By Dennis J. Freeman
Adji Cissoko loves to dance. She celebrates family. Mentoring other dancers for Cissoko is her way of giving back. Movement. Family. Teaching.
These three things are what Cissoko is incredibly passionate about. These are three areas of her life that truly moves Cissoko into the essence of her being. Why does this matter? It matters because Cissoko is one of the best at what she does.
In the dance world, she has been recognized as a mover and shaker. In other words, she is a game-changer. That part came naturally, she says.
“My dad is a musician. He plays the Kora, which is a Senegalese string instrument,” Cissoko said. “So, growing up, I always heard him playing around the house. It sounds a bit like a harp. I remember my parents telling me from the moment I was born I started moving whenever he played.”
Moving is something Cissoko enjoys immensely. She can’t help it. It’s in her DNA. Her life revolves around her movement. Dancing allows her the platform to unleash that movement.
“Whenever I think about why do I like dancing so much, I think that there’s something that almost really resonates for me, having music and being able to express myself without using words, but using my body, using a more internal voice rather than an external voice I would say,” Cissoko explained.
That internal voice she hears constantly reminds Cissoko to perfect her craft.
“I’m constantly working on myself,” Cissoko said. “And it’s interesting that understanding that you as a person is not separated from you as a dancer. It’s all the same. The work that you do outside of ballet, how you behave, how you interact with other humans, how you solve problems, that’s all going to show in your work in the studio and on stage.”
In the meantime, Cissoko will settle for being one of the premier dancers in the Alonzo King LINES Ballet. It’s a pretty good gig, too.
When the Alonzo King LINES Ballet wraps up its one-night performance at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts on Saturday, Sept. 11, the contemporary ballet company will head back to Northern California for a re-opening gala for the San Francisco Symphony before jettison over to France for a year-end gig.
What drew Cissoko to the Alonzo King LINES Ballet and what she likes about the company is that it is not super big in size. The company features a dozen company dancers.
In comparison, the American Ballet Theatre can boast of having 79 dancers. The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater features 30 dancers. Working for a smaller dance company suits her a lot better, Cissoko said.
“I think that there’s something magical dancing with a small company,” said Cissoko. “I think that there’s something extremely special about this company in particular that I feel definitely more comfortable in that any voice is important, so all of us are equally important. We have a lot to say, we’re part of the creation.
“We dance a lot,” Cissoko continued. “I like that we’re all individuals. So that’s what I like the most about the company. It’s really important that we all stay true to ourselves and we have our own part, our own growth and we’re not trying to be like each other, just constantly trying to improve and do more.”
The journey for Cissoko to being part of a prestigious ballet company has not been a traditional pathway. She only got into dance because a doctor suggested to her parents that the art form would help her artistic coordination.
“I didn’t start ballet until I was about 7 years or about six and a half,” Cissoko said. “It was because you go to a school doctor in Munich before you go to school. You see a doctor just to make sure you’re ready and you have to do certain exercises like I think I had to draw a snake and say something at the same time. I was struggling with that. The school doctor told my parents that to improve coordination and facial awareness it (dancing) would be super useful to have me dance.”
Her parents initially bought into the recommendation, Cissoko said.
“They said, ‘Oh, she likes to dance anyways. Let’s put her in jazz and ballet,’” Cissoko quipped. “So that’s how I started ballet and the teacher, from the first moment on told my parents that I should do this professionally because I was so talented.”
Even though they were enthused about the idea of putting their daughter into dance, Cissoko’s German mother and Senegalese father, were in no rush to do so.
“At first, they were very hesitant because they didn’t want to push me in any kind of way to do something professionally,” Cissoko said. “But after a few weeks of the teacher mentioning it every time, they allowed me to audition for the ballet academy. It’s called Ballet Academy Munich. It’s a school that is free but it’s very selective. You have to audition, but if you’re selected for the program, you don’t have to pay anything. There are exams every year to make sure if you’re good enough. I got in and then kept passing the exams.”
Taking and passing those exams at Ballet Academy Munich allowed her to take her dancing to another level as she attended the American Ballet Theatre Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School in New York. It was Ballet Academy Munich that provided Cissoko some life lessons that she carries with her today.
“I really enjoyed it, although it was very disciplined and strict,” said Cissoko. “My German side liked that strictness and discipline. My Senegalese side really enjoyed just hearing the music and dancing. So, it kind of worked really well for me. I stayed there until I was 18 years old which is when I moved to New York because I got a scholarship to dance at this school in New York. it’s called JKO [American Ballet Theatre Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School]…They gave me a scholarship for a year, but [then] you have to start auditioning and trying to find a company job.”
That job turned out to be the National Ballet of Canada, a more classical ballet company.
“That was my first big job and my dream come true being in a classical company doing all classics like Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, Nutcracker, and all of those,” stated Cissoko.
That adrenaline of a new challenge eventually wound down. Cissoko said she began to wonder about her immediate future.
“A few years after dancing there, I was kind of ready to do more,” Cissoko said. “I think there was like a change in me like what else is out there? How can I really use my body to the full extent? I auditioned for Alonzo Kings Lines Ballet, which is the company that I am with now. That was a big switch for me, switching from that classical very ballet to the contemporary company that I am with now that only have 12 people compared to 70.”
The switch has worked well for Cissoko. After a few years performing with the National Ballet of Canada, Cissoko joined Alonzo King LINES Ballet in 2014. The family atmosphere presented by the company and the professionalism of her colleagues has allowed her to grow both as a dancer and as a person, she said.
“They definitely inspire me to do better, to do more and to explore and expand and continue to climb up the ladder there,” Cissoko adds.
Climbing that ladder for Cissoko means forging ahead in her dance career, being a life coach, and eventually overseeing her own dance school in Senegal. Her life would be different if she had chosen a different pathway early in her life.
“I think when I was about 16. We had to make a decision in our ballet school to see who wanted to do this full-time, which meant that you kind of had to give up normal school,” Cissoko said. “That was a big decision because I loved normal school. I was really good in school.
“Of course, I loved to dance,” Cissoko also stated. “So, that was when I had to really ask myself how seriously do I want to take that? The decision came easy because when I really imagined not dancing that just was not an option. When I was 16, I made the decision officially. But it must have happened earlier even earlier than that. It was something in my heart this was something that I was going to pursue. At 16, I made it official.”
Featured Image Caption: Alonzo King LINES Ballet featuring dancers Adji Cissoko and Robb Beresford. Photo credit: RJ Muna/Segerstrom Center for the Arts