Fresh Festival Is 10 Years and Growing

by Jean Schiffman

The four-week festival will draw 75-plus participants for workshops, classes and public performances inspired by the theme of “Reckoning.”

When San Francisco-based dance artist Kathleen Hermesdorf sat down at a Mission District café in late November with her longtime musical collaborator Albert Mathias, she hadn’t yet started to create her new piece, “Reckoning,” set to premiere at this year’s 10th annual Fresh Festival. But ideas were roiling around in her head, and in Mathias’, too.

They knew, for example, that it would have an original sound score by Mathias, who is also the accompanist for the classes that Hermesdorf teaches, and they’d both been thinking extensively about the concept of “reckoning.”

“Reckoning” is the theme for this year’s festival, a four-week-long extravaganza co-curated by founder/artistic director Hermesdorf and José Navarette comprising workshops, classes and discussions in San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland that involve 75-plus participants from all over the world and here at home. It is produced by Hermesdorf’s dance company, Alternativa (now celebrating its 20th anniversary), in association with Joe Goode Annex, where the public performance component of the festival takes place.

Free-associating on the word reckoning as it relates to the theme of the festival and to her own piece, which will feature a Berlin-based ensemble of international performers called Fake Company, Hermesdorf says, “Reckoning is… about ‘the time has come!’… About destroying and rebuilding. What you recycle, what you throw away, what you compost.”

Petite, with short blonde hair and an innate warmth, Hermsdorf started out in high school as a jazz dancer but now is known as a modern dance experimentalist, influenced by such innovators as Sara Shelton Mann, Keith Hennessey and Jess Curtis, among others. Her work has been presented worldwide, and she co-directs a summer school in Germany and a dance festival in Ireland.

What Hermesdorf does know about her new work is that it will involve microphones and three musicians (guitar but also “machines and stuff”) and will take over the whole theater. (Last season’s Alternativa piece for Fresh Festival incorporated text, video projections, audience interaction and an assortment of props including aluminum foil, plastic wrap and ginger root). “I see a lot of letting go,” she muses. “I’m going to look at it a little like gardening: what has to be weeded, cut back? What has to be seeded? It’s about negotiating the world through an ecstatic body, a body that’s kind of on fire. I think we’re going to be destroying and bridging.… [It will be] about choreography and improv, about aesthetic and real action. “But,” she shrugs, “nothing’s set yet.”

Of Fresh Festival, with its dizzying array of artists and activities, Hermesdorf observes, “It’s become its own little beast.” She launched it when she realized that as she and Mathias were traveling abroad, dancers elsewhere would say, “I want to come to San Francisco.” In response, she arranged for a week of training here, with teachers like Mann, who is her mentor and Mathias’, too; they met while both were with Mann’s contact improv/dance company Contraband. Over the years, as the festival expanded, the participants became more diverse in age, culture and ethnicity, and the program has become increasingly eclectic. This year’s performances, which include groups from Mexico, differ each weekend, starting with themes of response to social influence and political phenomena (including Mann) and going on to a focus on bodies (with Monique Jenkinson, Kim Epifano and others), exploration of borders (by the Mexican artists) and Alternativa’s “Reckoning” on the closing weekend. “For the past five years at Joe Goode, this has expanded into something I never imagined,” says Hermesdorf. “It’s way more political, more truly representational of the city; it’s shifted into POC, queer, feminism, abstraction. And the whole community is co-curating. It’s so huge my head is about to explode!” She credits colleagues for bringing in people and musical events that she would never have had access to, being in the “white girl dance world” as she was for a long time. Now, she says, audiences come to Fresh Festival to see its cultural diversity and to witness performances that are “a little raw and kind of vulnerable and new.”

As for creating “Reckoning,” she and Mathias—initially a drummer, who didn’t become an electronic musician until he had to, he says, and who now composes and performs sound for various disciplines—will work on it together in their usual way: Hermesdorf starts the process by writing while Mathias, who’s more visual, gathers images. Then, as she says, they get together and go, “Huh?”

“The first word I thought of was responsibility,” she continues, “but I love the word reckoning because it has all these different meanings: Do you reckon [believe]? Also the day of reckoning. What in your life would add up to what? Part of it is my age, being a dancer at 51. Where do I fit in the world?” She read Michael Pollan’s “How to Change Your Mind” as part of her research and that made her wonder, What do you do when you don’t know what to do? Do you bring your leg up against the wall? Do you go up the wall? Dig a hole under the wall?

“We don’t think the same way,” Mathias points out. Since working at Contraband, he says, and during his 26-year artistic partnership with Hermesdorf, dance has taught him how sound affects space and human bodies, how the frequencies he puts out affect people for better or for worse. “My view is always crisp and clean and clear and linear, where as she comes at it much more organically, in an anything-can-happen kind of space. I like to control, to know what to expect a little bit.”

“I like to not know what to expect,” declares Hermsdorf. “It messes me up if I know too much.”

“I create an environment for her to have the unknown,” agrees Mathias.

Jan. 4 → 27

Joe Goode Annex

499 Alabama St., San Francisco