Photo: RJ Muna.
Adji Cissoko. Photo: RJ Muna.
Adji Cissoko. Photo: RJ Muna.

Adji Cissoko

Artist-in-Residence at Vail Dance Festival 2023

Written by:
Michael Wade Simpson
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Adji Cissoko, a striking, long-limbed dancer who creates an indelible impression in the works of San Francisco-based choreographer Alonzo King (she’s been in his company, “LINES,” for almost ten years) is artist-in-residence at the Vail Dance Festival 2023. She was raised in Munich, Germany. Her mother is German, and her father, from Senegal, comes from a long line of griots (storytellers). “If you are in Senegal and tell someone my last name, they know that I come from a family of griots. My ancestors played (and told stories) for the kings. There were no books. Griots kept traditions alive. My father used to say, ‘if a griot dies, a library burns down.”

Part of this traditional storytelling involved music from the kora, an instrument with 21 strings which sounds like a harp. “My Dad played the kora and it was always in my ear. That really inspires me.” Cissoko’s cousin, Youba, the 22nd generation in her family to play the instrument, will be onstage in Vail to accompany her for a solo she is creating for the festival. “What I’m creating isn’t literal, but I believe in the idea of being a storyteller through dance. Alonzo has taught me that every movement has meaning. Every gesture has a feeling behind it. When I hear the kora, I hear ‘heart.’ I tune into that. There is something so deep. “

Growing up in Germany, Cisisoko had a very classical, Vaganova-style ballet training. At age 18, she spent a year at the American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School in New York, and joined the corps de ballet at the National Ballet of Canada a year later. Then she auditioned for “Lines” and “the transition began.”

“I’m very German. I’m disciplined, and I always want to be extra prepared. But I’ve had to let go of some of my German-ness to dance with Alonzo. He helps bring the Senegalese side out. He teaches you to trust your instincts, to find joy in movement, and to let go.”

“The (LINES) rep is like nothing I can compare it with. It’s a small company, and we all give so much of ourselves to the work. We influence the way pieces are developed. That is what attracted me to his work the most. When I first joined the company and he asked me questions like, ‘what does this movement mean to you? What are you saying here?’ I realized that nobody had ever asked me that before. I realized that doing what I was told to do was no longer enough. I had to have my own voice. My own opinions. I had to learn to play with music.”

“We’re not doing ‘steps’. It’s like we’re all creating a child every time. The dances are way deeper and have meaning. It’s depth that grows and evolves as we evolve as people.
“Once I got the concept, it was so freeing. The dances are different every time. You have to make choices. You have to be so present. It was a liberation process, and the work continues.”

As Artist-in-Residence, she will be performing throughout the festival, in addition to teaching, choreographing and speaking with festival attendees and members of the press. She’ll perform King’s “Epilogue Pas” with Calvin Royal III, a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre. There will be a new piece by Kyle Abraham to dance in. And then there is “Swan Lake.” She will perform both the White Swan Pas de Deux, (with Ben Rudisin, a principal dancer at the National Ballet of Canada) and the iconic solo, “Dying Swan.”

“Dancing the White Swan Pas has always been one of my dreams, but it 100% freaks me out.” For one thing she hasn’t been dancing in a strictly classical style since she joined “Lines” but, also, “It has been done so much.”

“I have been reflecting on how to find my way of dancing it.” “Dying Swan” will be all about the acting. “It’s a lot of bourrées, but it so much bigger than that. How do you bare your soul without speaking?”

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