realize the progression of the characters, so I think it was a bit easier. Also because of the distance – it was a bit easier for people to just dive into the tragic story. As opposed to, in the studio, you still see the people, you still see Guillaume and Sonia really going into this very violent pas de deux. But we masterfully put it together because I feel like we got to a place where we could see the right build-up, and I feel like that’s very important in something like this.
What John is brilliant at doing in choreography, he’s able to do things very gradually. He gets you attached to the characters, then he starts breaking them down. From there, he sees how they relate to each other, and then he takes you on this little story. Even in one pas de deux – there are three in Streetcar, and the first pas de deux is this really sexy pas de deux with Stella. It’s really quite beautiful because you can understand that this man is just so rugged, and you have to establish right from the get-go who this person is. Then you have this pas de deux with Blanche, where it’s a bit more playful, it’s a bit flirty, it’s a bit “I’m gonna put you in your place, because I’m the king of this castle and you may think you’re something big somewhere else with your furs, et cetera, but I’m gonna show you”, and all that. Then there’s the third pas de deux- you enter and you’re drunk, and this is where you come in with a very, very different mindset. The third pas de deux is built in about three or four stages. That’s what I think makes it strong, because a lot of choreographers will just start in one place, and then people dance for five minutes, and then you’re still at the same place, but it ends. And I feel like with John, it starts somewhere, and you’re playful, and you’re playing with these props and these pictures, and you’re teasing her. Then you grab her and she goes away, but then you soften again, because you’re realizing a little bit what you’re doing, but at the same time, you’re enjoying it, and you realize that she’s pulling back, and that makes you want to come more forcefully.
It’s all about the physicality, and how Sonia and I really broke it down, because violence and those kinds of displays of tension only work for very few amounts of steps and seconds. If you’re all out and very aggressive for five minutes, you lose your audience, and also you lose your character. Not that the audience has to like your character, especially when it was so horrible, but they still have to understand that he’s a human. Nobody would be just blatantly loud and angry for no reason, for five minutes, and being violent – there still needs to be some thought throughout. So the process was really interesting, because every move needs to mean something, and every move needs to take you to the next. It’s a normal progression, and you could see how John choreographed it. It’s very simple. It’s bare minimum. But it’s plenty if the dancers do it well.
The Neumeier ballets must be draining both physically and emotionally. How do you prepare yourself to be able to handle that, to leave it on the stage and not bring it home with you?
Well, for Streetcar, it’s very important to definitely leave it in the studio [laughs]. You do take it home, in a way. When you do Nijinsky, it’s a couple of weeks of preparation where you go into a place of emotional distress, I would say. Especially by the time we get to that second act in the show, to go somewhere where you’re so disturbed, there’s a place of no return. Then when you get away from the stage, a lot of times I’ll still be shaking, and you can’t sleep for a day or two.
It’s really quite shocking, what you can do to your own body as well, because John really demands you to literally dive into things, and use the full physicality to a point where it’s almost sadomasochistic. So that part of it is difficult too, because you have to prepare your body to go to that extent. You know it will be painful, and you know that you’ll shave some years off, in a way. It’s hard, but in another way, the investment makes a difference, and I think that people recognize that. Maybe the actual choreography is simpler than other works – maybe a Christopher Wheeldon ballet or something- but it’s so full, and it’s so completely committed, that I think the audience will seize that right away. I think their relationship to it is much stronger.
But that being said, to get into the role with something like Nijinsky- the first time I did it, it was just about finding who I was while doing it. Because I’d watched all these really amazing dancers- there’s only three that had the permission to dance it before I did. But I watched them a lot, and I saw how they built this character that is a myth, really, because, nobody has footage of him really dancing- there’s a few things of him walking around, but there’s nothing of him leaping, or whatever people are speculating, “he never touched the ground” and all those things- so you can’t really try to recreate. All you can do is gather all the information and then take the script, which was given to you by John, the steps, and then try to make it your own.
The first time I did it, I was just trying to make it my own. Now I’m at the point where I’m pacing it differently, and I’m trying to find a way for this to be the older Nijinsky looking back onto his own career. Right away, John sees you’re trying something new, or that you’re doing it in a different way. Then he’ll either address it, or completely let you do it, but he still wants you to know he knows you’re doing it. A lot of choreographers will be very strict about exactly how it has to be done. They don’t want it to change. They want it that way, and that’s it. But John wants to see [your interpretation]. Skylar [Campbell] couldn’t be any more different in the way that he does Nijinsky than me; Peter Stanczyk couldn’t have been any more different in Streetcar. It’s interesting, because everybody has to do it very individually.
You just finished a run of Sleeping Beauty where you got to dance with your wife. How does dancing with Heather affect your performance and the characters onstage?
The nice thing with Heather and I is we got to dance together for a long time before we were a couple. To be honest, dance is a bit of a thing where you’re responsible for your own performance, more or less. So I never feel that I’m dependent on her, or that she’s dependent on me in any way, which is great. She’s always super, super strong, and super consistent, and incredibly musical, which is the thing that I think I love the most about dancing with her, because her innate sense of musicality and splitting notes in half is intense. It’s so thrilling to do, because even with something like Sleeping Beauty that you’ve done a million times, she can play with the music. It’s not just different phrasing – we’re talking about splitting notes, and talking about silences being inserted into sections where you wouldn’t think a silence could fit in there, or a stillness. It’s getting to a point where we’re both at the same point in our careers, where we’re working on subtleties. We’re working on texture, and that’s what I love the most, because I feel like we’re both working together – especially for Sleeping Beauty.
The connection is real and, of course, dancing with your wife, you’re smiling right away, because it’s the most special thing that we do, just performing in general, and ballet in general. It’s this amazing art form. Our daughter came to watch the show. She’s backstage, and for her, it’s just the most magical thing. She couldn’t really care less about the prince, but the Lilac Fairy just couldn’t be any more amazing. What we do is so beautiful, and so special, and to get to do it with the person you love, that makes it much more special. Then to get to experience it with your kids, it’s so wonderful.
So, of course that part of it is really, really beautiful, but when it comes down to the nitty-gritty, everyday work, that’s usually what sustains a partnership. Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev look really great onstage, of course, but what kept them together is their connection in the studio. The studio is two and a half months, and the stage is two hours. So how do you work in the studio? How do you keep challenging each other? Also, we’re competitive- Heather competes with me, and I compete with her, and that’s good because I feel like that’s how we try to stay perfectionists in what we do.
You’re also a choreographic associate with National Ballet. How did you get involved with choreographing, and how did you know it was something you wanted to pursue?
I’ve always wanted to choreograph. I composed music before I choreographed, because I had this idea of creativity. When I discovered choreography and when I started doing it, I right away loved the idea of architecture to music, and I loved the idea of telling stories. So I felt like it was all these really wonderful things coming together.
What’s hard with choreography is that you never know if it’s good or not. You know if people are clapping or not, but if you use a pop song, everyone’s gonna go crazy. If you use abstract Schnittke music, it’s going to be harder for people to like your work. But at the same time, I love it, and I love watching dance. As I’ve gotten more into choreography, I’ve realized that I’m loving it, and I’m loving everything.
It’s harder than dancing in some ways, because you’re judged on a different level. With Nijinsky or something, you dive into this role, and this persona, and you know it’s masterful choreography already. If you’re singing Elektra, or if you’re singing a big role, you know, if you can do it, it’s going to be great, because it’s masterful. But starting something from scratch is really, truly scary, and I believe choreographing is a process of starting something from scratch. It’s petrifying, but I love it, and I love doing it, and I’ve been really enjoying the process. I hope to keep going with it.
I loved Le Petit Prince. Tell us a little bit about the creation of that ballet.
I loved it too [laughs]. I loved the process of it. I loved the idea of taking such a sacred story, and then trying to reposition it into a different world, and creating a new world for it, and creating a new life to it. Because it is such a beautiful piece of literature, and it’s sacred, in a way. But that doesn’t mean that it can’t live as something else.
The process of creation wasn’t easy, just because [it was my] first full-length ballet. And during the process, we were working with John, I was like, “How do you do it? Can I come and watch, and can I shadow you for a few months?” He said, “No. You just have to do it. You just have to keep doing it, and you just have to keep learning, and keep watching, and keep going with your thoughts, and your ideas, and with how you want to put it together”.
Up to that point, I’d been relatively successful at doing pieces that were shorter. It’s like a sitcom- twenty-two minutes is easy to sustain. You just need one idea, you just need an introduction, and then a conclusion, and you have development. Most really good ideas last 22 to 30 minutes, and that’s why a lot of ballets are shorter. The 30-minute mark is usually for abstract work, and works really well. But then with Being and Nothingness a few years back- that was about 50 minutes- I ventured into something a bit longer, and then a full-length ballet was a whole different thing. And balancing the production aspect of it – I worked with Michael Levine, set designer, and he obviously was so established already. That part of it was challenging, to try to work with big sets and big scenery, and I can see how with dance, not everything works. Sometimes the surroundings can take away from what’s happening.
I’m a huge opera fan. I see everything we do here [in Toronto], and when we travel, I see everything I can. It’s very different, because in some ways, the singers give you this really beautiful landscape, their skill comes through audio, and the massive production value- you’re panning, and you’re looking. But with dance, you have to be looking at the dancers to see the skill. You can’t be closing your eyes and listening to it. You have to be watching something. And then all of these massive things are going on around the dancers. It does deter your focus away, sometimes. The process of dealing with all the moving parts, and trying to do something that was a more impressionistic treatment of the story, was challenging. But I’m looking forward to coming back to it, and re-directing a little bit. Because now, working with Robert LePage, I’m seeing staging very differently. I’m seeing it way more as the craft that it is.
Some people like Crystal Pite are genius at directing, and ultimately staging. Because it’s about giving the right information, and the amount of information at the right time in the right place, on the stage. Very often, what happens in choreography is that it gets dissipated, or there’s too much going on, or not enough, and I can definitely see that with younger choreographers. I see that the work is not as structured as it can be. So now I’m just working on doing that, getting more structured. But I’m so grateful for the opportunity to do the Little Prince. Who has that opportunity? And I did. I can’t wait to do it again.
Tell us a little bit more about Frame by Frame and working with LePage.
Well, the thing about LePage – I’m just so grateful that I’m in this project [laughs]. I can’t believe it; this man is just one of the greatest artists in Quebec, and I think I can say Canada.
I came to him, actually, originally, because I was like, “I just want to work with you in any way, shape or form.” That was maybe ten years ago. And then we became friends, and he was like “Well, hold up.” Then I came up to him with Little Prince and a few projects. And he was like, “No, I’m not really interested.” I was like “Okay, that’s fine.”
I kept seeing his shows, and we kept getting together in town. We just clicked right away intellectually, because I feel he’s such an intellectual, and I randomly go into philosophy – I think he found it a bit weird at first, but maybe now he finds it okay.
He came to me because he’d just done this piece on McLaren, The Image Mill in Quebec City. And he was like, “Okay, I think we’ve found something that I’d like to work with you on, if you’re into it.” I didn’t know McLaren, but I did know Pas De Deux. I did know the video, because two of my ex-teachers were in it, so I was like, “Okay, yeah, I’ll look into it.” Then I took the material away, and I looked at it, and I was like, “This is a really fantastic idea.” I thought, what better way to do something that’s Canadian – a Canadian story about a Canadian icon, Norman McLaren.
Where Robert’s genius lies is in picking the projects, too. Dance can be extracted very, very organically from all the work of McLaren, because he was a choreographer himself, in a weird way. A lot of his films are just basically music, and space definition, and space choreography, whether it’s paper cutouts, or if it’s effects, or if it’s the perspective play, or stop-motion – he always uses movement, and technology to enhance choreography. So I thought, “Okay, well, this is great, because Robert is doing the exact same thing.”
Early on in the process, Robert was like, “Why don’t you take the theme of McLaren, and you come with a group of dancers to Quebec City, and we see what we can do?” So I brought in a lot of ideas. I brought in a lot of crazy ideas, lots of bad ones, which turned out to be good ones. And I thought they were pretty terrible, but then Robert would add technology, and his magic of blocking something differently, a new vantage point from facing the other way, and the camera this way – it would turn into something really interesting.
Right off the bat, the first time we worked on it, we developed about 21 scenes that we were relatively happy with. They weren’t choreography. They were just scenes, meaning that it was the structure. There was a drawing table, and a piano, and a projection from here, and things, and people moving. The process was really informative, because the whole time he had a huge team of people, so there were maybe twelve people in the studio at all times. He’s always looking for the connections and the idea and the structure of the show, and the transitioning, and the chronology, and to make sure we also touch on all the aspects of McLaren’s life, and how one thing influenced the other.
It’s interesting, because we’re basically doing a portrait of a person. His life was actually quite uninteresting in some odd way, because it’s not an opera. Nobody gets hurt. Nobody gets married. It’s one of those things where it’s a life of a person who is just genuinely obsessed by his work, and had a really amazing group of friends, and did some unbelievable things for Canada, and the animation department of the NFB. But ultimately, it’s about the work, and all of these little vignettes of his life come to life through his technologies that he created, and all of this through dance, which I think is the perfect way of honouring him, because music and movement was basically his life. When it gets to the end of his life, then it’s more and more logical, because he started making all these dance films. Those were very iconic, so we make those dance films come to life onstage.
Robert is really interesting in that way, because he’s not afraid of quoting the past. I think as a young creator, you just wanna make sure that you stay away from anything that’s been done before. You want to believe that everything you’re doing is new. But there’s a beauty in trying to reconstruct exactly what it was. You go into Ludmilla Chiriaeff’s choreography from the 70’s, or 80’s, and you reconstruct it with dancers from today. Right away, with that experiment, you realize that with bodies and training of today, what she did 30 years ago was really beautiful. There’s also really value in honouring that, what these people did in that time in Canada. So we decided, “Let’s keep that intact, and let’s just say that we’ll make sure to put in the credit, ‘Ludmilla Chiriaeff choreography’ for that part.” It’s all about making sure that we stay true to the material, and I really loved that process.
[LePage] couldn’t be any more generous as a collaborator. He’s very generous. He is very focused, and when the hammer comes down, it comes down. The nice thing is that I know my place, so I give him everything I’ve got as far as creativity, and ideas, and stuff, and steps, and then he goes, “Oh yeah. Okay.” But then a lot of it is just dissipates. Which is a really great way, because I feel like he’s the one who’s gonna have the last say about how it’s crafted.
The 2018 / 2019 season was just announced. What are you most looking forward to?
I’ve always wanted to do The Dream, because Ashton is classic, and I’m getting up there where I’m aware that the classics are not gonna be too much longer, so I’m really excited that this came now. Of course, I requested it, but I’ve been requesting it for a long time, so I’m sure it’s not my request that made it end up on the programming, but I’m very happy that that’s there.
I’m also really looking forward to, obviously, Being and Nothingness coming back. I’m really looking forward to seeing it again, and working with new dancers, because the company’s so different from four years ago. It’s gonna be really nice. Lots of different casts. I’m really excited about a few new dancers that we have, so I’m looking forward to that. And the Forsythe programme, because William Forsythe is really a master of calculated movement and dance, and I feel that it will just be a really wonderful study for me to do his work. I think the company needs to do that kind of work. It’s very hard, but I think it’s gonna be worth the learning curve. I’m really excited for that.
And then Xiao Nan Yu retiring with The Merry Widow. I’ve danced Merry Widow with her a few times, and they were always so special, and I love her. I think it’s very big of her to walk away while she’s still in her prime, so I think that will be really special.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
Thank you very much for the nomination. You just do your best, and you hope that people really like what you do, and I think what you’re doing is wonderful, too, because it inspires us to keep going.