Q&A: Guillaume Côté, the Toronto dancer who's using video to keep ballet relevant

Canadian dancer Guillaume Côté is trying to keep ballet relevant with technically dazzling short films.

When famed Canadian dancer Guillaume Côté set out to co-create an unconventional, technically dazzling ballet film, he could never have anticipated the response. Since its release in 2011, Lost in Motion has garnered nearly two million views, a stunning result for a classic dance form that's struggling to stay relevant. Côté has since co-created another Lost in Motion video which has over 600,000 views, and along with the National Ballet's Etienne Lavigne has founded a production company, Anymotion Productions, that seeks to educate the masses about ballet. That production company is currently at work on a third video, a clip of Côté's Sartre-inspired Being and Nothingness. Côté is also artistic director of the Festival des Arts de Saint-Saveur, which takes place from July 30 to Aug. 8 in Saint-Saveur, Quebec. 

We caught up with Côté to talk about YouTube, his recent Pan Am Games performance and whether ballet can survive in the digital age.

Your show for the Pan Am Games just finished its run. Can you tell me about it?
It's a choreography that I did a few years ago with Greta Hodgkinson. It's basically about this woman who gets caught between [four] men, and they manipulate her like a puppet. It's about empowerment and her surviving that and overcoming it.

Let's talk about your hugely popular Lost in Motion videos. What was your mandate going into them?
We basically tried to take ballet out of the context of theatre, and tights and lights, and tried to bring it into a contemporary setting. Part of what I love about what I do is the athleticism of it, and I feel like sometimes that's overlooked. The impact of the videos has been just incredible — I've danced in all the major opera houses in the world, and people never used to recognize me when I showed up somewhere new. Now, people do. People have told me that they subscribed to the ballet because of those films.

What sort of reaction were you expecting or hoping for?
We didn't really have any expectations. When we set out to make it, we fundraised for a hell of a long time because there was no money to be made — it wasn't an investment for anyone. I put in probably $20,000 of my own money, and so did the director. We fundraised about $100,000 for the first film.

That's a lot of money for a two-minute movie.
It's a huge chunk of change. We wanted it to look special, because there is so much dance captured on screen, but there aren't a lot of dance videos where the camera amplifies it in such a great way. Both Lost in Motion videos were filmed on green screen, which is an expensive process. Now we're trying to do another kind of film, gearing toward live action a bit more. This third one is a clip of Being and Nothingness.

Before Lost in Motion, did you have much experience with capturing ballet on film?
Yes, but Lost in Motion was insane. We went into the studio at around 7 a.m., and we didn't leave until 2 a.m. I was just jumping on concrete all day, and it was insanity. We were working with a camera that makes beautiful slow motion video.

Did that appeal to the perfectionist in you?
Slow motion is a dancer's worst nightmare. We're all about positions; we're not really about in-betweens, and you see all the in-betweens in slow motion. So you do have to be a perfectionist. It makes you look at yourself under a microscope. In a way, it was beautiful to see that what we do is enough. Sometimes there's a feeling that ballet isn't as entertaining as it can be, and you feel a need to overact or overdo. But I gained an appreciation for the complex simplicity of what we do.

I know everyone always says, "Don't read the comments," but one YouTube commenter lamented the fact that special effects were added to the dancing. They thought the dance should have been allowed to speak for itself. What do you make of that criticism?
I think the effects were incredibly subtle. What was beautiful about those effects is that they weren't adding anything to the actual movement; they just amplified the shape of what was happening. There are always going to be purists in ballet, and there are probably people who didn't agree with the making of the film in the first place. There were a lot of comments and a lot of discussion. The idea of homosexuality came up. Within the comments, there would be something about femininity or homosexuality, that ballet isn't manly, and then there would be 40 comments defending the art of ballet. I actually think Lost in Motion II didn't travel as far because it didn't have that element of controversy.

Your decision to start a production company and to continue making films — is the goal to help ballet stay relevant in the digital age?
One hundred per cent. There's such incredible potential. So You Think You Can Dance is our worst enemy in a lot of ways. It brings dance down to a level where people can easily accept it, but what I'm trying to do with the films is bring people up to what the high arts are doing. In this day and age, with the Internet, people crave excellence. There is so much crap out there that's really bright and flashy and easy to watch, but I think people are over that. People want to know what incredibly talented people do.

You're now choreographing your first full-length ballet with Le Petit Prince. What has it been like for you getting into choreography and taking on an assignment this big?
The good thing about the National Ballet is that if you're talented in something, then without you noticing, you develop organically. Karen [Kain, the National Ballet's artistic director] has an incredible way of seeing talent and not overwhelming you. I've learned so much from choreographing Being and Nothingness — a 40-minute ballet — and I feel like now I'm totally ready to try this full-length one.