Keeping it FRESH

Kathleen Hermesdorf. Photo by Robbie Sweeny

When speaking with Bay Area artists, it is not uncommon to hear that the seeds of a current work were planted during a performance at FRESH Festival. Initiated by dance artist Kathleen Hermesdorf and musician Albert Mathias, the festival celebrates its 10th anniversary this coming January. A platform for serious investigation of contemporary modes of representation, the festival has become a landmark of the experimental scene in dance, music and performance in the Bay Area and beyond. If its initial focus was training, FRESH Festival soon grew to incorporate performance and dialogue practices as well.

Hermesdorf and Mathias grew up a few miles apart from each other outside of Chicago but it is not until coming to the Bay Area in 1991 and joining Sara Shelton Mann’s iconic ensemble Contraband that they met for the first time. After Contraband disbanded, they created the company ALTERNATIVA with the goal to continue the interdisciplinary approach of the group led by Mann. While on tour or participating in festivals on the East coast and abroad, Hermesdorf and Mathias would often encounter students who wanted to discover the experimental scene of the Bay Area or whom they felt could benefit from training with artists here. This led to the inaugural FRESH Festival in 2010. It comprised a week of training and was loosely modeled after the festivals Hermesdorf and Mathias participated in (Bates Dance Festival, American Dance Festival, Ponderosa Dance festival in Germany and ImPulsTanz in Austria).

At the beginning, it was what Hermesdorf called, in a recent conversation, “a beautiful arrangement of things.” ALTERNATIVA had just moved to Kunst-Stoff Arts, next to Civic Center. “Kunst-Stoff Arts was a new, affordable space waiting to be filled with action, plus we noticed that the very beginning of the year was fairly empty programmatically in the dance scene. We wanted to create a home-based economy for many artists at the start of the year, and feel the vibrancy of the community at a time where there was not much activity or work.” The festival was also a response to the transient nature of the Bay Area. With several economic downturns, many art spaces were closing and artists leaving the city. “We were seeing a loss of the container of the community in some sense — at least ours- as people left,” Mathias recalled. “So the festival environment was really healthy for us because we spend three weeks just surrounded by people immersed in it every day.”

If the initial edition was focused on education, it yet already included informal showings and the performance part grew as years passed. “The saturation matters -Seeing what your teachers do on stage and feeling how their creative work resonates in your body and mind,” Hermesdorf noted.“It allows a deeper articulation of their artistic work, and it’s a way of expanding the artistic and human interactions, creating more surface area for connections and feeding a more prismatic perspective through more of the senses.” In its current edition, the festival includes four weekends of performances, held at the Joe Goode Annex. This year’s performance program features Byb Kongo Bibene, Kim Epifano/Epiphany Productions, Aleta Hayes, Monique Jenkinson, NAKA Dance Theater with The Oracle from Mexico City, and PaMfrom Guadalajara, Kinetech Arts, Sara Shelton Mann, Mica Sigourney, and Amara Tabor Smith.

The 2019 edition is centered around the theme of ‘Reckoning’, which is also the title of the piece that ALTERNATIVA will premiere on the last weekend of the festival in celebration of its 20th Anniversary. “Last year the theme was ‘Antidote’, which was a way of dealing with the fact that we have to heal ourselves,” Hermesdorf offered. “‘Reckoning’ is an extension of that personal/public alchemical healing process, the part that separates the truth from the falsehoods, entailing a bit more hard logic and complex math, a lot more weeding of the garden for future growth.” The festival’s co-curator, José Naverrete, who also leads NAKA Dance Theater with Debby Kajiyama, added: “I interpret reckoning as a process of agitation, a way of be part of this time, where everything has been violated to the core — women, children, immigrants, the environment — by government leaders. It is a time to make yourself accountable for your actions and participate, to change the things that need to be changed on the micro and macro level. Artists (just as people in other professions) have the responsibility to think, resist, act and dance against the bigotry of white patriarchy and patriarchy in general.”

The festival’s focus on transmission continues through ‘FRESH Practices’ which are held seven days a week for 5 to 6 hours per day at Joe Goode Annex. Bay Area artist Keith Hennessy, who has taught and/or performed in nearly every FRESH Festival, has used the teaching opportunities at FRESH to try out new material or to bring to San Francisco the kinds of learning experiences that he developed while teaching in European contexts. “It is still very rare in San Francisco to have classes or workshops in contemporary dance making, and by that I mean, experimental approaches to composition, improvisation, choreography, performance,” Hennessy shared via email. “I appreciate the density of classes, performances, community and discourse events [at FRESH]. Seeing each together in multiple social and artistic contexts sparks potential and nurtures community.”

FRESH Festival also includes Exchanges, community-oriented and organized social and interactive events created to cultivate, invigorate and cross-pollinate experimental dance, music and performance artists and audiences. For Hermesdorf, those events are a way to support experimentation in other artistic forms, including performance art, spoken word, healing and activism. There are 14 Exchanges scheduled during the upcoming festival, ranging from discussion panels to performance experiments. For Hermesdorf and Mathias, these events are also a way to create a different accessibility and economy. If festival performance tickets range from $25 to $35, exchanges are by donation ($5-$15) and no one is turned away for lack of funds.

The festival approach also allowed Hermesdorf and Mathias to cast a wider curatorial net and diversify the programming in a way that represents the wide range of artists making work in the Bay. Hermesdorf credits Ernesto Sopprani who founded and led TheOffCenter, located in the same building that hosted Kunst-Stoff, for introducing her to queer artists and artists of color. Through Sopprani, Hermesdorf also reconnected Navarrete, with whom she had performed in Contraband. In 2015, Navarrete had launched Live Arts In Resistance (LAIR) in East Oakland to promote and produce local artists of color, encouraging an inquiry into the intersection of social justice and contemporary performance. “Through my work on LAIR, I had the great opportunity to get to know a large pool of Bay Area artists, mostly from East Oakland. Kathleen wanted to diversify the audiences and artists of the FRESH Festival. Mainstream contemporary performance, in general, has been very white, so it did not reflect the diversity we have in the Bay Area. We needed to look at this and make different choices in the programming and outreach,” Navarrete, reached while in Japan, wrote via email.

The festival doesn’t only attract students from the Bay or from California, but participants from other states and abroad also attend, many coming back regularly over the years. As for the invitation to artists, it is open. “As much as I’m a control freak, I want FRESH to become itself, to define itself through the artists it represents and let that ripple out. I want to give artists and audiences access, choices, income and freedom and see how it radiates. Now some of the younger artists -some who have moved to the area because of FRESH- are doing their own programming inside the festival. The extended curation always connects through ALTERNATIVA, but I’d rather not select people via applications or try to decide what’s hip or hot in the moment. I want to work with artists that have a vested interest in the local dance scene, that have a history in the field, however long or short, and who are interested in sharing a laboratory with other artists as they research new materials. I want it to be organic and heart-led in a way that keeps opening up to, through and for the community.” Mann, who Hermesdorf and Mathias call their “mentor,” is a returning figure of the festival each year.

For Hennessy, FRESH feels like a European or New York festival filtered through Bay Area concerns and aesthetics. “There’s nothing like it, either locally or internationally,” mentioned the artist. “Kathleen is embedded in Ponderosa, a rural dance/improvisation camp in Germany, where she collaborated on annual trainings. For years Ponderosa has been a gathering site for dancers from the US, Germany, Spain, Israel, Scandinavia, Poland and beyond. Kathleen has allowed FRESH to develop a symbiotic relationship to Ponderosa and its international network of friends/colleagues. FRESH is the only homegrown dance event where my work is repeatedly welcome, inspired, praised, and challenged. Not challenged like critique but challenged in terms of:What’s next? How are we going to respond to current concerns? What’s possible for dance right now?”

“You mentioned all the artists that you’ve interviewed whose projects started at FRESH,” recalled Hermesdorf at the end of our conversation. “I love to hear this, that the work they started in FRESH has gone on to become a major project. I’m also looking at dancers who came to FRESH as participants and have now moved here. Many of them are working for FRESH, in different capacities, and some are performing this year in two or three pieces, working with choreographers that they met when they were students in the Festival. They are all starting their careers here and building their own histories, intertwined with FRESH, with ALTERNATIVA, with me and Albert. This makes my heart sing.”