Encount3rs in the dark: Guillaume Côte finds some better angels

Guillaume Cote with Artists of the National Ballet in rehearsal. Photo: Aaron Vincent Elkaim

The National Arts Centre has commissioned three new dance works from three of the country’s best choreographers and companies. In addition, each work will be accompanied by a new piece of music by an important Canadian composer, chosen by the choreographers. The music and dance were jointly funded by the NAC’s Music and Dance departments. ARTSFILE has interviewed each of the artists involved in these new works. We have already met Alberta Ballet’s Jean Grand-Maître and composer Andrew Staniland talking about their creation Caelestis. And Ballet BC’s Emily Molnar and composer Nicole Lizée, discussing their work, Keep Driving, I’m Dreaming. Today we meet the National Ballet of Canada’s Guillaume Côté and composer Kevin Lau. They talk about their work Dark Angels. Encount3rs debuts on April 20. Watch for our review.

Guillaume Côté just might be one of the busiest artists in Canada. He is a principal dancer with the National Ballet of Canada. He’s also a choreographer for the NBC. And he’s a father to a three year old and a two month old. He’s just finished dancing in a version of Pinocchio and in June will dance in a re-imagination of A Streetcar Named Desire. He is working with Robert Lepage, yes that Robert Lepage, on a new ballet about the life of the Canadian film-maker Norman McLaren that will be staged next season. And he’s organizing a festival for Place des Arts in Montreal.

But right now, he’s putting the final polish on a new work that he has choreographed in collaboration with the composer Kevin Lau. It’s called Dark Angels and it’s part of the Encount3rs series of performances being staged at the National Arts Centre April 20-22.

It seems Côté likes being busy.

“I’m definitely trying to balance being a dancer and a choreographer that’s why I limit my work to the National Ballet.

“I’m very grateful. I get to keep all those roles I have been dancing for a long time, be part of new creations and also I get to be a creator. I don’t see leaving dancing for a few years but I would like to dive into choreography more and more.

“I can see how some of the choreographers I admire will take some time to develop new work, but that’s always difficult for me because I can’t be 100 per cent in it because I keep the other thing going. But I feel dancing is helping me collaborate with choreographers I admire so it’s the best apprenticeship.”

Collaborations also take place with composers. In Côte’s case, he has worked with Lau on one other project, the main stage ballet called The Little Prince for the National Ballet.

And when Cathy Levy, the director of NAC Dance came knocking with a commission and a list of composers to work with, he picked Lau.

“I jumped on the opportunity. It’s not every day you get a brand new score. There is something about it that is so magical and something that is just petrifying. It’s not always a sure bet with new work.”

Côté says he and Lau had worked well together on Little Prince.

“At the time the NAC approached, I suggested Kevin because I was working with him on The Little Prince and it just made sense.”

Côté says he suggested that Lau create the music first.

“I thought that the really good things that happened in Little Prince were the things that happened musically first.

“It’s just so beautiful when a composer writes music they find thrilling musically. He went ahead.”

Côté and Lau wanted to do something that differed from the lyricism of The Little Prince.

“We set out to make something more rhythmical, percussive. I gave a few references to things I really loved such as music by (the industrial rock band) Nine Inch Nails and (Stravinsky’s) Rite of Spring.”

When Côté first heard Lau’s score, he was a bit stunned.

“My only thought was: ‘Kevin, I only have a few dancers. I can’t possibly match this music. This is massive’.”

But he figured it out and started to work.

“At that point we didn’t have a title, but what we did have was a concept of doing something that was very much virtuoso. It has become a bit ‘untrendy’ to use virtuosity. It’s cool now to go under all the time.

“But in Beethoven, the orchestra is pushed. I feel like Kevin did that. His music is complex. It’s not an easy piece. Choreographically, I wanted to go that route as well.”

To do that he needed a group of great dancers. He ended up with 10 of them. Luckily, the least busy group at the time working for the National Ballet were his friends.

“I’m a principal dancer too and they are all my friends. I was able to get a lot of them to work with me on this. It’s an all-star cast. Greta Hodgkinson, Xiao Nan Lu, Svetlana Lunkina, Elena Lobsanova, Sonia Rodriguez for the women. The men are: Harrison James, Evan McKie, Dylan Tedaldi, Félix Paquet and Skylar Campbell.

“I really wanted each of them to display their own talents. So I wanted to push them individually. I worked on solos and duos trying to find something special about each person. It came out that when they danced together a dynamic emerged.”

What interests Côté about virtuosity is that it is about resistance to what is possible.

“Either it’s a counterpoint in someone else or a counterpoint within yourself, or a counterpoint in weight. I feel you can overcome so much more when you combine with another person. Energy gets so much more powerful when more people work together.”

At first, he said, he was having the dancers doing solos. “Eventually I realized if you had them working together, the collective was so much powerful than any solo ever could be even if the solo was brilliant.”

“I found it liberating to just try to dig deep into what the score means to me. Hopefully people will have their own interpretation of what they think the dance is.”

The Little Prince and another piece called Being and Nothingness were very literal projects, he said. “Getting away from that was actually really nice.”

There were time limits and other restrictions imposed on the work, but that didn’t faze Côté.

“Sometimes when someone gives you a blank canvas, it’s very difficult. But if someone gives you a blank canvas and says do something using only red and blue and in the shape of triangles you will probably do something great.

“There were a lot of restrictions here, scheduling-wise; I could only use a few dancers. I had a restricted, small amount of time to create it. At same time I feel the restrictions have made the work what it is. I’m happy with where it is and the dancers really like dancing it.”

The title the work has assumed is Dark Angels and that implies something perhaps sinister.

“The overall atmosphere is dark. … It’s raw, really raw. It’s not pretty. It’s dark beauty.”

For more information, including about tickets, please see nac-cna.ca.


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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.