Patrons to the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre will see a new face in the lobby. In his time in the city so far, the company’s new Artistic Director Adam McKinney has made an effort to be visible at performances and interact with residents — which is not always encouraged in the field of ballet. 

“The manner in which I work to welcome people to make sure that people feel appreciated, seen and heard is a contradiction in ballet, right?” McKinney said in an interview with PublicSource. “Because we’re taught not always to speak openly. It has been received, I think, and very much appreciated.” 

On stage, dancers are largely silent while telling the story through movement, but McKinney plans to make his mark on the city through his voice as well as dance. Those are values, he says, he learned outside of dance that he works to bring to the art form.

On a recent walk Downtown, McKinney was moved by the bustling Cultural District — the theaters, murals and galleries create a vibrancy that is hard to miss as a newcomer to Pittsburgh. 

Pittsburgh was attractive to McKinney, in part, because of the way the individual art organizations work together to create something beautiful and meaningful. “It’s so special. It feels like we’re all working toward a common goal of ensuring that people and cultures are represented accurately,” he said. “And so I think that’s what I mean in terms of the very rich and vibrant art and culture scene that I’m excited about joining and participating in.” 

Adam McKinney, the new artistic director for the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre (PBT), works with PBT artists Colin McCaslin and Tommie Lin O’Hanlon as they rehearse for the upcoming ballet “Sleeping Beauty” on Monday, April 24, 2023, in the Strip District. (Photos by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

That art scene is excited to have him participate, too, says Kati Gigler, the acting executive director of the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. “His artistic vision encompasses classical ballet’s history while looking toward the future of ballet as an ever-more innovative and inclusive art form. Adam has a true interest in people and bringing out the best in those around him,” she told PublicSource in an email.

McKinney began his new role in March, bringing an impressive resume to the city’s premier ballet company. Before moving to Pittsburgh, he was a tenured associate professor of dance at Texas Christian University. He also is the co-director of DNAWORKS, an organization dedicated to healing through the arts. After receiving his undergrad in dance from Butler University, followed by a master of arts in dance studies, race and trauma theories from New York University, McKinney toured the world in a variety of roles. He served as a U.S. embassy culture connect envoy, a project of the State Department, as well. 

In a city that has long struggled with race and identity, McKinney’s appointment also brings a lot of “firsts” to Pittsburgh. He is the first Black artistic director at the company as well as the first to identify as both gay and Jewish. When talking about himself, though, McKinney emphasizes experience and art over identity.  He also recognizes what his role means to those watching him. “I think that the more we can see ourselves represented in the people with whom we have relationships, the easier it is to see ourselves in the future.” 

McKinney’s arrival will have a significant impact on artistic youth in the city, said Cathryn Calhoun, director of education and community engagement at the August Wilson African American Cultural Center

“It is important to have representation in the arts community with Black arts leaders and educators because children want to see someone who looks like them, someone who has a similar background, someone they can relate to, someone they can aspire to be and someone that can be a role model,” she wrote in an email. “Representation in the arts community and in general has helped improve student outcomes and can shape how Black and Brown students imagine themselves in the world.” 

Adam McKinney, the new artistic director for the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre (PBT), is silhouetted against the dance floor as he leads rehearsal for “Sleeping Beauty” on Monday, April 24, 2023, in the Strip District. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

McKinney is careful not to lean too hard into — or be pigeonholed into — a singular identity. The representation matters, he said, but it is part of the larger story told by dance. 

“It’s about the work of ballet,” he said. He is focused on the work as well as the history and performance of the art form, which he says are independent of any ethnic heritage or boxes that he may check off on someone’s list. 

“That’s not to say that we need to work toward color blindness,” he said. “That’s impossible. But it is to say that the work doesn’t stop, especially in ballet.”

Meg St-Esprit is a freelance journalist based in Bellevue. She can be reached at or on Twitter @megstesprit.

This story was fact-checked by Ladimir Garcia.

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