by Erin Baldwin
"What is a show? What is a performance? Is it an experience like Sleep No More in New York where you go into a space, you choose your own adventure and there are many things going on in different rooms? Is a performance something that you sit and enjoy? Is a performance something that is immersive? Or is it something that is more of a display? It brings in so many questions, and a venue doing that is really great."
Guillaume Côté x Lighthouse Immersive
by Jeremy Lewis
The events of the past six months may have shaken the dance world but, for Guillaume Côté, there is an opportunity for innovation in this contemporary moment. No stranger to Toronto audiences, Côté is a revered principal dancer and choreographer at The National Ballet of Canada. In 2018, the NBoC premiered Côté’s full-length choreographic work Frame by Frame, an experimental, multidisciplinary collaboration with filmmaker Robert Lepage that interweaved various media to tell the life and work of another Canadian filmmaker, the legendary Norman McLaren. While the NBoC and other large-scale performing arts venues have been forced into hiatuses in recent months, Côté has continued bringing film and dance together. He has created short films with both the National Ballet of Canada and the Festival des Arts de Saint-Saveur, where he is also the artistic director, and is currently beginning work on a performance piece for the Lighthouse Immersive exhibit space.
Recently, Côté sat down with smART Magazine editor Michael Zarathus-Cook to discuss the intersection of dance and technology, immersive art and his latest projects.
What excites you about rising to meet this moment where it seems traditional art forms can't be exhibited in traditional spaces?
Dance shows promise in this kind of climate but, at the same time, I think it's to be handled very sensibly. I find what's special about dance is truly the connection with the flesh, the breath, the grounding, the personal relationship, the energy, the magnetism of the person and of the people connecting to each other. The one thing that I do feel that I very much am lacking – in ways of transferring dance to technology – is a little bit of that connection and that sensitivity of humanity.
In Lincoln Center a few years back, they had these slow-motion dance videos that were projected on the side of the Metropolitan Opera. They were massive and they were very beautiful – they were quite spectacular in showing something blown-up to scale to a point where it looks like a giant is moving. There were all these dancers doing moves in extreme slow motion. It was mesmerizing to watch. That being said, the longevity of the focus for something like that would be, you know, a 15-minute kind of interest. Whether or not it translates to more, to a longer experience, is to be discovered. I'm feeling like it's a really great thing that so many of us see potential but it's a matter of finding the right way to cultivate that potential.
I feel that from working with Robert Lepage extensively in the last few years – he's a very famous director and also he uses technology often – the really beautiful thing that we shared was truly that technology is merely a tool to enhance what is already happening and not trying to dehumanize it by making the product digital. I would say that no matter how much I like videos, I still find that the organic humanity of it all is what will make people want to show up to a performance.
We have to find ways of filming and using these kinds of Immersive Lighthouse spaces in ways that are going to combine the live aspect with the idea of being immersed in a digital experience. There's something called The Rain Room by Wayne McGregor. Water was dripping from the ceiling, as the name would indicate. It was raining in the room the entire time, but there were dancers dancing in that room as the rain was falling. It just felt like the entirety of the look, of the space, of the message was very coherent. It made for an experience I will never forget because I felt like it was a living and breathing analog experience that was very different. I'm looking for ways that art can expand and do different things, but not by extracting what's most beautiful about it.
"Let's use that space for what it can really be, which is a phenomenally different experience, an immersive kind of experience."
Sticking with Lighthouse Immersive, what do you feel is uniquely possible in that particular space versus a more traditional space like The Four Seasons or, as you just mentioned, other more experimental spaces that you've been in?
I find that space immensely exciting in so many regards. I find the possibilities are a little bit endless. That's a bit of the problem at the moment, as well. It’s endless in a way that we have to find a new way of structuring a show. What is a show? What is a performance? Is it an experience like Sleep No More in New York where you go to a space, you choose your own adventure and there are many things going on in different rooms? Is a performance something that you sit and enjoy? Is a performance something that is immersive? Or is it something that is more of a display? It brings in so many questions and a venue doing that is really great.
Many of my friends are into the visual arts. When the Van Gogh thing was commissioned to come here, they were kind of going ugh, because they’re purists. They feel that Van Gogh’s paintings should be looked at in a museum in their original format. I’m going, well, what if thousands of people are more attracted to going to see them come to life and being immersed in them than going to the museum? Then, you're winning. In the same way with dance, I feel that, yes, it's great if people go see a three-hour ballet at The Four Seasons. But what about a performance experience that could last 25-minutes where they walk around this really fantastic venue and the dance is kind of around them, or interacting with them?
I find that, for Toronto, this is a first. It’s very exciting – I’m so curious what the Toronto community will find to create within this space. I had instantly about 12 ideas of things I wanted to see happen here. The key is to praise Svetlana and the production company who has put it together. It’s the investment and the risk: in order to develop something in that space, you’re going to have to invest a substantial amount of money to be able to develop something that’s curated and created for that very space. That’s challenging.
The space is so beautiful. It’s challenging because it’s intimidating. I’m a big fan of Show One and the production companies that have come together to do the Van Gogh exhibit because I find that this was very much the right content for that room to work to its full capacity. For me as a dance artist and as a choreographer and creator, I’m thinking of ways that I can maximize the entirety of that space in order to make that space make sense for whatever we're presenting – not just trying to use that space just to use a new space. Let's use that space for what it can really be, which is a phenomenally different experience, an immersive kind of experience.
"I’m so curious what the Toronto community will find to create within this space. I had instantly
about 12 ideas of things I wanted to see happen here. The key is to praise Svetlana and the production company who has put it together. ."
I know it’s still in the nascent stages – the concepts that you're developing with Lighthouse Immersive. Are you able to comment on any of them?
We live in a time – at the moment – where touching, the touch, the negative space between people is somewhat being adjusted. We are adjusting ourselves to react to people differently, to react to people’s energies differently. Also, we are going to now start feeling like touching someone is the most precious thing. It’s become almost like breaking the bubble into someone else’s magnetic field is more sacred than ever because it’s life threatening, in a way.
I like that experiment of two people and the idea of touch, the idea of breaking the negative space between two human beings. I'm looking at ways in which I could have two live dancers but amplified through live projection. Essentially a choreographed little sequence where these two strangers kind of tame each other and then get to a point where touching becomes a reality and then interest. There’s all this really beautiful, kind of underlying tension between these two people until they touch. Once they touch, colour and magic takes off. That's the moment I think we can really expand with a few effects of projections and things.
The message being that I think touch will always be the most primary desire that we all have. In a way, it’s a beautiful thing that this is making touch more valuable than ever, holding your mom’s hand is now becoming something so precious and I love that idea. I love that we are valuing that part of being human again. Also, the idea of contagion – the idea that touching one person is also touching everyone else they've touched. This is a beautiful idea as well because, metaphorically, if you touch somebody in the most beautiful and positive way, it’s also to show this spreads in the most beautiful and positive way.
It’s an interesting idea. We don’t know yet about length or whether this idea is successful. There’s still technical wizardry that needs to be figured out and also investment and cost – all of the things nobody really wants to talk about, but it’s a reality: things need money to develop.
How have you been staying creatively active during this hiatus? What’s been keeping you going and keeping you primed?
I've produced – with the Festival des Arts de Saint-Sauveur where I’m artistic director – 10 dance films where there was new music and new dance. It was a collaboration with Yannick Nezet-Seguin and the Orchestre Metropolitain in Montreal. These films were all about five-minutes long and they were about the idea of creating under this circumstance, which is COVID-19. It was all supposed to be solos. Now they’re all online on the website, www.festivaldesarts.ca. It’s a beautiful series of films – I took part in one with Yannick playing at the piano so that kept me busy for the entirety of the summer.
I also did a film called Lulu with some of the collaborators I will be collaborating with for this Lighthouse Immersive project, Ben Shirinian and Lookout Content. Lulu is a film that was produced by the National Ballet of Canada, part of their Expansive Dances series. That’s been going quite crazy on the internet so that's been really nice. It's a short seven-minute dance film about grief and about losing someone and how you overcome that.
I've also been creating in the studio at the National Ballet of Canada with Jera Wolfe, an indigenous choreographer. He has been commissioned by the National Ballet of Canada to create something for my wife (Heather Ogden) and I during this time. I'm also at the moment looking at different productions that I can create, such as another film for television in Québec – mostly filming is kind of the way to go at the moment. And, planning ahead for another big project with Robert Lepage for three years down the road, where we hope that theaters are back and open again.