At some point in the lives of the curious, the question of identity arises. Who are we? Why are we here?
Dancer and choreographer Adam McKinney sought answers to that question by digging into his ancestors’ past. He found the key to his selfhood in the stories in his black father and his Jewish mother. On Sunday afternoon at Skidmore College, he shared those stories in his tour de force dance narrative, “HaMapah,” Hebrew for the map or tablecloth. The dance, directed by Daniel Banks, stitched a patchwork quilt of his background — his sharecropping grandparents in Mississippi and his Austrian Jewish grandmother who immigrated to America. And in so doing, “HaMapah” paid homage to the struggles, sometimes violent, that brought him into the world.
Seen on the final day of Saratoga ArtsFest, the dance was a byproduct of DNAWORKS, a collective of artists who seeks to heal the world through art, with a particular focus on connecting cultures through community. As part of the piece, the audience was asked to remain seated after the performance to discuss their own tales of identity and community. And while Director Banks said that this audience discussion was essential to the program, what was most memorable about the afternoon was McKinney’s expressive and, at times, explosive solo.
This tall, slender dancer entered the stage wearing tattered clothing, as if he crawled in from the past. Moving within a box of light, he reached and pushed out, and spun as if trying to break free. When he did, he plunged to the floor, his legs stretched to the sky as if being born. Through this struggle, black and white family photos flashed. The images never stayed projected long enough to actually see the faces or the figures. But the effect was that of lightning, striking McKinney into consciousness.
From there, he told his tale, with stories, music, images, and dance, of two cultures converging to create him. McKinney had two props that he used to great effect — a chair and a cloth. The chair was his touchstone, a place of rest and understanding. When this energetic dancer sat, even briefly, the audience prepared for another revelation about his soul to be unveiled.
More powerful was the cloth, which he used as a noose and a chain, when depicting his Southern black heritage. It also was a shawl as he remembered his parents, particularly his father’s death. It also served as a screen to project images of his parents who eloped because both of their families vehemently opposed their union.
Finally, McKinney paid homage to Rabbi Moshe Isserles who wrote “HaMapah,” a commentary on Jewish law for Eastern Europe. He was a maternal relative of McKinney’s and, interestingly, a relative of an audience member. Though the two did not know each other, it underscored DNAWORKS’ point — that yes, we are individuals, but more importantly, we are all connected.
DNAWORKS’ “HaMapah” drove that point home with eloquence.