The Sublime Freedom Found in Movement and Change
with Adji Cissoko
Witnessing a person embody themselves fully, effervescently, and freely is an experience both enlivening and grounding. In watching that person you become more aware of your mortality. The fleeting time we have in this air comes into crystalline focus.
Such is the experience when watching Adji Cissoko. A professionally trained, award-winning ballet dancer, Adji defies constructs when she moves. She shifts her body to create a new language, one that transports those fortunate to bear witness.
Much of Adji’s personal style of dance stems from her global life. While growing up in Munich, Adji’s father, who is Senegalese, would play his Kora, a string instrument from West Africa. “Whenever I heard him play, I would start moving,” Adji remembers. This innate desire eventually unspooled into Adji’s ballet career that began in Germany, where she graduated from the Ballet Academy Munich, and continued to the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at American Ballet Theatre in New York, the National Ballet of Canada, and eventually LINES Ballet in San Francisco where Adji currently dances.
In speaking with Adji, you quickly understand her deep appreciation for the layers in life—which is another inspiration for the way she moves. We recently visited with her several times. First, Lan captured her in our latest collection, Series No. 19. Then we asked her about dancing and life. As Adji unveils, freedom can be found in embracing shifts. "We are always changing," she says, "as is everything around us.”
Words by Stacey Lindsay. Photos by Lan Jaenicke.
A Conversation with Adji Cissoko
When did you become inspired to dance?
My dad is from Senegal, so in the evening he would always play the Kora, which sounds a little bit like a harp. Whenever I heard him play, I would start moving. But it wasn't until I went to the school doctor before going to elementary school that I had to do an exercise to test my coordination—and apparently, I struggled. The doctor told my parents that to improve my spatial awareness and coordination I should do some sort of dance, like ballet. As soon as I went to my first lesson, the teacher said to my parents, ‘she needs to do that professionally.’ At first my parents were resistant, but after speaking with the teacher every week, they let me audition for the ballet academy in Munich. Once I was accepted, I kept passing every level—and I just kept dancing.
You have such a diverse background and you've lived and traveled all over the world. How has this informed how you dance?
They all play a certain part in who I am as a dancer. My training in Munich was very Russian. I had only Russian teachers. When I first came to the States, it was the first time I believed and experienced Balanchine and all this fast movement. It was all new to me. It was nice for me to get that experience before joining my first company. It helped me to be more adaptable and well-rounded instead of just having one style of dance. The two companies that I have danced for are so different. The National Ballet of Canada is such a big company with more than 70 dancers. It’s a classical company, so this means you perform Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty. Then in joining LINES Ballet, I was asked to improv and to be the creator and the artist. I was making choices and realizing how I can make movement more personal. So that was quite a transition for me, but a good one. All these transitions were helpful and happened at the right time.
Speaking of transitions, you have spoken about how we are all always changing and evolving in life.
That was a realization. We are always changing, as is everything around us. I'm not the same person I was yesterday. Ideas, goals, views—they all change. So that requires us to be completely in the moment, whether that's in dance or in life. A lot of choreography allows for that, and it even asks for that. For example, if I perform a role one night, the next night I'm not going to go on stage and try to do the same thing. I'm going to experience it completely new because I have changed, it's a different night, and I may be going to a different place deep within. That allows for me to almost go toward it blindly, and for this magic to appear.
You are also a health and life coach. What is some wellness wisdom you’re willing to share?
Everything is connected. Health is not just nutrition. Health is mental health, spiritual health, physical health. It’s all about that same idea that we’re always changing and growing, we need to look at ourselves to see what works, what doesn't work. In my health and life coaching, I always tell people, ‘I can’t tell you exactly what to do because everybody is an individual. What we need to do is to tune up that listening and realize: This works for my body. This is what I need to do, or this is what I need to eat, or this is what I need to drink.' Maybe something works for you in the moment, and then a few years later you need to change it because you have changed. When you really listen, your body tells you everything it needs. We often doubt ourselves, or we learn not to trust our intuition even though our intuition is such a gift.
How does your intuition inform how you approach the tangible items in your life?
That's also something that's been changing for me. Little things matter more. Before I didn't care how my room was organized. Now I realize it all makes such a difference. Even where I sit down to eat my lunch makes a difference in how I enjoy it and how it feeds my senses. I notice this in Lan and her work. She is so thoughtful and in tune. Even little details have such a meaning to her. I always ask her ‘how come your clothes are so comfortable and so light?’ You just want to wear them. I admire her attention to detail.
As a dancer, how do you feel when you are wearing Lan Jaenicke?
The pieces have a certain flow to them. As soon as I put them on, I feel like moving. It’s like they're meant for moving and for joy. There's a certain aspect to it that is joyful, simple, not too restricting, and breathable. You feel that there's air, you can breathe, and you feel good. Also, I love how they are versatile. Sometimes Lan creates clothing that you can wear in multiple ways, which is genius. And the clothing is honest. It’s like how in dance we want to be honest and pure; you don’t want to put on anything that is too much or fake. That is how I see her creations. They are just honest—and that is beautiful.