Guillaume Côté is doing a duet. But he is the only dancer on the stage.
A Steadicam operator clad in black moves with him, stepping forward to capture an arabesque at a proximity no live audience member would ever see, and stalking in a circle around him as he dances.
The performance – which broadcast via livestream on Thursday night, and is also available on demand – is part of the virtual programming at the Fall for Dance North festival. This filming at the Harbourfront Centre in Toronto involved four cameras, months of planning and a shot list comprising 30 pages of notes timed down to the second.
“I do love the camera, as a choreographic tool,” Côté said. The principal dancer and choreographic associate at the National Ballet of Canada is presenting the piece, called +(dix), as part of his newly formed dance collective, Côté Danse. While Côté has made dance films before – such as Lulu, part of the National Ballet’s “Expansive Dances” series produced during the pandemic, and Being and Nothingness – Thursday’s performance was his first time doing so live.
“It makes me a lot more nervous than I would be for a film. A film you can cut. Although, magic is hard to produce for a film that you know you can keep cutting,” said Côté, who is one of five dancers and choreographer of the piece. “It has an element of spontaneity, which I think is essential.”
The myth of Odysseus was the inspiration for Côté's choreography in the piece, which was conceived during the pandemic – a time when travellers were summoned home, and when the very concept of the people and places we call home gained new importance. Côté said he wanted to explore that concept, and convey the arc of a journey through the piece.
The choreography and rehearsals came together over two periods, the first during September, 2020. During those weeks, all the dancers – originally Côté planned for 10 but cut the number in half for safety – were masked and stayed two metres apart. He focused on choreographing precise sequences, in unison, that could be danced at a distance. The group came together again in July of this year, when Côté was able to add partnered sequences.
The piece had its debut in August at Le Festival des Arts de Saint-Sauveur, where Côté is artistic director. It was performed in the round, in a tent, for an audience of roughly 200 people per night, and was his first time performing live on stage in almost 18 months.
The time away from the stage has also led Côté to reflect on the future.
“One day perhaps I won’t be dancing. So maybe [Côté Danse] is also trying to build something without me actually being onstage,” he said. “... What makes sense right now to me is to try to keep growing. I’m a choreographer at heart. I really love it. I want to get better at it. The only way to get better is to keep doing it.”
Through the month of August, the group has been rehearsing and reshaping the work for the cameras. Earlier in the pandemic, dance films “felt like a patch” while stage productions were put on hold, Côté said.
“But I feel that it’s evolved very beautifully in the last year,” he said. “I think they can both live together. If you’re livestreaming something that is made for the stage – and whatever is happening is just captured with still cameras – I’m not sure I believe that’s going to ever be popular. But I do think that if there’s a new proposition, whether it’s behind the scenes, or something added to the experience of being in the audience ... there’s definitely a plus.”
Director Vikram Dasgupta worked with Côté, attending rehearsals and breaking down every angle of the piece. In addition to the Steadicam, he employed a crane to show the audience perspective of the stage, a camera in the corner with a tight lens to capture the dancers faces and movements up close, and an overhead shot.
“That’s what is interesting for me, to get that vantage point. ... How can we get to be with the dancer?” Dasgupta said. “Guillaume dances with his whole heart. We can do all these bells and whistles, but if we don’t capture that, it doesn’t matter.”
At the Harbourfront Centre theatre, crew members filled just a few of the audience seats. Dasgupta hovered over a monitor throughout the performance, giving directions through a headset. Though far smaller than Fall for Dance’s typical audiences, 75 households tuned in for the livestream on Thursday and approximately another 100 have so far purchased tickets to watch the piece on demand.
Standing on stage after the performance ended, the lights up, Côté thanked the crew. “You were definitely the seventh dancer,” he said, counting the Steadicam operator as part of the cast. To perform live for an audience, to convey something, was meaningful, he said – particularly after so many months away. “This is why we do this.”
Fall for Dance North runs through Oct. 29, with a mix of in-person performances and digital content at ffdnorth.com.
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