Adam McKinney is a dancer whose feet have moved across countless boards. But on Sept. 21, he will bring movement to a different kind of arena — the bimah of San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El.
A former member of noted companies Alvin Ailey and Lines Ballet, McKinney will present a version of “HaMapah/The Map,” an original piece that explores his African American, Native American and Jewish heritages. The event includes live performance, dance on film and a chance for audience members to share heritage stories of their own.
“We hope that they will be moved, and I think they will be,” said director Daniel Banks, also McKinney’s husband. “And inspired.”
HaMapah, a “genealogical dance journey,” explores the map of McKinney’s ancestry, which stretches from Poland to Russia to Lithuania, from Benin to Togo to Ghana and more, using photos and sound to provide a setting for McKinney’s physical expression.
“I also look at the ways in which my body is a map,” McKinney said.
The program is part of the synagogue’s Selichot programming leading up to Rosh Hashanah. The evening will start with a Havdalah service at 7 p.m., with McKinney performing at 7:30. The performance will be followed by a Selichot service at 9 p.m.
Cantor Marsha Attie heard about his work through his brother, Jason McKinney, a singer who has performed regularly at Emanu-El. Attie, a former modern dancer herself, was instantly intrigued.
“Whenever there’s any intersection between dance and Judaism, I’m in,” she said.
She said Emanu-El is committed to representing its entire community and welcomes the chance to showcase the work of an African American and Jewish and gay man.
I look at the ways in which my body is a map.
“We have so many mixed families, and mixed identities” in the congregation, she said. “I feel like the work he’s doing is really relevant.”
McKinney grew up in Milwaukee and attended a Jewish school there (his mother was the executive director of Milwaukee Area Jewish Committee), and he’s well aware of the way he can be perceived as unusual in Jewish spaces. As an African American Jew, he was used to getting the “what are you?” question.
“I think representation matters, for sure,” he said. “I think certainly as a young person it was important for me to see people who looked like me, and practiced like me.”
Banks stressed that although the piece involves McKinney’s heritage, it’s not about treating his background as an oddity.
“We seek to combat this narrative of exceptionalism,” he said.
McKinney and Banks debuted HaMapah in 2010, four years after founding DNAWORKS, an organization that facilitates exploration of identity and culture through art, workshops and performances. In 2009 they went to Israel, where they collaborated with an Ethiopian Israeli contemporary dance company as well as with two young men who had been injured in an attack on a Tel Aviv LGBT youth club.
The performance at Emanu-El takes elements of the HaMapah dance work and adapts it to a non-theatrical space, something Banks said has been necessary in order to take the show to places without the stage, lights and acoustics of a full theater.
The Sept. 21 show will combine live dancing with pieces of a filmed version of HaMapah that shows McKinney performing in some of the places of his ancestors, including Kraków and Siedlanka in Poland.
For McKinney, performing the piece at a synagogue during the run-up to the High Holidays is significant.
“For me and my work, I’m also looking at the idea of forgiveness and the importance of forgiving the past,” he said.
And for Banks and McKinney, coming back to San Francisco will have an added personal significance.
“We were actually married in San Francisco,” Banks said. “Eleven years ago.”