Guillaume Côté had this idea see.
“For a long time I have wanted to do something that is narrative, something that is new and fiction,” the principal dancer and associate choreographer of the National Ballet of Canada.
“About two years I had this dinner with (the filmmaker and opera director) Atom Egoyan and I asked if he would be willing to do something like this with me.”
Egoyan said he’d like to collaborate but he also said that there was another Canadian who might be better suited to work on a ballet libretto.
“He said ‘He’s Canadian and he lives in New York and he is a star in the opera world.”
Egoyan was speaking of Alberta native Royce Vavrek.
“I called Royce,” Côté said.
“He’s worked with opera his whole life.” Adding to his lustre, Vavrek’s opera, Angel’s Bone, with composer Du Yun was awarded the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Music.
The phone call led to a dinner in New York where Vavrek delved into the story of Angel’s Bone, which is a one act opera. It follows the plight of two angels discovered on earth who are forced into spiritual and sexual slavery at the hands of a financially troubled couple. The work is a parable about human trafficking.
“This was something interesting. I thought that it was very beautiful. It was original and creative. It was fictional and narrative.”
Turns out that Vavrek loved the idea of creating a libretto for a new work by Côté and the result is Crypto, a small contemporary ballet that was being workshopped at the National Arts Centre recently in a residency when this interview took place. The project has received funding from the National Arts Centre’s National Creation Fund among other sources of support including the NAC Dance department.
Crypto is a 75-minute four person contemporary dance-theatre piece prepared by Anymotion Productions. The piece features Côté, Greta Hodgkinson, soon to retire principal dancer with the National Ballet of Canada, Drew Jacoby, principal dancer at the Royal Ballet of Flaunders in Belgium and Matt Foley, a soloist at the Royal Ballet of Flaunders. Hodgkinson will leave the National after a final performance in March.
Crypto tells the story of a man who captures a mythological creature and decides to surgically modify it to keep the creature and hide it in plain sight. Beauty myth anyone?
The performance will feature recorded dialogue, poems and a musical score by Swedish composer Mikael Karlsson. The work will also feature visual effects by the Montreal multimedia company Hub Studio.
In the case of Karlsson, Côté had to work a bit to convince him to work on Crypto.
The Swedish composer is iconic in the dance world and he works with many of the most exciting choreographers in the planet such as Alexander Ekman, who is known for, among other things, a Swan Lake production in which he filled an entire stage with water.
“I met him in Europe. The only way I convinced him to do the project was because he is good friends with Royce. He said I could use some music that he already had made, but once he started he became very passionate about (Crypto).”
Karlsson ended up writing a new score.
Côté says he fell in love with Vavrek’s narrative “right away. I have a fascination and love for fairy tales. Within a fairy tale there is always a deeper meaning and message. I wanted a story that wasn’t real; that was exaggerated but that could apply to modern life and how we are living now.
“(Crypto) is a danceable story because it made especially for dance. The action is situational. It’s about people interacting, about they attract each other and how they touch each other and how they feel each other.”
The libretto for the ballet is more like a poem. It fits the ethos of dance, Côté said.
“It gives you images and verbal direction without actually giving you the narrative. The way we use multimedia is similar I like to think that we show a poetic interpretation of things. We aren’t spelling it out.”
There is another motive for Crypto, he said.
“The project came about because I wanted to do a contemporary ballet on a small scale. I love the idea of touring the piece to smaller towns.
“I think the future of our art form is to take it to small places so people can actually experience it live. We are feeding the younger generation a lot of ideas about video and simulcast, but there is something about a live performance that is very exciting. I want to be part of that. That is why project is special to me.”
True to his word, Crypto will be seen in places in Quebec such as L’Assomption, Alma (near Côté’s home town of Lac St-Jean) and Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu this March. There will also be performances in Montreal at Théâtre Maisonneuve (presented by Danse Danse) and in Toronto at the Bluma Appel Theatre (presented by Canadian Stage). Expect a performance at the NAC in the not too distant future and international dates are under consideration.
Crypto is challenging. It is built on a big idea.
“It’s a statement on relationships mostly,” Côté said. “It’s about the dynamic between a couple struggling to find each other. They cut this ‘apple’ in order to save whatever they think they can save of their relationship but ultimately they end up stuck in the same place.”
The piece is also an exploration of the limits of dance theatre. There is a sound track with voice and text being read.
“I am using quite a bit of very structured multi-media in a way that is coherent to the action, to the choreography.”
Côté credits working with Robert Lepage on the project Frame X Frame, a ballet about the NFB’s great animator Norman McLaren, for giving him some new tools to work with.
However, “I don’t know if I’m making a statement about where dance is going. I’m just doing something I wanted to do.
“The one thing that dance is terrible at is admitting that there needs to be every type of dance out there. There needs to be a proposition on small scale classical narrative work.
“In the dance world so many people say ‘Dance just needs to be dance by itself’. I agree that is one of the most beautiful ways. I have done shows like that and I am in shows like that all the time. But you can see beauty in different arrangements.
“The one thing I do think that doing a dance (such as Crypto) this way has is maybe it easier to communicate the story. If you are uneducated about or you don’t have the dance bug this show will still be very entertaining for you.
“We hate this word but it is accessible. A lot of people in the dance world will say if you make something accessible then it’s not art. I disagree with that. Accessibility does not mean something lacks artistry.”
Putting together a project like this takes determination. You have to work through all the preliminaries such as convincing artists to work on it, raising funds and finding precious time.
“It is humbling because you realize you are so dependent on every player all the time. It is a lesson in putting teams together. You can find people who are passionate and who will go above and beyond for you if you aspire to create something that is truly collaborative. I feel that’s how this project happened — through the team. I can take credit for assembling the team.”
Côté is fitting this in among all his other commitments including his work with the National Ballet.
“This year, I didn’t take a (choreographic) commission because I wanted to make this project happen.”
It helps that he has a good business partner in Etienne Lavigne (who just happens to be married to Greta Hodgkinson).
“We have been best friends from school. He is now an incredible producer. He is the executive director and general manager of the Saint-Sauveur Arts Festival. I’m the artistic director there.
“He’s been very helpful in pulling the project together.”
Côté has known Hodgkinson for more than 20 years.
“Some of my most successful shows have been created for her.”
This will be a year of change at the National Ballet. Hodgkinson is leaving the company and so it artistic director Karen Kain. The search for a replacement is underway.
Côté isn’t shy about saying that’s a job that interests him.
“I really want that job. It’s what I have been working towards for a long time. But the timing is tricky, because I’m still dancing. And I’m working outside the company with big projects on the go. These are things I want to see through. I don’t know if this is the time or it will be the next time, but I will apply.”
Côté says it’s more a matter of what the company wants at the moment.
“I am a strong personality and I know what I want and I know how I want to do things. That’s a good thing. They will know clearly if I’m the choice or not.”
He knows these jobs don’t come open often, so that, no doubt, adds more intense focus.
He has an understanding of the needs of a production and he knows about putting together a season of dance but true to his roots, he feels that his main responsibility would be to see “that all these amazing dancers are well looked after.”