Of all the arts, perhaps none surpasses dance at distilling the profound feeling of dislocation experienced by diasporic peoples.
In Adam McKinney’s multimedia piece, “HaMapah” (“the map,” or “the tablecloth”), the dancer’s Jewish, African-American and Native-American heritages are articulated through movement, storytelling, music and video. Directed by Daniel Banks, “HaMapah” returns this weekend to the JCC in Manhattan, where it sold out its premiere last May.
McKinney is a former dancer for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. His mother, who is Jewish, met his father, who is African-American and also part Native-American, while they were both attending the University of Wisconsin at Madison in the early 1960s. His parents eloped in order to escape displeasure from both sets of parents. McKinney was raised in Milwaukee, where he attended an Orthodox Jewish day school through the eighth grade before going to public school and then to Butler University. He began dancing professionally in New York in 2004.
Along with Banks, McKinney then founded DNAWorks, an organization that employs the arts to promote intercultural dialogue. One project includes the Beta Dance Troupe, an Ethiopian dance company based in Haifa. As Paul Browde and Murray Nossel did with their 2008 Off-Broadway play “Two Men Talking,” about their South African Jewish heritage that has spawned workshops all over the globe, McKinney and Banks aim to inspire people to tell their own stories and to make their own art.
“HaMapah” takes, or, as McKinney said, “quilts,” its movement vocabulary from a rich array of sources, including West African dance, Blackfoot music, and the ancient Jewish gesture of the priestly blessing. The performer uses a spare set, upon which are projected words, photographs and video. A simple rectangular piece of fabric, in keeping with the theme of the tablecloth, takes the shapes of an umbilical cord, noose, scarf and shawl.
The piece borrows its title from a commentary by Moshe Isserles on the Shulchan Aruch (literally, the “set table”), the 16th-century manual of Jewish law written by Joseph Caro. Just as Isserles, who McKinney claims as a direct ancestor, furnished a gloss on the established customs of the day (reinterpreting the mostly Sephardic rites in an Ashkenazic idiom), the new dance piece comments on the rigidity of the racial and ethnic categories that have so long conditioned the ways in which we think about cultural identity.
“I am naming myself in this place,” McKinney told The Jewish Week, “laying down the law in getting to say who I am. This is my own drash [interpretation] through dance.”
In his thinking about “HaMapah,” McKinney finds the notion of the map just as important as that of the tablecloth. “I am mapping my families, but I am also the map, the sum total of all of my ancestors,” he concluded.
“HaMapah” will be performed twice: Thursday, March 31 and Saturday, April 2, at 8 p.m. at the JCC in Manhattan, 334 Amsterdam Ave. at 76th St. For tickets, $20 ($15 for members), call the box office at (646) 505-5708.