Meet Our Neighbor, Nikisha Fogo
Words by Matthew Ininns
Images by Anna-Alexia Basile
Nikisha Fogo arrived in San Francisco with two suitcases and no apartment.
While the big move from the Vienna State Ballet to become the San Francisco Ballet’s newest principal dancer was originally planned to be aided by her sister and family, the pandemic changed everything. The world fell into chaos and all was flipped on its head, yet Fogo managed to find her feet. Likely it was a life spent in motion that prepared her for this moment.
Growing up in Stockholm, Sweden, the Fogo home was one of innate creativity. Fogo’s parents founded a hip-hop dance studio, and Fogo was drawn at an early age to hip-hop, jazz, and tap. She glowingly recalls filming self-invented dance routines with her sister Shenie on their camcorder in full costume and song. After seeing Vienna’s famous New Year’s Ballet Concert as a child, she begged her parents to allow her to audition for the Royal Swedish Ballet School. The program allowed her to focus simultaneously on dancing and academics, and is where things began to click. Fogo was offered a scholarship at 16 to the Royal Ballet School in London, and from there moved on to the same Vienna State Ballet that had inspired her to begin dancing ballet.
In Vienna, Fogo worked with the acclaimed director Manuel Legris. She credits Legris’ strict and blunt criticism for helping her discover the best version of herself as a dancer. It was also Legris who made Nikisha the muse of his production of Sylvia. At the opening night of the ballet, Legris and the Vienna State Ballet promoted Fogo to principal dancer in front of the entire audience, with her family in attendance. It was a peak.
In early 2020, the San Francisco Ballet announced that she would be its newest principal dancer. But the world had other plans.
Nikisha arrived at the peak of the COVID-19 Pandemic in San Francisco alone, having neither an apartment nor a face to greet her. At the time, the SF Ballet was dancing in five-person pods to minimize the risk of infection. While Fogo could train, it was hard to connect through distance and masks. Even Helgi Tomasson, the celebrated San Francisco Ballet director who saw promise in selecting Fogo, announced that he would be leaving the company.
Where others might crumble, Fogo endured. “Home is not necessarily a place,” she says. “It’s more the people you’re around.” And because Fogo couldn’t yet be around people, she got a cat — and trained it to dance. BillieMew, a sphynx, twirls on command, sits, and fetches. “All by by bribing her with treats,” explains Fogo. It’s the little things that make a place feel like home, and Fogo was beginning to find one.
As the pandemic began to loosen its grip, Fogo connected with San Francisco. She was drawn to the dramatic nature of the city — its rugged ocean and secret views — and even to the Golden State Warriors, how basketball’s “physicality is similar to dance in its elegance.” She finds peace in the tranquility of Pac Heights and excitement in discovering Dumpling Time. She has even tracked down Giddy, a candy store that reminds her of her childhood in Swedish sweet shops.
Nikisha has found San Franciscans to be friendly and outgoing, which, as an introvert, she finds welcoming. Masks and pods have given way to full San Francisco Ballet performances, and Fogo has formed deep friendships with her fellow dancers. But the struggles persisted, as they do: An injury kept Fogo out of commission for most of 2022, and visa renewal issues held her in Stockholm for longer than planned.
Typical to form, Fogo kept seeing opportunity. Just as her dance background beyond ballet allows her to move with a different perspective, the time away from dancing gave her a chance to think about herself beyond that one outlet. She’s dabbled in jewelry, music, and drawing, and the break allowed her to spend more time with her sister, whose visit to San Francisco was highlighted by a trip to Pacifica’s “most beautiful Taco Bell in the world.” (Locals, we know you know.)
Perhaps most importantly, Fogo’s forced break from dance cemented her commitment to ballet and to San Francisco. While Nikisha Fogo is many things, she is foremost a dancer. She’s performing like never before, and here in San Francisco, detached from the Old World ethos of European ballets, she’s found a new chance to grow and expand her perception of what’s possible.