A Festival of Reckoning

An Interview with Kathleen Hermesdorf

BY EMMALY WIEDERHOLT; PHOTOS BY ROBBIE SWEENY

Kathleen Hermesdorf is the founder and director of the FRESH Festival in San Francisco each January, which features nearly a month of experimental dance, music and performance. This coming festival, she will premier her new piece, Reckoning, to mark the 20th anniversary of making work under the umbrella of her company, ALTERNATIVA. Here she discusses the impetus for FRESH, what ‘experimental’ means, and why ‘reckoning’ is an appropriate theme to tackle the times.

Kathleen Hermesdorf by Robbie Sweeny

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Can you tell me a little about the history of the FRESH Festival and how it got started?

FRESH sprang from an intersection of timing and space availability, along with the desire to spend more time in San Francisco, start the year off with art and our favorite artists, and with a bang.

Albert Mathias, my partner and a musician, and I had traveled a lot and were wondering how to get the people we met on tour to come to San Francisco. We started by allotting a week between Christmas and New Year to focus on training. It was us, Sara Shelton Mann and some other colleagues. We held it in what was at the time Kunst-Stoff Arts. Because of the access to that space, we could do it cheap. It started in 2009.

The performance aspect kept coming up, whether it was teachers making work on the participants or someone wanting to share something new. It ended up shifting more toward a performance festival in 2014/2015, but the practice element is still extremely important. The festival is just over three weeks long. It went from being one week between the holidays to taking up almost all of January. We shifted over to Joe Goode Annex, a beautiful space.

In 2010, around the same time FRESH began, I started PORCH with Stephanie Maher, the founder of Ponderosa in Stolzenhagen, Germany. She and I had danced together in San Francisco for years, and she and her partner were living in Berlin and had gotten a piece of land outside of Berlin with a collective of people. We launched PORCH, a three-month training program, as a portal for professional and aspiring dance artists into the field and the Berlin dance scene, as well as a bridge to San Francisco.

How do the performance and learning opportunities at FRESH Festival intersect?

There is a great deal of cross-over between the classes and performances. We have four weekends of performances, and most of the artists who perform also teach. There are additional artists doing one or the other, as well as those who offer exchanges, which might include informal performances, forums, music events, potlucks or pop-up laboratories.

I’m co-curating this year with José Navarrete of NAKA Dance Theater. He is bringing in some wonderful programming with the Deaf community, represented by Antoine Hunter and Ayisha Knight-Shaw, Byb Chanel Bibene and a cast of 20 local dancers; Regina Evans, who works with women who have been sexually trafficked; and EastSide Arts Alliance, hosting part of our Cultural Exchange/Mexico.

In 2014/2015, I started working with Ernesto Soprani, who was also in Kunst-Stoff Arts, and who did amazing design work that set a new tone for FRESH. He helped open the festival with regards to his work at THEOFFCENTER representing queer, POC and underground populations. Even though I had worked with a lot of artists from different communities and cultures, it took a while for that to open up in terms of representation in the festival.

FRESH Festival has an emphasis on experimental performance – how do you decide if something is experimental and which artists will participate?

It’s an intertwined, intersecting community, from my own community to José’s community, over to the artists being curated at the EastSide Arts Alliance doing radical imagination work. There’s a ripple effect of who comes in. I don’t seek proposals or have an application process. I look around at who’s up to something, who’s passing through town, who’s interested in the theme of the festival. A lot of it is through me – people I know and respect, and my co-curators, but there is that ripple effect of curation through the community. I don’t want all the responsibility; I don’t think it makes sense representationally. It’s very organic through the artists, the collaborators, and the people who keep coming through. It’s not about who’s cool or hip necessarily.

Over the past 10 years, how have you seen FRESH Festival change and grow?

Joe Goode Annex has limited capacity and we’re full. My hope is that in the next 10 years we’ll be moving into bigger spaces and more spaces. FRESH Festival has been growing alongside my ambitions and desires to offer artists themes and reasons to try new things. Whatever artists get pigeonholed into – the grant or the cycle – it’s important to try something new. What are you interested in? I’ll make it happen. This is what I mean by experimental. A lot of it comes out of discussions and dialogues with people wanting to change things up, so I want artists to use the opportunity to try something new.

The word “experimental” has been around for so long, but what does it mean now in 21st century America with the blowing up of feminism, racial politics, and realizing what representation means? In some ways, what I’m doing is selfish: I want to be a part of the now and learn from the next wave; I want to make work every year and I want to be around my colleagues, meet new people, and learn from other artists, so I created this unique little arena. I find it easier to get funding for a lot of artists than just for my project.

You are also celebrating the 20th anniversary of ALTERNATIVA by creating a new piece, Reckoning. Can you share a little more about what ideas you’re exploring in the piece, and why you chose the theme to represent this year’s FRESH Festival as a whole?

I’m super excited about it. I mostly work with Albert as a duet, but I also work with others from time to time under ALTERNATIVA. For the past two to three years, I’ve been cultivating this group of people I’ve met through Ponderosa every summer. They’re from Hungary, New Zealand, Ireland, Spain, Israel, Denmark – all over. Some of these actors, dancers and musicians are coming to San Francisco and we’re going to make a piece with them and five dancers based here. It will be improvisational, partly because we can’t afford a long rehearsal process. I’ve been doing processes with them over the past two or three years where we meet for at least a week and we inhabit a space, take it over, and perform for two or three hours by opening it up to the public.

The theme for last year’s festival was ‘Antidote.’ This year, ‘Reckoning’ is a bit of a harder edge. We have to face the music, do the math, deal with reality, and clean up these messes. I’m not sure exactly what my piece will entail, but it will be slightly nostalgic looking at the history of ALTERNATIVA. I’m going to bring back a lot of props and costumes. It’s going to be quite interdisciplinary. I think there are going to be 13 performers, and we’re going to take the whole evening on the last weekend of the festival.

For me, this theme is super personal. A harder edge is something I see inside, outside and all over. Reckoning can mean accountability, a belief system, a truth. It resonates for me with how the world is right now. I’m done being nice and accepting the powers that be.

As far as it being the theme of the festival, some people take it very seriously. Other artists use it as an instigation to make something new. Others have something else in mind, but we’ve decided it fits. I choose themes that have many entendres.

You’ve worked in Europe and around the US – I’m wondering if you can reflect on what “experimental” or “cutting edge” mean in different geographic places?

I think it comes out in different ways. In Europe, people work more in the social sector and there’s a different culture around the arts. In the States, we’re more reactionary as we encounter new things. However, experimentalism is where advocacy, activism and art get mixed up and play out in different forms and frames. I’m excited about that intersection. Europeans tend to have more patience for things; Americans want to be smacked in the face right away. Attention spans are different. But a lot of Europe is also going through what we are in the States right now politically with feminism, fascism, race issues, climate change and immigration. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe we all have to share the burden and culpability. It’s a serious reckoning.

Europe generally has more arts funding than the US. In lieu of resources, what can dance artists and advocates in the US do to make sure we have a vibrant and rigorous dance community despite not having lots of funding?

I would say an independent experimental scene faces similar challenges almost everywhere in terms of funding, whether you’re in Berlin, Amsterdam, New York or San Francisco. FRESH is a response to that: make something new, taste your limits, talk about what’s going on, test it on an audience, talk to other artists. This is how I believe I can contribute to creating a vibrant scene in San Francisco and the Bay Area.

The FRESH Festival is sort of like a Brigadoon – a place where we can just be artists for 24 days, long enough to make or break a habit, or more. FRESH is modeled on my favorite parts of some of my favorite festivals – Bates, ImPulsTanz, Ponderosa – and one of the main things I like about those models is that they go on for a long time, at least three weeks. People have enough time to network and make connections.

San Francisco has changed so much due to tech gentrification over the past decade. Why is it important to you to continue to contribute to the dance scene there by building this festival? 

I’m not pleased with how things have been going. The city has changed so much, and I travel so much, I barely recognize it when I come back. There are enough people here still doing great things and making things happen that I can commit to FRESH. I don’t know if I will stay in the Bay Area forever. I don’t know what’s going to happen. But I do still believe in the primitive streak in the Bay Area. There’s still more possibility if we can get away from the capitalism of it.

To the techies, I say this: You came to my city, you took over, and now you call yourselves “the creatives.” But if you are willing to deal with homelessness and support the arts, we can get along. It doesn’t have to be us versus them; take, for instance, Kinetech Arts, which is a multidisciplinary dance and tech company. Maybe we can inspire each other. I haven’t figured out how to have that perfect relationship with the tech industry yet. There’s an element of reckoning to it.

What are you personally most looking forward to at this year’s Festival?

With these big anniversaries, I’m mostly excited for that sense of past to future overview. I’m at a time in my life where I’m having a reckoning – what’s adding up and what’s not? What needs to be weeded out and what should be recycled? I also want to have time to participate. Sometimes I get so into the producer role that I just run around the whole time.

I want FRESH to go on for another 10 years, but I probably need more partners. It keeps getting bigger and bigger. It’s becoming quite a beast and I need more collaborators, whether that’s spaces, organizations or artistic groups. I’d love to draw thousands of people every January to San Francisco to participate in experimental performance.

Any other thoughts?

I have this meta concept of the reckoning, and then I have more subterranean ones. I am featuring a lot of powerful, articulate women this year. We also have a really special relationship this year with Mexico; several artists are coming up to teach, perform and talk as part of a cultural exchange. We have amazing artists from Europe, including FAKE Company and FRESH relocated regulars Christine Bonansea and Sherwood Chen, along with a posse from Ponderosa. I’m excited to see what some of my favorite local artists will contribute to the feast, including powerhouses Amara Tabor-Smith and Larry Arrington; Byb Chanel Bibene and a cast of 20 Bay Area dancers; and Monique Jenkinson and Mica Sigourney, bringing the drag back to FRESH. There’s also the action in the RIPE [raw + intimate performance experiments] platform, featuring work by Jøse Abad and Gabriel Christian, as well as artists from the Bay Area, East Coast and Texas. FRESH 2019 will be a reunion for the future.

ALTERNATIVA Kathleen Hermesdorf + Albert Mathias by Robbie Sweeny

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To learn more, visit freshfestival.org.

The dance, music and performance makers participating in FRESH 2019 include Jøse Abad | ALTERNATIVA | Juan Manuel Aldape | Arletta Anderson | Larry Arrington | Raha Behnam | Byb Chanel Bibene | Adi Brief | Chani Bockwinkel | Christine Bonansea | Alexa Burrell | Malia Byrne | Sherwood Chen | Gabriel Christian | Abby Crain | Alex Crow | DAFUQ | Claudette Decarbonel | Karen de Luna | Nicia De’Lovely | Ryanaustin Dennis | Sofia Engelman | Kim Epifano/Epiphany Dance Theater | Regina Evans | Wiley Evans | Asha Fashalacqua | Richard Festinger | C.D. Fisher | Daria Garina | Samcia Gaye | Letitia Goodjoint | Cookie Harrist | Keith Hennessy | Kathleen Hermesdorf | Jesse Hewit | Cherie Hill | Steven Horner | Gwen Hornig | Antoine Hunter | Monique Jenkinson | David Jensen | Jonah Kagan | Debby Kajiyama | Kinetech Arts | Allison King | Ayisha Knight-Shaw | Kata Kovács | Kentaro Kumanomido | Andrew Kushin | Sriba Kwadjovie | Angelina Labate | Raymond Larrett | Claudia Lavista | Daiane Lopes da Silva | Tanja London | Twyla Malchow-Hay | Lisa Manca | Ursula Marcussen | Diego Martínez Lanz | Albert Mathias | Elaine Maurer | Delaney McDonough | Magdalena Meyers Dahlkamp | Rena Meyers-Dahlkamp | Gizeh Muñiz | NAKA Dance Theater | José Navarrete | Thomas Anthony Owen | Em Papineau | Chrysa Parkinson | Jonathan Pattiwael | ProyectoCASĀ | Proyecto al Margen | Brontez Purnell | Zoe Reich-Aviles | Randy Reyes | Sebastian Santamaría | Johnny Sapinoso | Najwa Seyedmorteza | Sara Shelton Mann | Coral Short | Mica Sigourney | Manon Siv | Adam Smith | Laurel Snyder | Farah Soltane | Andréa Spearman | Amara Tabor-Smith | Ainsley Tharp | Janine Trinidad | Jessy Tuddenham | Sophia Wang | Amy Wasielewski | Hannah Wasielewski | Marvin K. White | Ian Winters | Miriam Wolodarski | Dwayne Worthington | Weidong Yang | Pamela Z | more TBA.

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