Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre director connects Judaism and dance
Adam McKinney brings diversity — and Judaism — to the ballet world
Black, gay and Jewish. Adam McKinney is no stranger to diversity.
The new artistic director of the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre isn’t afraid to lean into the characteristics — all of the characteristics — that make up a person.
“In the book chapter I wrote in the ‘Oxford Handbook on Jewishness and Dance’ called ‘HaMapah/The Map Navigating Intersections,’ I write about the possibility of being many things at the same time and that these notions are noncompeting and signify the possibility and importance of noticing all of who we are as people,” he said.
It was a high school musical director who first suggested McKinney try ballet.
“In my first ballet class, it felt as though I knew what to do,” he recalled. “I knew how to turn, and I knew how to jump. From there started a beautiful relationship with ballet.”
The Milwaukee native went on to study at the Milwaukee Ballet school and the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, as he was finishing high school, then earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts at Butler University, where he concentrated on classical ballet.
“I’ve had the opportunity to perform with classical companies and contemporary companies and modern companies all around the world,” he said. “I’m excited to bring my expertise to Pittsburgh.”
McKinney takes the reins of PBT in March, and while he may be new to the company, he isn’t new to Pittsburgh.
His father, an attorney with the National Labor Relations Board, lived and worked in the city for a decade beginning in 1998. McKinney said he visited his father regularly.
“I don’t remember if it was Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, but I remember going to shul with my father who introduced me to some of the Jewish community,” McKinney said. “When I was back in 2018, I went to a Chabad for Purim.”
The strength of the Jewish community here is one reason McKinney is excited about coming to Pittsburgh.
And yet, when it comes to Jewish identity, his is more diverse than many.
“I am Black. I am an Ashkenazi Jew. I’m native heritage. I attended an Orthodox Day School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, called Hillel Academy — shout out to Rabbi Shmotkin and the Chabad community,” he said. “My family attended a chavurah for High Holiday services, which we co-led.”
The idea of Jewish leadership, he said, was instilled in him early on. As for what Jewish life in Pittsburgh will look like for McKinney and his husband, director Daniel Banks — that is still to be determined.
McKinney is quick to say there are relationships between dance and Judaism, pointing to Israeli folk dance and its intricate footwork, choreography and often repeated circle motif, which he said is symbolic and “very Jewish.”
“It’s not unlike the circles we create during Simchat Torah when we draw circles around each other and a bima if there is one present,” he said. “It is also kapparot, the historical nature of circling a chicken around our heads for Yom Kippur and the circling around Shabbat candles. The notion of circles of tikkun olam is a circle of remembrance and repair,” he said.
Tikkun olam and creating social change through ballet is something the PBT’s new artistic director has considered. He said that as a country we are at a remarkable moment where we are trying to understand who we are and what we value — and how we should construct systems of support to ensure that our values are represented and embodied.
Dance, including ballet, he said, has always been subversive.
“It offers the opportunity to create the world in which we want to operate and live,” he said. “As an organization, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre is working to create those worlds artistically, certainly in terms of the programming we offer internally from an infrastructural, organizational perspective, but also the ways in which we are reaching outside of ourselves.”
The goal, he said, is to widen the doors and enlarge the table so that more people feel represented and included.
“That, too, is subversive,” he said. “A form that was historically meant for some is now meant for all and that’s one of the reasons I was so interested in the organization — because I know of its commitment to the high caliber programming and its commitment to community.”
Before accepting the position of artistic director at the PBT, McKinney was a tenured associate professor of dance in ballet in the School of Classical and Contemporary Dance at Texas Christian University, teaching classes in classical ballet, modern dance and choreography. He co-founded and co-directed DNAWORKS, an organization committed to healing through arts.
He has danced with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Alonzo King LINES Ballet, Béjart Ballet Lausanne, Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet and Milwaukee Ballet Company.
Pittsburgh, he noted, is almost geographically midway between his native Milwaukee and Boston, his husband’s home town. Because of the time he spent here over the years, and its location on the map, the city is inviting, he said.
“So, this notion of coming home feels warm to me,” he said. “Certainly, participating in community from a Jewish perspective is important. The convergence of the rivers is beautiful and metaphoric. The art and cultural landscape is vibrant.”
Not everything he’s looking forward to, though, is quite as highbrow.
“We hear the food is great,” he said. PJC
David Rullo can be reached at email@example.com.