The Spirit and Soul of LINES' Enchanting Adji Cissoko
Adji Cissoko has the alchemical blend of willowy limbs and earthy musicality you expect from a dancer in Alonzo King LINES Ballet. But she also has something more—a joy in dancing that makes every step feel immediate.
"She has this soulful quality of an ancient spirit coming through her body," says LINES chief executive officer Muriel Maffre, a former prima ballerina with San Francisco Ballet. "She's fearless, which is fun to work with," says artistic director Alonzo King. "I don't know how to put it into words— she's herself."
Yet as natural as she is in King's choreography, she's never lost her love for classical ballet. So much so that when she had some time off last summer, she reached out to her previous company, National Ballet of Canada, and performed in the corps of Swan Lake. Artistic director Karen Kain didn't hesitate to put her back on the stage.
"Adji is one of the most beautiful, accomplished and thoughtful dancers I have experienced working with," says Kain, who first spotted Cissoko when she was 17 at the 2009 Prix de Lausanne, and hired her in 2010. Turning back into a swan showed Cissoko how much she'd grown, yet also confirmed her love of dancing in two balletic worlds. "It was a reminder—that is also beautiful, just in a different way," she says.
Adji Cissoko matches classical grace with contemporary charisma. Photo by Jayme Thornton.
Cissoko started training in Vaganova technique while growing up in Munich, where her German mother and Senegalese father still live. She left Germany at 18 to attend a summer program at the School of American Ballet and a final year of training at American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School. After graduation, she turned down offers from Boston Ballet II, Dresden Semperoper Ballett and The Washington Ballet, and chose NBoC for its wide-ranging repertoire.
But at 5' 10" she was the corps' tallest woman, and in classics like Swan Lake, she says, "I had to cut my movements short, just to fit in." She got a taste of more expressive freedom in soloist roles in ballets like Sir Kenneth MacMillan's Elite Syncopations and in contemporary works like Wayne McGregor's Chroma. "But then I had to spend most of my time in the corps, being like everybody else when I wasn't like everybody else," Cissoko says.
After three seasons, Cissoko brought up her concerns. "Karen and I were actually on the same page," she says. "She was like, 'You need somebody who choreographs on you, who can really use what you have.' " Kain encouraged her to consider LINES.
Cissoko had long been told that she looked like a LINES dancer. Photo by Jayme Thornton.
In fact, Cissoko had already auditioned there during her year at JKO, after people told her she looked like she belonged in LINES. "I had no idea what it was," she admits. An unranked company of about a dozen expressive, ballet-trained and tall dancers—the company currently ranges from 5' 10" to 6' 4"—LINES was a place where Cissoko could fit in.
At that first audition, though, she wasn't yet ready for King's choreographic process, which relies heavily on improv and dancer input. "In the classical world you don't really improv," Cissoko says. "I couldn't let myself go."
With three years of maturity and performance experience under her belt—plus a recommendation from Kain—Cissoko tried again. "In my audition, Alonzo said, 'Please spell your name dancing.' I was like, 'What?' But then I had so much fun," she says. "You don't prepare, you don't think, you're in the moment and you see what comes out."
King saw a new confidence, and sensed that she was ready to dive into his deeply collaborative artistry. Joining LINES meant Cissoko had to potentially give up one of her closest-held dreams: someday dancing Odette/Odile. But, she says, "I didn't know everything that was in me until I joined LINES. I realized I had never really moved."
Cissoko with Brett Conway and singer Lisa Fischer in The Propelled Heart. Photo by Quinn Wharton, Courtesy LINES
Working with King has tapped Cissoko's creativity. In one of her earliest performances, King cast her in a fully improvised solo in Constellation. "Me thinking I'm going to be extra-smart, I created this whole idea of what I was going to do," she says. "After the first show, he said, 'What was that? That was not improv.' " The next evening, she dared herself to let go of any strategy. "And then something incredible happened, because I had to listen to my body, instead of listening to my mind."
Cissoko's willingness to try anything makes her an ideal LINES dancer, says Michael Montgomery, her frequent partner. "People that are super-talented run the risk of relying on their abilities, but she's always striving for more," he says. He admires her goofy warmth and habit of making up songs. "We always joke that we're coming up on a Christmas album," he says.
The company's extensive touring satisfies Cissoko's wanderlust and also lets her use her fluent French, English and German and conversational Spanish. Her basic Senegalese came in handy on a trip there this June with former LINES dancer Courtney Henry. She and Henry have also created a dance film using songs written by Cissoko's father, a musician who plays the lute-like kora instrument. "That was the first time I really realized, my dad is what I am—we are both artists," Cissoko says.
Odette/Odile is now equaled by LINES works like Writing Ground, in which she dances the beginning of the piece with her eyes closed, surrounded by four male dancers. "I didn't know that was my dream role until I got it," she says. "You fall, and you feel vulnerable, but you know the guys have you. It is so real."
She still maintains her classical chops by donning pointe shoes for company class. She also guests with companies like the New Chamber Ballet and performs at events like the Monterrey International Ballet Gala in Mexico.
Ultimately, dancing in two worlds has shaped her as an artist and a person. "When I came to LINES, it was a reminder that there is so much more," she says. "Not just in the movement, but in life."
Even if you haven't heard her name, you've almost certainly seen the work of commercial choreographer James Alsop. Though she's made award-winning dances for Beyoncé ("Run the World," anyone?) and worked with stars like Lady GaGa and Janelle Monae, Alsop's most recent project may be her most powerful: A moving music video for Everytown for Gun Safety, directed by Ezra Hurwitz and featuring students from the National Dance Institute.
We caught up with Alsop for our "Spotlight" series:
I want to make an apology because, in my opening speech at the Dance Magazine Awards on Monday, I inadvertently left out one awardee. I said, "Tonight we are honoring four outstanding dance artists who have contributed to the dance field over time." But then I named only three. How could I have forgotten Lourdes Lopez?!?!
We had all been hearing about Lourdes's taking the helm at Miami City Ballet with grace, intelligence, compassion and new ideas. I was planning to say, "Lourdes Lopez, who has brought new life to Miami City Ballet" because I thought that would cover a lot of ground. (My only quibble with myself was whether to say "brought new life" or "gave new life.")
Each year, The New York Times Magazine shines a spotlight on who they deem to be the best actors of the year in its Great Performers series. But, what we're wondering is, can they dance? Thankfully, the NYT Mag recruited none other than Justin Peck to put them to the test.
Peck choreographed and directed a series of 10 short dance films, placing megastars in everyday situations: riding the subway, getting out of bed in the morning, waiting at a doctor's office.
Today, we are thrilled to announce the honorees of the 2018 Dance Magazine Awards. A tradition dating back to 1954, the Dance Magazine Awards celebrate the living legends who have made a lasting impact on dance. This year's honorees include:
Get Dance Magazine in your inbox
On busy performance days, international guest artist Joy Womack always makes time for one activity after class and rehearsals: a nap. "I like to feel well-rested when I need to be in the spotlight at night, not dragging at the end of the day," she says. "It helps me recover and refocus."
With her earbuds tuned to a guided meditation app, she can squeeze in a nap wherever she needs to. "One time I even took a nap on the floor of the tour bus in Siberia," she says. "Dancers can sleep anywhere."
Joy Womack prioritizes napping before a show. Photo by Quinn Wharton for Pointe magazine.
As research has revealed the benefits of short daytime naps, power-napping advice has proliferated, and more dancers are choosing to include a nap in their pre-performance routines. Approaching napping strategically will help you get the most out of an afternoon snooze.
On Monday night, a memorial was held at Riverside Church to honor the life and achievements of Dance Theatre of Harlem co-founder Arthur Mitchell. With nearly three months to process and grieve (Mitchell passed away on September 19) the atmosphere was not that of mourning as much as reflection, reverence and admiration for who he was, what he built and what remains. (Watch the full livestream here.)
The church filled with family, artistic friends, fans and admirers. What was most gratifying was the volume of DTH alumni from the school, company and organization who traveled across the globe to pay their respects, from founding members to present dancers and students. The house of worship was filled with the sentiment of a family reunion. As Mitchell was sent home, it was a homecoming for many who have not shared air together in decades. What was palpable was the authentic bonds that Dance Theatre of Harlem and Mitchell fostered in all.
Fans of the sublime English National Ballet first artist Precious Adams were probably excited to see her image splashed across the company's website in a promotional image for an upcoming production of Swan Lake.
But those who took a closer look were met with a disappointing reality: Adams, who is the only black woman in the company, is not listed on the principal casting sheet for the production.
Gennadi Nedvigin is not the only early tenure director breaking out a new production of The Nutcracker this season.
We love The Nutcracker as much as the next person, but that perennial holiday classic isn't the only thing making its way onstage this month. Here are five alternatives that piqued our editors' curiosity.
The Nutcracker is synonymous with American ballet. So when Gennadi Nedvigin took the helm at Atlanta Ballet in 2016, a new version of the holiday classic was one of his top priorities. This month, evidence of two years' worth of changes will appear when the company unwraps its latest version at Atlanta's Fox Theatre Dec. 8–24. Choreographed by Yuri Possokhov and produced on a larger-than-ever scale for Atlanta, the new ballet represents Nedvigin's big ambitions.
Ballet Hispánico returns to the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem with its full-length ballet, CARMEN.maquia. Spanish choreographer Gustavo Ramirez Sansano has reenvisioned the story of Carmen to emphasize Don José, the man who falls in love with Carmen, suffers because of her infidelity, then murders her in a "fit of passion." Their duets are filled with all the sensuality, jealousy and violence you could wish for—in a totally contemporary dance language.
Sansano's previous piece for Ballet Hispánico, El Beso, bloomed with a thousand playful and witty ways of expressing desire. He has a knack for splicing humor into romance.
Not being able to attend the in-person audition at your top college can feel like the end of the world. But while it's true that going to the live audition is ideal, you can still make the best out of sending a video. Here are some of the perks:
It's become a colloquialism—or, we admit, a cliche—to say that dance can heal.
But with a new initiative launched by British Health Secretary Matt Hancock, doctors in the U.K. will soon be able to prescribe dance classes—along with art, music, sports, gardening and more—for patients suffering from conditions as various as dementia, lung problems and mental health issues.
We always figured that stretching made us more flexible by loosening up our muscles and joints. Some of us, ahem, might have even tried to fall asleep in our middle splits to get our stubbornly stiff inner thighs to let go.
But it turns out that might not actually be how stretching works.
A new review published in the Scandinavian Journal of Science & Medicine in Sports suggests that increased flexibility actually comes from your brain growing more used to the tension.
New York City Ballet fired principal dancers Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro on Saturday. Both had initially been suspended until 2019 for engaging in "inappropriate communications," while principal Chase Finlay, who was the instigator of those communications, resigned. (Although, in a statement on Saturday, NYCB made it clear they had decided to terminate Finlay prior to his resignation.)
The New York Times reports that NYCB says the change from suspension to termination resulted from hearing the concerns of dancers, staff members and others in the NYCB community. Yet it's hard to ignore the fact that a lawsuit against NYCB had been filed in the meantime. A statement from NYCB executive director Katherine Brown and interim artistic team leader Jonathan Stafford stated:
"We have no higher obligation than to ensure that our dancers and staff have a workplace where they feel respected and valued, and we are committed to providing that environment for all employees of New York City Ballet."
Since the news was announced, both Catazaro and Ramasar have spoken out publicly about being fired.
What does it mean to be human? Well, many things. But if you were at the Dance Magazine Awards last night, you could argue that to be human is to dance. Speeches about the powerful humanity of our art form were backed up with performances by incredible dancers hailing from everywhere from Hubbard Street Dance Chicago to Miami City Ballet.
Misty Copeland started off the celebration. A self-professed "Dance Magazine connoisseur from the age of 13," she not only spoke about how excited she was to be in a room full of dancers, but also—having just come from Dance Theatre of Harlem's memorial for Arthur Mitchell—what she saw as their duty: "We all in this room hold a responsibility to use this art for good," she said. "Dance unifies, so let's get to work."
That sentiment was repeated throughout the night.
Choreographer Val Caniparoli started his ballet career by performing in Lew Christensen's The Nutcracker with San Francisco Ballet in 1971. Today, he still performs with SFB as Drosselmeir, in the company's current version by Helgi Tomasson.
It takes Caniparoli a lot of concentration to stick to the choreography.
"I have the four versions that I choreographed of the role in my head, plus the original I danced for years by Lew," he says. "That's a lot of versions to keep straight."
A list of Clara alumnae from Radio City's Christmas Spectacular reads like a star-studded, international gala program: Tiler Peck and Brittany Pollack of New York City Ballet (and Broadway), Meaghan Grace Hinkis of The Royal Ballet, Whitney Jensen of Norwegian National Ballet and more. Madison Square Garden's casting requirements for the role are simple: The dancer should be 4' 10" and under, appear to be 14 years old or younger and have strong ballet technique and pointework.
The unspoken requisite? They need abundant tenacity at a very young age.
When I read last month that Jessica Lang Dance had announced its farewell, I'm sure I wasn't the only dancer surprised. In the same way that many of us, when reading an obituary, instinctively look for the cause of death, I searched for a reason for the company's unexpected folding. It was buried in the fifth paragraph of The New York Times article:
Her manager, Margaret Selby, said in an interview that Jessica Lang Dance's closing showed how difficult it is to keep a small dance company running these days. "You have to raise so much money, the smaller companies don't have enough staff, and Jessica was running the company for the last seven years without a day off," she said. "She wants to focus on creative work."
Whereas the announcement itself may have come as a shock, the root cause certainly doesn't. All of us in the field are familiar with the conditions to which Selby refers. But that these problems can topple the success of a company like Lang's, which boasts seven years of national and international touring that include commissions from Jacob's Pillow and The Joyce, among others, is sobering.