'As one who sits at the intersection of multiple identities, I am inspired by our tradition of inquiry, questioning and, dare I say it, arguing'

Drones onstage? Choreographer waltzes across genre, media and technology

Orthodox-educated, gay, mixed-race dancer Adam McKinney breaks boundaries to unite people through poetry in motion

Adam McKinney performs 'HaMapah/The Map.' (Amanda Adams Louis)
Adam McKinney performs 'HaMapah/The Map.' (Amanda Adams Louis)

When Adam McKinney created a multi-media genealogical dance performance named “HaMapah/The Map,” his mission was to more truthfully depict his African, Native and Jewish American ancestries.

“I found that onstage representations of mixed heritage people’s experiences were inaccurate, misunderstood and lacking,” says McKinney, a former member of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

As an assistant professor of dance at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, McKinney continues to straddle many worlds. He identified as gay by his bar mitzvah, but grew up attending an Orthodox day school. But playing in a soccer league on Shabbat and ordering McDonald’s burgers sans bread during Passover were not, as he says, “uncommon.”

In an extension of this fluid approach, McKinney, now 40, these days attends religious services at Chabad and also sometimes performs on Shabbat. On April 14, McKinney staged “HaMapah/The Map” at the Sitka Performing Arts Center as part of a mixed repertory performance during a spring residency at Sitka Fine Arts Camp.

In addition to Alvin Ailey, McKinney has performed as a company member of the Alonzo King LINES Ballet, Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, Béjart Ballet Lausanne, and, in his hometown, with the Milwaukee Ballet Company.

In 2006, he brought dance to communities in Johannesburg, Capetown, and Pretoria as a US Embassy Culture Connect Envoy and co-choreographed with Aghulas Theatre Works, a mixed abilities dance company.

Among other notable projects, in 2009 McKinney received a Jerome Foundation Emerging Choreographers Grant to travel to Israel to research the effects of borders on communities. The grant also enabled him to work with Beta Dance Group, an Ethiopian-Israeli Contemporary Dance Company, and to create pieces with young men who were maimed in the attack on Tel Aviv’s Bar Noar LGBT youth club in 2009.

To learn more about the ways in which McKinney seems to leap from one realm to another, The Times of Israel queried him on his characteristically novel approach to bridging worlds.

'Arabesque,' from Adam McKinney's 'HaMapah/The Map.' (Amanda Adams Louis)
‘Arabesque,’ from Adam McKinney’s ‘HaMapah/The Map.’ (Amanda Adams Louis)

You co-founded and co-direct DNAWORKS with your husband, Daniel Banks. What was your motivation?

We founded DNAWORKS LLC in 2006 because, much like the reasons for creating HaMapah, we were interested in furthering artistic expression and catalyzing performance action around issues of identity, culture, and heritage. We have had the great pleasure of working in and exchanging with international communities around social justice and the arts in Serbia, Hungary, Israel, Palestine, Hungary, Azerbaijan, Italy, Mexico, Canada, South Africa, Ghana, Indonesia and throughout the US.

Your work expresses themes of social justice and blurs lines between temporality and place. What is your current focus?

At the moment, I am researching the physical effects of borders and using dance and border surveillance technologies to bring people closer together.

Dancer, choreographer, and professor Adam McKinney. (Andrew Eccles)
Dancer, choreographer, and professor Adam McKinney. (Andrew Eccles)

What else do you have planned for “HaMapah/The Map”?

This summer, Daniel, filmmaker Laura Butsillos Jàquez, and I will travel to my maternal genealogical locations — Kraków and Siedlanka, Poland and Harlowton and Lewistown, Montana — to turn “HaMapah/The Map” into a dance film.

Could you tell us more about your Jewish ancestors?

My four maternal great-grandparents were born in what is now Poland in the late 19th century. Fleeing the threat of pogroms, they immigrated to the United States in the early 20th century. The once-booming Polish Jewish population dwindled from approximately 16.25% in 1900 to the meager .01% in 2010. My grandmother’s parents moved to Harlowton [Montana] to open a department store called The Hub alongside my great-grandfather’s brother’s larger and more successful branch of The Hub [located] 57 miles away in Lewistown.

How do you plan to honor their legacies?

I hope to, through dance, enliven the places in which my maternal families lived and worked. I will lead dance-on-film shoots in the former shtetl of Siedlanka and current town of Kolbuszowa; Kraków’s Old Synagogue and the Museum of Kraków Jewish Culture and History; in still-standing The Hub haberdasheries, in the vacant lot where my great-grandparents’ Harlowton house once stood and on Lewistown’s and Harlowton’s cobblestone Main Streets.

What is your mission with this project?

My overarching goal is to create raw, connected, intimate and expansive dance-on-film footage to reimagine “HaMapah/The Map.” I also plan to engage new media technologies, including a drone, to research how dance-on-film fused with onscreen proscenium stage dance performance, might create new choreographic and filmic results. The idea is to enhance vantage points to view and access dance.

How do you dance with a drone?

I recently premiered the work entitled “At Sunset” in collaboration with Atlanta Ballet and Georgia Institute of Technology [in the US], which was choreographed with a drone. The drone acted as an anthropomorphized being and danced with human dancers — flew, shook, dragged on the floor, circled, moved among bodies in space, captured video and projected live video as a backdrop for the work. “At Sunset” connects to my ongoing research as part of my “The Borders Project,” which looks at the history of space and the the surveillance of bodies in space.

Still shot from 'The Borders Project' with dancer Sandra Paola López. (Daniel Banks)
Still shot from ‘The Borders Project’ with dancer Sandra Paola López. (Daniel Banks)

What might this accomplish?

By subverting technology’s “power,” I hope to tell actualized stories… I may be breaking new ground in terms of dance and technology and I am excited to be at the forefront of many who are taking risks in this way. With the NEA and the NEH hanging by a thread, I feel that I have an extraordinary, responsible opportunity to take huge artistic risks in hopes of bringing people closer to one another and asking important questions about our humanity.

As a National Artist Teacher Fellow with the Surdna Foundation, you traveled to the US-Mexico border. How are border projects important to you today?

As the politicization of worldwide borders increases and as more and more populist ideologies are spread through the indoctrination of xenophobic, anti-immigrant and fascist beliefs, my mode of response is to make art that humanizes experiences and, hopefully, pacifies situations. People often ask me, “What is the connection between art and politics?” My answer is that art is automatically political. Connecting to our bodies and to other bodies are deeply political acts that can build ally-ship, understanding and support.

Still shot from 'The Borders Project' with dancer Sandra Paola López. (Daniel Banks)
Still shot from ‘The Borders Project’ with dancer Sandra Paola López. (Daniel Banks)

How do you identify Jewishly?

I identify historically, familially, politically, “minhag-ically” and otherwise with several different denominations. To tell you the truth, I actually try not to identify.

Are you “out” at Chabad?

I am “out” at Chabad. It may be an issue for others, but never for me. One thing I love about Chabad is that I meet other GLB and Trans folks and families at religious events.

What inspires you in Judaism?

As one who sits at the intersection of multiple identities, I am inspired by our tradition of inquiry, questioning and, dare I say it, arguing.

What would you say is Jewish about your work?

My overarching artistic goal is to create art from a place of questioning inaccurate oppressive historical perspectives of others and, in turn, ourselves.

I work toward what I call the “aesthetics of liberation” or shichrur, offering new opportunities of creating and artfully repairing a just world. My academic and artistic works reimagine memory, time — past, present and future — and public and private space by focusing on connections of bodily entities. Through this reimagining, I use the lens of contemporary dance performance to stimulate dialogue about the issues that are important to our communities. In my opinion, this is the place from where lasting change can grow.

How do you connect to Israel?

‘Israel represents a place of unimaginable possibility, solidarity, and hope’

For me, Israel represents a place of unimaginable possibility, solidarity, and hope. I know that, in my lifetime, we will create lasting peace among our nations, while making the space needed for all people to live free from oppression. As Jews, we deeply understand the ways in which the unjust treatment and control of bodies create lasting impact on our generations. I trust and pray that we continue to settle differences and find pathways toward peace and understanding. Aren’t we more alike than we are different?

What surprises you about your work?

Like my identities, I find myself in several different aesthetic, theoretical and practical modes at the same time. And none of them are at odds with one another. This is reflected in “HaMapah/The Map,” where I share that I am not “half anything.”

My work engages time, space and place, community, and professional dance aesthetics. I feel as much at home performing on a proscenium stage, as I do in a forest full of aspen trees and as I do on a street working with young people in Kliptown, South Africa. My work “shape shifts” to ensure endless possibilities with all members of our communities.

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