Ready For Takeoff

July 11, 2011

If Adji Cissoko hadn’t failed a simple test at age 6, she might never have become a dancer.

In Germany, Cissoko’s homeland, children routinely get a medical examination before entering elementary school. “I had difficulties when the doctor asked me to make a circle while reciting a certain sentence,” she recalls. “He told my mother it would improve my coordination and spatial awareness if I took dance.”

That was 1997. Today, Cissoko, 20, has just completed her first season with the National Ballet of Canada. The company’s artistic director, Karen Kain, has high hopes for her. Cissoko, however, is not your average budding professional, nor has her journey been without a few bumps. At 5’ 9”, she’s tall. A short torso, long limbs and a lean build make her look even taller. As Cissoko acknowledges, learning to control such an expansive body and to move at speed are continuing challenges.

And there’s more. Cissoko is of African descent, a woman aiming for ballet’s stratosphere in a traditional art form that still struggles to adapt to the realities of a multicultural world. Cissoko’s West African father, a musician, came to Germany as a young man from French-speaking Senegal. Her mother, a nurse, is German and white. Cissoko says her lankiness comes straight from her father’s side. She attributes her leanness as much to genes as to the grueling work. “I eat a lot,” Cissoko says reassuringly in careful, German-accented English. (She also speaks French and Spanish, and understands Senegalese.)

Toronto audiences have had early opportunities to appreciate Cissoko’s somewhat raw but unmistakable talent. Apart from her height and color, Cissoko stands out for the concentrated intensity, energy and sense of purpose she invests in whatever she dances, while still seeming natural and spontaneous. Depending on the choreography, her arms can float delicately or slice through space like a knife. Above all, the sheer pleasure she takes in dancing—much more than a warm smile—is palpable. It’s a joy she clearly strives to share.

As a child, Cissoko began weekly free-form movement classes at the Munich Ballet Academy. Her teachers spotted an unusual talent and she soon moved into formal Vaganova-based ballet training. Year by year, her dance schedule intensified to the point that she had to complete her academic studies in night school.

In 2009 she traveled to Switzerland to compete in the Prix de Lausanne. She did not make the finals, but she had what turned out to be a fateful meeting: Karen Kain (president of the jury that year) was waiting for a train to Geneva when she spotted Cissoko on the platform. “I’d noted Adji’s talent, even if it was clear she hadn’t got used to the length of her legs yet,” says Kain, in her day also considered a tall dancer. “I knew how she must be feeling, so I went up and told her how good I thought she was and not to be discouraged.”

After Lausanne, Konstanze Vernon, founder of the Munich school, sent Cissoko’s video to the School of American Ballet, where she was accepted for a summer intensive. “I was trained in a Russian Vaganova style and all of a sudden I was having to move so fast,” Cissoko remembers. “It was a difficult adjustment.” So for a change during her New York stay, Cissoko took class at the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at American Ballet Theatre. “Adji only did barre,” says JKO principal Franco De Vita, “but it was clear she was quite exceptional. I followed my instincts and offered her a full scholarship.”

Cissoko spent just a year at JKO but made a strong impression. “Adji is disciplined, dedicated, learns fast and never missed a class,” says De Vita. “She was the perfect student.” In fact, she impressed her teachers so much that faculty member Raymond Lukens picked her to dance a solo in his staging of the tarantella from Bournonville’s Napoli for JKO’s year-end performance.

JKO students often set their sights on ABT II and according to Australian-born Aaron Smyth, then a classmate, “there was some surprise” that Cissoko was not hired. “Adji has very good musicality and a lovely quality in her dancing. Also with those beautiful long legs, she stretches and leaps to beyond.” On top of that, Cissoko was popular with fellow students, described by Smyth as “wonderful” and “a delight.”

De Vita explains that ABT II was looking for a short dancer. “It’s unfortunate there wasn’t a spot for a tall girl,” adds Lukens, “but as we always try to explain to students, it’s not about their ability. There are other issues that can get in the way.” Cissoko seems to have been listening. “I like to stay open-minded,” she says. ”I knew it was going to be hard because of my height. You have to face the realities of a dance career.”

She was offered positions at The Washington Ballet, Boston Ballet II and Dresden SemperOper Ballett, but she auditioned in Toronto at her mother’s suggestion. The National Ballet held the appeal of an exceptionally wide-ranging repertoire from an iconic Sleeping Beauty to the outright avant-gardism of Aszure Barton, Crystal Pite and Marie Chouinard. And, of course, she had already met the company’s boss on that Swiss train platform.

Kain was impressed by Cissoko’s “huge progress” since Lausanne and did not view her height—or anything else—as an impediment. “It may not appeal to all directors,” Kain says frankly, “but I love having so many interesting types here—size, shape, skin color. Frankly, I don’t even notice that Adji is a dancer ‘of color.’”

Cissoko experienced one kind of culture shock when she moved from Munich to the feverish pace of New York, but she was still in a school environment. The transition into a company in another new city brought its own challenges. “As first-year corps I was afraid I’d be standing around in pretty poses, but we dance a lot,” she says. “At the beginning it was almost overwhelming.” Her first assignment was Balanchine’s Serenade, a work that exalts the female corps. Then came pieces by James Kudelka, a former National Ballet artistic director. “I was in Snowflakes and Flowers in his Nutcracker and understudied one of the fairies in Cinderella,” Cissoko recalls. “There are difficult, fast combinations in each, very specific musicality, and the coordination was hard to find, being so tall, trying to control all of that.”

National Ballet staff, however, try to keep a watchful eye. Says Kain, who met with Cissoko her first week to check how she was settling in, “I really want Adji to get a strong foundation and a sense of the support of her colleagues. She’ll need time to gain confidence and control of her body, but there’s something wonderful about her. I’m sure choreographers will want to use her unique talent.”

Senior ballet mistress Mandy-Jayne Richardson, who works directly with the corps, says she tries to give as much individual attention as she can, but the reality, as Cissoko acknowledges, is that a dancer also has to take personal responsibility. “You have to develop a certain independence and look out for yourself,” Cissoko says.

Despite her admirable work ethic and extraordinary facility, National Ballet staff are cautious about pushing Cissoko too fast, although they did have her understudy the demanding Queen of the Dryads in Don Quixote. “There’s tremendous strength and a good base in her dancing,” says Richardson, “but with such long legs she needs time to coordinate everything. She’s having to work at a very fast pace, and we don’t want her to get injured.”

For the first time in her life, Cissoko is living alone, in a small apartment near Toronto’s colorful Italian neighborhood. “It’s good to be able to come home, relax and have some quiet time,” she says. She’s also enjoying the city. “People are so helpful. I lost my wallet and somebody found it and called me right away.” As her talent matures, Cissoko is likely to have plenty of opportunities beyond Toronto, but NBC, where several JKO graduates have begun their careers, certainly hopes she’ll make Toronto home. Says Richardson: “We’re really lucky to have her. There’s no doubt Adji has a big future.”