Note: this piece contains references to racial violence.
Last summer, the Fort Worth-based organization DNAWORKS was among the artists commissioned by Amphibian Stage to create augmented reality pieces as part of an art tour. The arts-based, multidisciplinary organization has recently been a leader in bringing together a pluricultural group to oversee the transformation of a former Ku Klux Klan building in Fort Worth through the nonprofit Transform 1012 N. Main Street. DNAWORKS was co-founded in 2006 by artistic partners and married couple Daniel Banks, Ph.D. and Adam W. McKinney, M.A., with the goal of fostering dialogue and healing through the arts. Over the years, the organization has evolved, and recently, with McKinney taking on a new professional role outside of the state, I have been curious about how DNAWORKS will continue to evolve.
I sat down with Banks to learn more about DNAWORKS’ history, how McKinney’s departure will affect the organization, and what new projects and endeavors are on the horizon. The conversation, which totaled an hour and a half, has been edited for publication.
Jessica Fuentes (JF): Tell me a little bit about how and when DNAWORKS was launched.
Daniel Banks (DB): Adam and I met in 2004 at an Ethiopian Hanukkah party at the Jewish Community Center in New York, and one of our first conversations was about the fact that he, being mostly in the dance world, and me, being mostly in the theater world (although we had some crossover), we felt like there was not enough and good enough representations of people of multiple heritages in those spaces. We, as artists, felt like we were constantly being asked questions like “What are you? What are you exactly?” We were being told we were ethnically ambiguous; people were making assumptions about our cultural and ethnic heritages based on appearance, and maybe other factors. And it was a real connection point, it was literally our first actual conversation. So, that began our personal relationship, but the seed was planted.
He was dancing with the company Cedar Lake Ensemble and I was teaching at NYU and working as a freelance director, and it became very clear very quickly that we were going to spend a lot of time together. And, as each of us were being offered opportunities to do side gigs, we started saying “Oh, well, I have a partner in art, and we want to come together and do this.” And at some point, we were doing enough of that that we said, “We should just form a business.” No one else, that we knew of, was focusing on identity as the locus of performance and creating performances about that.
JF: How has the organization grown and shifted over the years?
DB: In some ways, it started off as an umbrella for our gig work… that was mostly work that other people were asking us to do. So, then, our work grew from other people asking us to do things to us generating our own work. In 2006 we taught in Ghana and we learned about an ancient Jewish community in Ghana, in the Western Region, and we knew we had to document their story. At that point there had not been any public filmed documentation of their story, so we were able to receive some funding from the U.S. Embassy in Accra. We purchased some camera equipment and traveled out there several times and did, what we call, a “filmed oral history,” which turned into We are All One: The Jews of Sefwi Wiawso… so that was the first thing we actually made together.
What we discovered was that people wanted to ask us a lot of clarifying questions after the film, kind of a Q&A… I remember at one point, when we screened it at a Jewish Film Festival in Salt Lake City, somebody said (and this wasn’t a negative comment, it was a genuine question), “I’m so surprised that there are Jews in Ghana.” And Adam, who is always good with the loving response, said, “Given the geography, I’m more surprised that there are Jews in Salt Lake City.” And that was a beautiful way for somebody to challenge an assumption and bias, and of course, geographically, it makes far more sense that there are Jews on the African continent… So, we decided that we didn’t want to do Q&As, because we felt like that actually led people down the wrong road. That they were holding on to facts and trying to unlearn and relearn in a very intellectual way, rather than an emotional way. But what also happened in those post-screening moments is some people would stand up and would share their stories.
We recognized the power of these stories to be far more impactful than us giving them facts, because that is what a story is… stories communicate, as my grandmother said, “The heart feels the heart.” And so, we began a practice of holding what we call community storycircles after our events… and what that means is, we tell the audience that we are turning the lights down on the stage and up on them, and actually balancing out the voices of the artists and the audience, so that we position the arts as a catalyst for people to get to know each other better in a given geographical location.
JF: So, from there, how did DNAWORKS expand to work with other artists?
DB: 2017 happened, that January, the inauguration, and some people were quite distraught at that moment and felt unmoored. Really, the world as we thought we knew it in the United States had come to an end. We looked around us and we noticed how many of the people in our close art circle were being asked to do a huge amount of labor holding the hands of other people… And we thought, what if we bring all these people who are being drained of their life energy by having to do this emotional hand-holding together into a cohort and create a DNAWORKS Ensemble, with people who are very close to us. Then we started meeting regularly as a sort of part art generation group and part support group, and all around family healing circle. Now, six years later, we have an Ensemble of 17 other artists.
JF: Earlier this year, Adam was appointed Artistic Director of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. How is DNAWORKS moving forward after his professional shift?
DB: We’re actually in a very interesting moment. While Adam is still co-owner of DNAWORKS, because we are still an LLC Partnership and we consider ourselves a production house, not a nonprofit, he has stepped down as co-director. So, I didn’t want to be the sole artistic director of DNAWORKS because I really thrive on co-creation, community, partnership, and collaboration… so I have invited four other artists, of different disciplines, from around the country, to be co-curators with me and we are in the process of hiring an Executive Director who will run the nuts and bolts of the company. And, these co-curators, together, will make artistic decisions for the company in terms of what we’re working on in a given year. They will each have projects that they are working on and will be able to use DNAWORKS’s resources… they’ll also be able to engage those resources to create work of their own under the auspices of DNAWORKS. And so, in 18 years… it’s been this huge journey from work generated by the two of us to work generated by more people but still at our invitation, to now having a cohort artistic leadership team.
JF: When I think of DNAWORKS, I think about community healing and social practice art. Do y’all consider DNAWORKS social practice art? If so, who are some of the people who have inspired you in this work?
DB: That language, social practice, is maybe not the most used term that we use. I think for Adam and me, we are both Jewish, we think of Tikkun olam, which is the repair or healing of the world, and is a value we were both raised with. Certainly we talk about community healing — I think that’s more the language that we use… I’ve always led two lives, but they’ve been separate, like on one side is the social justice work and on the other side is the resourced art-making work.
Watching how Cornerstone Theater in Los Angeles combined those two things was really inspiring for me… Ping from Ping Chong and Company has definitely been one of my mentors, both from near and afar. Liz Lerman’s work for sure, John O’Neal’s work with Free Southern Theater and Junebug Productions, and his work with story circles is a fundamental basis of inspiration for our work with community storycircles… I mean, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar’s work with Urban Bush Women is hugely inspiring and impactful, and what we do has a lot of crossover in working with a lot of people. I met her when I was 20, and I was just so thoroughly moved by her and her work.
JF: A lot of the topics DNAWORKS tackles are inherently heavy. Through the work, how do you heal yourself? How do you give yourself space to process some of the things that y’all are tackling and not be weighed down by it? Or are you always weighed down by it?
DB: I’m not always weighed down by it. It is always present for me, but I’m not always weighed down by it. So, Adam and I are part of an international movement called Re-Evaluation Counseling, which is also known as Co-Counseling. It’s a liberation movement based in listening. It’s actually very simple on some level. So, I share time with co-counselors almost daily, where I’ll listen to them for five or ten minutes and they’ll listen to me for five or ten minutes… and it’s deep listening. For five minutes, go, talk about whatever you need to talk about, share whatever you need to share. One person listens, doesn’t ask questions, doesn’t start talking, and then you reverse. The point is to figure out the ways in which we’ve been hurt and discharge on them, so we can discharge early hurt so we can be really present in the moment. This has certainly changed my life and my care of myself…
The other way I take care of myself is by moving slowly. I was already exploring this as a modality, prior to COVID, but then when COVID hit and when I got long COVID, which has completely changed my nervous system, this moving slowly thing, this conscious breathing, has been fundamental for my work in community and personally. Really foregrounding that has been hugely important. All rehearsals start off with quiet, conscious breathing, most meetings do; most times when I’m presenting or public speaking, we do that as a group, together, to center ourselves and arrive.
JF: Looking ahead, what is coming up for DNAWORKS?
DB: We are currently touring Shelter in Place, which is a gallery installation we have toured around that uses the contemporary tintypes from SCAB and two dance films that Adam made. The installation creates an environment for people to learn about the lynching of Mr. Fred Rouse in Fort Worth in 1921. It has been exhibited at Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education (Portland), Bridge Projects (Los Angeles), Project Row Houses (Houston), and Tarrant County College Trinity River Campus (Fort Worth).
We also are touring The Real James Bond…Was Dominican by Christopher Rivas, which has shown in Dallas at Bishop Arts Theater Center. Its next performance is scheduled for Boston in the fall.
Also, HaMapah/The Map Dance-on-Film just received the award for Best Cinematography at the Paris International Short Film Festival. It’s the film adaptation of a stage piece where we go to all the countries, cities, and places where Adam’s family came from and he dances the piece he was dancing in the theater. We filmed it with a wonderful documentary filmmaker, Laura Bustillos Jáquez, who also edited the piece… We are hoping to screen that in Fort Worth in the coming year, and we are screening it in Toronto at the end of May. It is the basis of an art installation we created at the Fentster Gallery, which is basically taking the essence of the film and distilling it into a storefront window gallery installation.
One project that is in process is called The Secret Sharer. It received the MAP Fund Award and NEA funding, through Amphibian Stage Productions, and we’ve also been working at Texas A&M to develop it. We are going to Berlin for two weeks this summer to develop it. It’s a dance theater piece based on Joseph Conrad’s novella The Secret Sharer, which is an early Queer piece of writing. The goal is to create Queer-normative spaces specifically for youth and at-risk folks in the LGBTQ+ community to come together and see this beautiful story about intimacy and connectedness in the face of danger, and learn about creating these resilient spaces. We’ve worked out how to include the storycircle as part of the piece rather than after the piece, so at given moments while the dancers are dancing, we will pass the mic to audience members and say, “Would you tell us the story about your first kiss?” or “Would you tell us your coming out story?” This way, they’re re-writing the play every night with their stories… We hope to premiere that in Fort Worth in the summer of 2024.