An Exercise of Imagination

Meet Guillaume Côté, the mastermind behind the National Ballet of Canada’s newest original production, Le Petit Prince.

Published in S/ magazine, Spring 2016. Read it here.

Throughout his career, principal dancer Guillaume Côté has dabbled in the art of choreography with several short pieces for stage and film, but this spring, the National Ballet of Canada will premiere his first full-length ballet: Le Petit Prince. It’s an exciting, yet daunting task for the 34-year-old Québec-born dancer. And for someone who is not only the company’s principal dancer but also its choreographic associate (and all-around star of the company), Côté is surprisingly humble and genuine.

“I feel excited to get in the studio, but I’m petrified, too,” he says, hugging his right leg to his chest, foot propped up on the Starbucks windowsill. “I think taking on a project of this scale this early on in my choreography career could make or break [it].”

Côté’s rendition of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s 1943 children’s novella—which tells the tale of a little boy who adventures to various planets, meeting a host of characters who serve as allegories of the many facets of human nature—easily translates the story’s fantastical elements and emotional intensity to ballet form. “The more I dig deep in the story, the more I realize how well it’s catered towards dance,” he says.

This ballet marks the company’s first full-lenth, Canadian-choreographed piece in 10 years, with set and costume design by Michael Levine, and music by Kevin Lau. “I never went into it thinking of assembling a Canadian team. I just picked the best people and it turned out that way,” he explains. “So that’s a good testament to Canadian talent.”

As a standing member of the company with close relationships with his peers, Côté has an advantage that guest choreographers don’t. He is able to capture each dancer’s unique personality in the roles he develops for them. Dylan Tedaldi who is cast in the title role, is appropriately “dreamlike,” while Piotr Stanczyk (Côté’s best friend and reputedly the “most jaded person” he knows), will dance in the role of the adult aviator whose life is changed after meeting the innocent young prince. “Maybe the experience will help him open up and reach the child in him,” he says.

According to Côté, what is possibly the most interesting aspect of Le Petit Prince is that if you ask anyone who has read the book, there’s a good chance they won’t be able to tell you what it’s about. The book isn’t tied to reality, nor is it linear—rather it is emotionally driven and metaphorical.“When you say [a tale] is a children’s story…you free yourself from telling a coherent story,” Côté says.

Reading Le Petit Prince to his one-year-old daughter, Emma, has helped Côté tune into the childlike wonder that permeates the story. “Children are able to see beyond the cover of things; beyond appearances,” he muses.

And like any children’s fable, this story has ample depth to intrigue readers of any age, and ballet is a potent medium for its expression. “So much of that unspoken, unwritten innuendo of jealousy, tension, sexuality…all these things that you’re not [explicitly] finding in the book you can probably find even more of in the ballet,” promises Côté.

Le Petit Prince runs June 4–12, 2016 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto.