Saying Goodbye to a Role: Guillaume Côté Reflects on His Last Romeo

August 3, 2023

Over the course of a dancer’s career, ballets come and go as fleetingly as the effervescent nature of dance itself. So it’s a precious thing when an artist gets to perform a particular role time and again, season after season, developing a relationship with it and treating audiences to ever deeper, richer performances. But, eventually, they will perform it for the very last time.

National Ballet of Canada principal Guillaume Côté was only 20 when he first danced Romeo, in John Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet. Then, in 2011, Alexei Ratmansky created the role of Romeo on Côté in his new version of the ballet for NBoC. Since then, Côté has danced the part with multiple ballerinas all over the world. Although he is not retiring from the stage, in June he portrayed Romeo for the final time, in a spellbinding performance with New York City Ballet principal Sara Mearns that he feels was a beautiful capstone to his yearslong relationship with the character. While Côté still has plenty of dancing in his future, he spoke to Pointe about what it’s like to say goodbye to one of his signature roles. —Gavin Larsen

My first Romeo was at an outdoor performance on the waterfront in Toronto, with Heather Ogden as Juliet. I think I was 20, she was 21. We just did the pas de deux. I remember it was a very special night, because the moon was out, and there was the view out over the water…Heather and I were like puppies, these young dancers both completely passionate about our roles and our dancing. It was one of the most romantic, beautiful moments of my early career.

Guillaume Côté does a first arabesque in plié to the left during a performance. He wears a gray tunic with puffed upper sleeves and blue trim, gray tights and boots. Several dancers in courtly costumes stand in the distance and watch.
Côté in Romeo and Juliet. Photo by Johan Persson, courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada.

I did the full ballet a couple of years later, and from there just kept growing within the Cranko production. I danced it for 10 years with many different partners. But then something very wonderful happened when Alexei Ratmansky came to the National Ballet of Canada to do a new Romeo and Juliet for us, and he picked me to do Romeo. I’d say it was one of the most stressful, but also the most rewarding, creative processes the company has ever been through in its history. It was amazing to be created on by him. I was the kind of dancer he liked, I think, because I wanted to have as much to dance as possible, and for Alexei, that’s perfect. He loves to make people dance and push themselves to the limit.

He did that for Romeo for sure. The character is always onstage, dancing an insane amount, so I adored it. We premiered in Toronto, it was an instant success, and we ended up touring it all over the world.

I think when I was young and first performing the role, I thought the best way to convey the story was by giving more, living it hard, throwing all your youthful energy into it. But as I got more experienced, I started to understand that that’s not what “authentic” is: It’s constructing moments in a way that you feel them honestly, but that doesn’t feel overacted to the audience. I think you start learning how to “whisper” your acting when you get older. You kind of hold back, and the audience comes to you. What I’ve realized is that character development is about craft and intelligence, and then on top of that, the emotions. That’s when a dancer is able to grow into a role.

In this black and white photo, Alexei Ratmansky gives notes to Guillaume Côté in a large, brightly lit dance studio. They both wear dark shirts. Côté touches his hair with his right hand.
With Alexei Ratmansky in rehearsal. Photo by Karolina Kuras, courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada.

I think portraying a teenager is not about trying to portray a teenager. It’s about transposing what that character is to what your physicality is now. Especially nowadays, we should use all these stories and roles as a means to explore the human condition. So you have to be human first.

I thought I had danced my last Romeo three years ago, the day before we closed down before the pandemic. I was already 39, and full-length ballets like Romeo and Juliet only come around every four years or so. So getting these last two shows, three and a half years later, was just a gift. With the type of dancing Alexei requires— the energy and gusto it takes to do his choreography—doing it any older would be tricky. So I feel very proud that my last shows were what they were. And the audience’s reaction was wild, so it was really beautiful to see that they valued my contribution to the role.

I’ve done this role so much that in my final performance I just tried to appreciate every moment. Before every entrance, I thought about what I loved about it, like a certain moment with Mercutio, and my entrance before the balcony pas de deux. I just tried to live it fully. I didn’t feel nervous, because I know this production inside out. I’ve had all the problems happen and I know how to solve them. Also, I never get nervous for story ballets because I get into the character. It just drives me. The times I get nervous are when my partner and I have different interpretations of the music, the dynamic or the story, but with Sara that didn’t happen. There were no manufactured moments. It was her first Juliet, so it felt fresh, and was very special for her. We already had a really nice partnership, so when I told Alexei this would be my last Romeo and he suggested I ask Sara to do it with me, I jumped at the chance. And it was nothing short of magical.

Guillaume Côté and Sara Mearns perform a scene from Romeo and Juliet in front of a patterned backdrop. They both take low lunges in fourth position facing stage right, their arms stretched out in a first arabesque line. Côté, standing directly behind Mearns and in a slightly higher lunge, wears an off-white tunic with puffed upper sleeves and dark trim. Mearns wears a cream-colored empire waist dress, pink tights and pointe shoes.
Côté and Mearns in Romeo and Juliet. Photo by Karolina Kuras, courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada.

It felt nice to finish in a way that was not only special, but some of my best dancing—and, yes, some of my best acting. I don’t think it’s sunk in that it was my last time. Over my career, I’ve gone to so many places to dance amazing things, and I kept thinking, I’ll go back there, I’ll dance that again. But a lot of things don’t happen again. They just happen once, and when they happen more than once, you’ve just got to be grateful.

In our careers as dancers, there’s a tiny period of time when you’re dancing things at a level you really love, when you’re really free to do and to experience. It’s like sand going through the narrow corridor of an hourglass. I have tried to appreciate that.

Sara Mearns and Guillaume Côté stand center stage and lift their arms to take a bow, joining hands. The supporting cast of dancers stand in lines behind them. Mearns wears a light gray empire-waisted dress, pink tights and pointe shoes; Côté wears a dark gray tunic, beige tights and beige boots, and a large smile on his face.
Côté and Sara Mearns take their bow. Photo by Karolina Kuras, courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada.

What I’ll miss are certain moments of being backstage, onstage. Like when I’m doing my quick change before the balcony pas de deux, I feel this buzz from the audience, who are getting a little tired because it’s the end of Act 1. Then there’s this glorious music and the lighting gets dark…and it’s like that whisper: I come out, place myself onstage, and start this amazing solo Alexei made for me. There’s a moment of stillness; you feel everyone’s holding their breath. So that’s the moment I’m going to miss. I feel I gave the role a legacy of some kind, but now I’m really excited to see some younger dancers take it on.