Guillaume Côté, Ballet's Smartphone Pioneer

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Why you should care

Because ballet may be 600 years old, but it’s getting a new look. 

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Guillaume Côté springs into the air and then stays there, afloat. He is dark-haired, perfectly proportioned and, let’s face it, sexy. The choreography is balletic and modern, his own, and his spine does things Balanchine couldn’t have devised. The lines of Côté’s body extend toe to head, arm to arm. The camera rolls, take after take, jump after jump. The YouTube views add up too: a couple hundred, a couple thousand and then … 2 million views.

It’s kind of funny, Côté says four years later, but he gained “more attention from a two-minute video” than he did dancing in the best opera houses in the world. This, of course, has much to do with ballet’s declining fortunes: The 600-year-old art form set to classical music doesn’t totally fly with millennials — the share of Americans who attended a ballet dropped from a measly 3.9 percent in 2002 to an even more dismal 2.7 percent in 2012, according to the National Endowment for the Arts. That’s where Côté, 34, comes in. Yes, he can dance — and choreograph, and compose music too — but perhaps most important, he can package for a generation loath to turn off its smartphones at the theater. His production company, Anymotion, turns those very smartphone screens into a sneaky vehicle for its ballet videos.

Historically, ballet has refused to have much to do with video. While dancers watch clips to learn the steps to a new dance, these low-budget, grainy pieces tend to suck the life right out of the grand jeté — they’re utilitarian and drab. Côté’s videos, on the other hand, are expressly made to convert non-ballet audiences into fanatics of the pirouette, and so they have style, verve, swagger. His moves are not purely traditional — Côté’s toes are not always pointed, the lines of his body not always euclidean — because, he says, “there’s a little more humanness in breaking the classical form.”

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Source Sian Richards / the National Ballet of Canada

Côté’s parents weren’t dancers — they taught primary school — but they itched for more culture than provincial Lac-Saint-Jean, Quebec, with its hockey games and aluminum industry, provided. And so they founded a ballet school. Mom was the administrator, Dad the set designer, and the teacher was imported from Montreal. Côté and his half-dozen or so cousins all attended. The typical assumption would be that Côté was bullied for wearing tights, but that wasn’t the case; Côté has albums full of photos of him and his cousins happily wearing spandex.

Côté was a prodigy. At 10, he switched from his parents’ school to Canada’s National Ballet School, and then moved up to apprentice at the National Ballet of Canada. By 17, he was part of the company. Nowadays, he’s not only a principal dancer but also a choreographic associate. He recently got the go-ahead for his full-on choreographic debut: This June, the National Ballet of Canada will stage Côté’s Le Petit Prince, which will be the first new full-length Canadian ballet it’s commissioned in 20 years. Yep, The Little Prince is also being made into a movie this year and it’s a total coincidence.

But his passion may lie in performances that will never be on the stage. Côté started his production company after the surprise success of his first video, Lost in Motion. Soon after, he made Lost in Motion II, starring his wife, Heather Ogden, who’s also a principal at the National Ballet of Canada. (Ogden recently gave birth to their first child.) Lost in Motion III will take the concept further. For starters, it’ll involve multiple dancers, and Côté also plans some surreal play with time, speed and dimension — stop-motion antics and other things only a camera could do. The goal: “A video game feel,” he says.

Since Côté’s 2011 foray on camera, others have followed suit. In February 2015, there was ballet’s bad boy Sergei Polunin, racking up 12 million YouTube views with an angsty, David LaChapelle–directed performance set to Hozier’s “Take Me to Church.” In May, the Boston Ballet posted a slo-mo video to promote their lineup (hashtag #rethinkballet). Was the video inspired by Côté’s work? Well, his videos certainly provide “a glimpse into the art form, which entices somebody who is not already involved in it,” says Mikko Nissinen, the company’s artistic director.

There are downsides to the video approach, of course. While it gives dancers and choreographers a direct-to-viewer platform, unmediated by a $180 ticket, it also strips away context. The field of vision is necessarily smaller — the camera often zeroing on the movement of an arm or a torso — than in the theater, where a cast of dancers creates patterns and repetitions against the backdrop of an expansive stage. “Small-screen” ballet also seems to require more explicit drama: billowing fabrics, passionate expressions. In the theater, ballet is much less “emotionally overwrought than some of these videos would lead you to think,” says Marina Harss, a writer and member of the Dance Critics Association.

Then there’s the revenue model problem: There isn’t much of one. Lost in Motion was funded by grants and individuals (including Côté himself), but after 2 million YouTube views, Côté kind of figured that “it would snowball into resources.” It hasn’t. Which is why Anymotion is now exploring the idea of putting its videos on iTunes. They’ve also partnered with a London production company, Crystal Ballet, which has a Netflix-like subscription model for ballet-video junkies.

For now, though, Côté seems happy enough to be able to make people realize — or “put a worm in their brains,” as he puts it — that they might actually, shockingly, enjoy ballet.

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