Interview: Adji Cissoko
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Q: What has been your professional dance journey, and how did you come to dance with Alonzo King Lines?

I was born in Munich, Germany. My dad is from Senegal. Before going to preschool they did some kind of tests with every kid to make sure they were ready for school and the teacher said I was struggling with spatial awareness and coordination. We had to draw a snake and say something at the same time and somehow I wasn’t good at that. The teacher suggested to my parents that I take dance class to strengthen those abilities. My mom put me in jazz and ballet classes. Once I started ballet, the teacher said I was talented and suggested that I dance professionally. At first, my parents said no, absolutely not. Eventually they were convinced. They let me audition for Ballet Academy Munich, which is in close relationship with Munich Ballet Company Dance. I ended up getting in! It is a free program where I enjoyed myself and stayed for many years. All of a sudden I was 16 and we had to decide if we wanted to do this professionally which meant we couldn’t go to normal school anymore and had to focus on the dancing part. That was the deciding point because up to then I was going with the flow and enjoying myself. I didn't know if this was always what I wanted to do but I couldn’t imagine life without dancing so I ended up committing. You get a diploma like college through this program, but my parents wanted me to finish my education. I went to evening school as well, I graduated and made it all work. I went to NYC for the School of American Ballet Summer Intensive and while I was there for 6 weeks I took a class at ABT (American Ballet Theater) and they offered me a scholarship for the one year program. So, I moved to NYC and finished my last year of education in NYC, which was good because I was 18 and that's when you start to audition. I got a job with the National Ballet of Canada and I was very excited about it. I joined them and was there for 3 and a half years and I loved it. It was a classical company, so I did corps de ballet work and I felt ready to move up and do more. Since I am tall and different it is hard for me to get certain roles. I auditioned for Lines Ballet and they hired me on the spot. I started there in 2014 and have been with them ever since.

Q: What have been some challenges in your pre-professional or professional dance career?

Just moving away from home was one of them. I always thought I'd be with my parents forever. But I dealt with it fine, I had friends and people to take care of me. The whole auditioning process was intimidating, being one of so many people all trying to get the job. Sometimes I'd make it to the end of an open audition and they would say, “Oh we don't have any jobs, just summer programs.” I remember being frustrated. Also making the decision to leave one company for another. I think always when you choose something new it is very scary. But I’m happy with that decision. The combination of being tall and Black was hard in the sense where a lot of people told me that I wouldn’t fit in a classical company. I had people tell me I wouldn't succeed, and I always had that in my mind that I am different and it will be harder for me to find something. My director in Germany helped me so much by telling me I should go to the states because she didn't know if Europe would be my scene because I was tall and Black. At that time I still had the idea I would only do classical work. 

Q: Do you believe dance can be a platform for social justice topics? If so, how? and/or Have you used your art form to make a difference?

I think dance can be a platform for anything, really. Dance is a great way to express yourself without using words and you can address any kind of topic or thing that you want.

Q: What inspires you and drives you forward as an artist?

My daily life inspires me, as do my colleagues. Growing as a human makes me grow in dance and that is something I have learned while being with Lines Ballet. It is all one, there is not a separate thing you bring to your art. There is no separation from me as a person and an artist and that is what makes the art so rich and full. 

Q: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected you as a performing artist?

We were on tour in Europe when it all started being an issue and so all our shows in Italy were cancelled. We arrived in Italy and left the next day. The city next to us was on lockdown and we realized that we had to go. We did go to France and performed all our shows. At that point there was no gathering over 1000 people, but most audiences were 850 or so, so we could perform. The last day we heard that the borders would shut down in the United States and we had to leave right after our show. We all had to get home right away. We got on a bus for over six hours to get to the airport and took the next flight out — that’s how I made it to Toronto, too. Now it’s this game of not knowing. We have been in close contact with company directors and managers to figure out what to do and how long this will be. We try to make the most of it by staying positive and being active. They just told us we don't get paid which is a big issue. We can apply for unemployment and I did apply, but I'm not sure when they will get that sorted out because everyone is applying right now.

First it was April 7th, then pushed back to April 27th, and now we just don't know. We were supposed to have our home season and gala April 10th, but that was all cancelled. It is very sad because we were rehearsing for it on tour. Our next tour would be in Madison, Virginia or Richmond and that tour was cancelled as well. Yesterday we found out our summer tour at Jacob's Pillow was cancelled. They hope we can do tours to Europe in the winter.

The company has offered a schedule online with different classes from ballet to hip hop so there are things available but there has been no specific company class. Our classes are open so anyone could take them if they are professional dancers.

Q: How do you think we can continue to create and share art during this time?

I think just by staying positive and not letting this situation limit us. I have been inspired and creative. My friend and I just started this new game where we write each other poems and then improv to them and we have shared with others online. There have been people reaching out to me learning different choreography and putting it all together. There is a lot going on. We are still us and we can still create and grow. I think we need to stay positive and this will not be an on hold thing we can still continue, just in a different way.

Q: What social changes and responsibilities have you seen people making during the pandemic?

Socially there is the distance happening. I haven't seen any of my friends. I arrived [in Toronto] three weeks ago. At first I was like, I will see all my friends and hang out. I think because I had just come from France where everyone was still going about their business and hanging out I expected a similar thing here. I came here with the mentality that we would be fine but then I realized how serious it was. I go outside to see the lake and hangout with my boyfriend at home which is good, but that’s it. The good thing is that we can connect online over Zoom and we take class and teach each other classes. We all connect still, just not physically.

Q: Using the idea of “worldmaking” how do you imagine the performing arts world after the pandemic? (Worldmaking: How you can re-imagine the world in your own terms, the way you want it to be. Using this tool one can construct new worlds and write themselves into narratives that have excluded them and systems that have disabled them.)

I imagine us more connected and more aware of each other. Almost like all one. We are already such a family but even more so now that we have this option of taking eachothers classes and seeing what is going on. I have just in 3 weeks feel more connected. I've talked to artists I've never talked to and by just being able to do that we are becoming closer and we grow at the same time. We are expanding because we have more knowledge too because of the sharing going on. In another two months this will be amazing.

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