Dancers often envision the “long game”: make it into a certain company, get a certain role, make principal, get glowing reviews and go down in the dance history books as a visionary -- all with 100 percent focus on the art form at hand and at heart. Adji Cissoko, however, enjoys the present moment and takes each new moment as it comes. She wants to dance, and seems quite content wherever and however she’s able to do so. A passion for the art of dance, strikingly long and graceful lines, and a generous, adaptable spirit have brought her far and wide -- from dancing in her youth in Munich, to the National Ballet of Canada, to Alonzo King LINES Ballet in San Francisco, CA.
She works incredibly hard as a dance artist, but that doesn’t stop her from delving into other interests, such as health/wellness coaching and teaching. As many dancers wonder where life will take them after they retire from the stage, Cissoko is building other skill sets that she can work with far after that last curtain drops. She also keeps it fun, wearing everything pink (which has become a bit of a brand for her), loving chats and laughs with company members and -- as she admits -- overpacking when she tours. She comes off as that company member who’ll always have an extra bobby pin and a smile when you need one.
Cissoko began dancing, jazz and ballet, at age seven, after a pediatrician recommended dance classes to improve her coordination. Even with that pediatrician’s assessment, her first teachers saw talent and recommended that she audition for the Ballet Academy Munich. She was studying as a student at the same time, taking academic classes during the day and dancing at night. Cissoko says that there was a lot of structure and predictability to this student-dancer lifestyle.
At 16 years old, she committed to a diploma in dance for her last two years of school in Munich (as is possible in the German education system). She was then dancing all day and taking night classes to keep up with academics. At 18 years old, after graduating, she attended the School of American Ballet (SAB)’s summer program. “It was a whole different style, the American Balanchine style; because I was trained in Vaganova, it was difficult,” Cissoko recounts. She took classes at American Ballet Theatre as well, to do her best to catch up and accustom her body to this new way of moving in a classical idiom.
Cissoko caught administrators’ eyes, however, and was invited back to study at SAB on scholarship. The director and family members helped her with living expenses, and she was free to study hard. She also had time to audition for different companies. “I was told ‘no’ many times, and that was hard, but finally The National Ballet of Canada offered me a corps contract,” Cissoko explains. This surprised her, she says, because she had auditioned for an apprentice program -- but she was certainly happy to take it. She danced in the corps there, from 2010 to 2014. “I lived a typical company life and danced some nice roles, such as the Lilac Fairy in The Sleeping Beauty,” she shares.
Yet it came to the point where it seemed like Cissoko was reaching a ceiling of what she could achieve at the company. The Artistic Director, Karen Kain, wanted to see her thrive at a place where she had more opportunities and she’d be highlighted more. She recommended that Cissoko look into Alonzo King LINES Ballet, who hires dancers just like her -- tall and long. Cissoko spent a day dancing with them, which she found challenging but incredibly intriguing. “The depth of work we were doing wasn’t like anything I was used to,” she says. They said they’d be very interested in hiring someone like her but not at that time.
She and the company lost touch for a bit, until she was in Munich and the company was in France. She went in to France to meet with Alonzo King again. He challenged her with some phrasework, right on a stage. She thought that she had fallen out of something, but he offered her the job right on the spot.
It’s as if the daring spirit and commitment that she showed that day was exactly what he was looking for in a company dancer. She then had to handle a big scheduling conflict; she was still on contract at The National Ballet of Canada. Kain agreed to let her finish out with that season’s The Nutcracker, and after that she’d be free to go to San Francisco and dance with LINES.
Cissoko shares that her days at LINES were drastically different than her days at National Ballet of Canada. When not touring, she was dancing all day, nine to five. Everyone is in every rehearsal, with King. At The National Ballet of Canada, she would have blocks during the day when she wasn’t dancing, and she might not see the director for weeks.
The work and the atmosphere is also incredibly different, she says; King gives corrections like “make it mean something to you,” rather than something more specific about turnout, line, gaze and the like -- like she was used to in more strictly classical work at The National Ballet of Canada. She came to see that King challenges dancers to look inside and bring to the work who they are on a particular day.
“He sees so much and holds [us dancers] to a high standard. You have to trust him that what he’s asking is possible,” Cissoko affirms. She sees his approach working in meaningful, powerful ways. “You see your fellow dancers grow on a daily basis, and it’s so inspiring.” Cissoko contrasts the physical and mental demands of being a student or a strictly classical dancer with those she experiences at LINES.
“You have to be 100 percent in tune with yourself, which is different from classical work where your body just knows it. With more contemporary work, you’re constantly making creative choices,” Cissoko explains. She says that having to be so attuned inward means that “you have to push [mental clutter] to the side.” In both classical and contemporary work, however, she says, “It’s hard to stay internal sometimes; you have to go back in so that your work stays 100 percent honest and pure.”
When touring with LINES, the schedule is less formalized and less creatively rigorous. “We get to the city where we’ll be dancing a day or two before we perform, so that we can explore,” she says. There’s often jet-lag to deal with at the same time. Nights are late, eating and spending time with the company after performing, she explains. Good warm-ups are essential, because she’s often waiting to perform in different locations at sometimes vastly different temperatures, she adds.
She doesn’t have a personal pre-show “ritual”, per-se, but she does like to call her boyfriend in Toronto and connect with fellow company members. She does appreciate a pre-show ritual that the company does together, all standing together in silence for five minutes. “When the curtain rises and we perform, you see the connection and energy skyrocket from where it was through spacing rehearsals earlier in the day,” Cissoko says. “It’s truly something special.”
Looking back at her journey, Cissoko believes that “choices happen[ed] to me, but they were the right choices.” She shares that she always wanted to dance, and never had a grand plan for how she’d do so. She always remained open to where the journey would take her. “I’m so glad that I was open to different choices. I had friends who ended their career because they didn’t get their dream job,” she affirms.
Where to from here? Cissoko is a certified Health and Wellness Coach, and has five clients while in quarantine. She’s also used some of her time in lockdown to become certified as a Ballet Teacher through American Ballet Theatre, in addition to staying in shape through taking class and conditioning at home. She’s stylish in pinkthrough it all.