WEST SIDE STORY SUITE/GLASS PIECES/IN THE NIGHT choreographed by Jerome Robbins. Presented by the National Ballet of Canada at the Four Seasons Centre (145 Queen West). From tonight (Thursday, November 8) to November 18, various times. $45-$200. 416-345-9595. Rating: NNNNN
Guillaume Côté is one of the best classical ballet dancers in the country, but you can't expect him to just snap his fingers and dance jazz. Or can you?
"You wouldn't believe how much goes into the act of snapping your fingers properly," laughs Côté, giving me an impromptu demo of his snapping technique a week before the National Ballet of Canada presents West Side Story Suite, part of its Jerome Robbins triple bill.
As Riff, the leader of the Jets, Côté says it's not simply a matter of snapping along to the music. The act adds to your portrayal of the character. As does singing.
"We've had some voice coaching and stuff. In fact, back in March the Jerome Robbins Trust came in to see whether the company could sing well enough to do the work before they gave us the rights."
But the biggest challenge of all, he admits, is performing the movement.
"I think Robbins originally worked with Broadway dancers for this, and they have a different attack than classical dancers," he explains. "We're more drawn to line and aesthetics. Broadway dancers are more drawn to pure energy."
Côté admits that when he and the company watched West Side Story on DVD, the movement didn't appear that difficult.
"We thought, 'We can do 17 pirouettes, so we can do this.' But it's such a different style. It's like a classical musician playing jazz. You have to do things over and over to get your body used to the movement. Everything is more turned in. You have to link all the movements very carefully."
As for singing and dancing at the same time, Côté admits he has a newfound appreciation for performers like Justin Timberlake - that is, performers who dance up a storm onstage and also have to belt out songs - without lip-synching.
"In ballet we're trained not to show our breath - we breathe from our chest. But when you need to sing from your stomach, you're forced to change your whole approach. You get out of breath, and that causes your vocal cords to shrink."
WSS might be the big audience draw - it's the first time the work has been performed outside of New York - but Côté stresses that the whole program is worth seeing.
His favourite piece, in fact, is the one he's not appearing in: Glass Pieces, choreographed in 1983 to music by Philip Glass.
"There really isn't a signature Robbins look," he says. "He's able to do so many different things so well. That was his biggest strength, I think. He could adapt his movement to many situations."
additional interview clips
Côté on whether he's going to move into musical theatre later on:
Côté on the National Ballet's venture into more popular territory, like West Side Story Suite and the upcoming Rooster, choreographed to music by the Rollling Stones: