by Michael Crabb

Guillaume Côté, the 34-year-old National Ballet of Canada star, is a generally affable and courteous man, but these days it’s not always easy to get his undivided attention. It’s late summer and we’re sitting at a table on the patio of a trendy neighbourhood coffee shop overlooking Toronto’s Don Valley, where we’ve met to talk about his rapidly evolving career. The city’s impressive bank-tower and condo-spiked skyline looms beyond the lush greenery of Riverdale Park. It’s only a few blocks from the home Côté shares with his wife and fellow principal dancer, Heather Ogden. She’s sitting across from Côté and the new woman in his life is on her lap — their daughter Emma, born in early January 2015 — to whom Côté’s eyes are constantly drawn. Côté’s unfettered pride and delight in being the father of such a bonny babe is clear.

“Having a child has deepened my relationship with Heather and it makes you worry less about the little things. It makes you realize what’s important in life. I like to think it’s made me a nicer person.”

Ogden, who has been back from maternity leave since July, now has to balance her professional obligations with motherhood; Côté, who does not shirk his share of parenting duties, also has a formidable professional agenda.

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Guillaume Côté with artists of the National Ballet of Canada in rehearsal for Le Petit Prince. Photo: Aaron Vincent Elkaim

At the time of our interview, Côté is recently returned from his home province, Quebec, having completed his first season as artistic director of Le Festival des Arts de Saint-Sauveur, held for 10 days each summer in a picturesque village in the Laurentians, an hour’s drive north from Montreal. As the National Ballet’s ranking and much-needed male principal, Côté is also strategizing his return to the stage after being sidelined since December 2014 by a serious knee injury that required surgery and lengthy rehabilitation. He’d hoped to be back for the company’s early October tour to Montreal, but on doctors’ advice has set Romeo and Juliet in late November as a more appropriate target.

Meanwhile, Côté has taken on the biggest challenge of his emerging choreographic career, a full-length adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s beloved yet enigmatic fable, Le Petit Prince, to be given its premiere by the National Ballet on June 1. Understandably, as Côté explains, another of his passions, music composition, has had to be moved at least temporarily to the back burner.

Men usually have to be coaxed into ballet tights. Guillaume Côté leapt into them at age four. He grew up in Lac-à-la-Croix, a rural town about a three-hour drive north of Quebec City. His mother, not a dancer herself, had gone into partnership with a former university friend to open a dance school. His older sister, Geneviève, was already studying there. Côté was eager to follow. He also studied piano, clarinet and classical guitar, and fantasized about becoming a rock star. (In later years he took composition classes at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto and picked up the cello, “just for fun.”) His ballet teacher, France Proulx, kept him focused on his primary talent and persuaded René and Germaine Côté to allow their young son to audition for the National Ballet School in Toronto, knowing that if he was accepted he’d be leaving home.

“It’s only now that I fully understand how hard it was for them to see me go,” says Côté. He remembers the tears in his father’s eyes every time Côté left home to return to the National Ballet School after visiting.

Côté arrived in Toronto speaking hardly a word of English. It was only when fellow student Éric Gauthier, four years his senior, invited Côté to join a school band that he began to settle in. “Éric was like my big brother,” says Côté. “He helped me a lot.” Gauthier went on to become a soloist with Stuttgart Ballet before forming his own company. Given their history, it’s not surprising that Côté presented Gauthier Danse as part of his first season at Saint-Sauveur.

Côté joined the National Ballet as a 17-year-old apprentice in 1998 just a few months before ballerina Kimberly Glasco launched an unlawful dismissal suit against the company, unleashing a stormy period in James Kudelka’s artistic directorship. Ogden, who came to Toronto from the Richmond Academy of Dance in British Columbia, joined the same year.

At age 19, Côté was cast as the prince in Swan Lake, the youngest Siegfried in National Ballet history. By 2001, he and Ogden were dancing the title leads in Romeo and Juliet. Côté was promoted to principal dancer in 2003. Ogden rose to that rank the following year.

The two young dancers, often cast as partners, established a good working chemistry. However, as Côté made it clear that his interest in her was also romantic, Ogden admits she was hesitant, concerned it might damage their professional relationship. It was not until 2006 that they became a couple, finally marrying in 2010. Côté took Ogden all the way to a favourite spot in Florence, Italy, to propose. He also wrote the song, If This Is a Dream, to which they danced at their wedding.

Asked for the first three words that spring to mind in describing her husband, Ogden pauses briefly before venturing, “driven, loving, thoughtful.”

While their personal bond has only grown stronger through the years, theirs has never been an exclusive onstage partnership, nor has the National Ballet tried to promote Côté and Ogden as a 21st-century equivalent of Karen Kain and Frank Augustyn, the company’s legendary “gold-dust twins” of the 1970s. Even so, audiences have come to view the couple as the National Ballet’s most prominent stage partnership. Its special quality is particularly apparent in Alexei Ratmansky’s Romeo and Juliet. There is an ardour and abandon to their dancing that speaks eloquently of deep trust and mutual love.

Assuming his mended knee holds up, Côté is moving into his peak performing years as a dance artist, but they are inevitably numbered. Prudently, he is already thinking about the future. Unlike some of his male colleagues who’ve moved into unrelated careers, Côté’s ambitions remain firmly within the dance world. Depending on the success of Le Petit Prince, his choreographic career could blossom internationally, but there’s also talk within Canadian ballet circles that Côté is being groomed as a future National Ballet artistic director.

Like Karen Kain before him, Côté could have left Canada to pursue a career abroad. “There have been plenty of offers,” he says. “I’ve had options.” Côté has appeared as a guest with a host of major troupes from Britain’s Royal Ballet to American Ballet Theatre. He has been part of the popular international showcase, Kings of the Dance, three times.

Nevertheless, he’s remained loyal to his roots, in part, he explains, because artistic director Kain has delivered on her promise to put the National Ballet back on the touring map, giving dancers like Côté the international exposure they naturally crave. And, as he has learned from his travels, “the grass isn’t always greener on the other side.”

That loyalty has been reciprocated. Were she unsure of his commitment to the National Ballet, Kain would not have nurtured Côté’s dancemaking career and in 2013 appointed him to a new position as choreographic associate, effectively a resident choreographer. Least of all would Kain have taken what she herself concedes is a major risk in agreeing to commission Le Petit Prince. A full-length ballet is, as Côté himself admits, “a very different monster.”

Côté explains that he’s loved the 1943 Saint-Exupéry classic since childhood, but understands this is insufficient reason to make a ballet of it. Le Petit Prince, after all, while full of arresting characters, is thin on actual narrative and, as befits an allegory, has a strong philosophical thread. Côté, however, is convinced dance can capture and express the powerful ideas and emotions that have made Le Petit Prince one of the world’s most-read volumes.

Côté first approached Kain with his ambitious plan in 2012, requesting an allotment of time and studio space to “test the waters” and workshop his ideas. The first session was held in the summer of 2013. Côté assembled his key collaborators, acclaimed designer Michael Levine and rising composer Kevin Lau, both Canadians. He also consulted a noted Saint-Exupéry authority, long-time staff writer for The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik. By the third workshop, held this past January, Kain had signed-off on a full production.

By summer, Levine and Côté were finalizing the designs. Lau, meanwhile, has made Côté’s choreographic task easier by providing a piano reduction of the complete score. It helped during three weeks of intense rehearsal in September.

Côté says he now has a clear idea of where he’s heading so he’ll be ready for the final “big push” in late April/early May. “But there’s never enough time,” he laments. Perhaps that explains why, according to Ogden, he also works out his ideas at home in their kitchen.

Something Côté had not anticipated was the opportunity afforded by rehabilitation from his injury to watch as many ballet videos as he could. “I’d never had much time to do that before and it was a valuable chance to research how different choreographers approach the business of constructing a ballet.” He’s also had the benefit of working at the National Ballet with a range of leading choreographers, reprising and creating roles. “I’m not pretending I’m a Ratmansky or Wheeldon, but I do get to be around these geniuses.”

Côté is ardent in expressing his appreciation for Kain’s commitment to developing Canadian choreographers and admits that one day he’d be happy to find himself in a similar position, nurturing other artists’ futures and helping sustain an institutional framework to support them. His experience at Saint-Sauveur has already given him a taste of what that can involve. Apart from artistic programming — music and dance — he’s worked closely with its board of directors, helped with fundraising, and given public speeches, post-performance talks and countless media interviews.

“As far as being a director is concerned it’s been the best kind of internship,” says Côté.

Does this mean he would throw his hat in the ring when Kain decides to retire?

“I’d certainly love to be considered. The company is my home and I know its ins and outs. I love the idea of being in the back of things. I also think I could bring something coherent to the company. However, my belief is that whoever takes over should have retired from the stage and I’ve still got some great dancing left to do.”


Featured photo of Guillaume Côté by Aleksandar Antonijevic, courtesy of the National Ballet of Canada
Featured photo of Guillaume Côté by Aleksandar Antonijevic, courtesy of the National Ballet of Canada