Fresh Festival Remains a Bastion of Dance Experimentation

Experimental dance collective Lxs Dxs opened the performance programming of the 11th annual Fresh Festival. (Robbie Sweeney/Courtesy Fresh Festival )

One evening earlier this month, a Twister mat lay on the floor of the Joe Goode Annex theater in San Francisco, and a black-and-white video of someone’s trembling anus projected on the back wall.

Felix Sol Linck-Frenz of Lxs Dxs, the experimental dance collective, sat cross-legged on the floor, chopping vegetables in front of a pressure cooker, while Stephanie Hewett mixed glassy techno. They joined with Jubilee July in everyday gestures—hopping, walking, swinging—while coolly discussing how the body holds tension, and the demands of movement technique. The tone was relaxed even as they turned to stare directly at the crowd and debate asking for a volunteer to spin the Twister arrow, generating new choreography.

When one of them wondered aloud if that’s “too much pressure,” it wasn’t clear if they were speaking about the audience, themselves or the vegetables. And by this point the bodily imagery, still projected on the back wall, became a symbol of vulnerable reciprocity in a performance setting. At the ding of the crockpot, they lifted the lid and the smell of stew filled the room.

Iz 2 Tite, Lxs Dxs’ clever meditation on force and consent (between collaborators as much as between dancers and crowd), began the first weekend of performances at the 11th annual Fresh Festival, which also organized a vast array of workshops and instruction for the dance community. The festival, produced by Kathleen Hermesdorf and her musical collaborator Albert Mathias’ dance company La Alternativa, with José Navarrete returning as co-curator, is an outlet for local and international artists exploring the rocky terrain between dance and multimedia performance art.

Now in its second decade, Fresh Festival’s performance programming remains a bastion of experimentation. In an about-face from the 2019 theme of “reckoning,” this year performers worked from the prompt “tender”—though that didn’t preclude madcap improvisation and outlandish theatrics. Lxs Dxs’ stew would not be the only food artists offered the audience.

Lux Boreal, a six-dancer ensemble from Tijuana, Mexico, headlined the second weekend of performances at the 11th annual Fresh Festival.
Lux Boreal, a six-dancer ensemble from Tijuana, Mexico, headlined the second weekend of performances at the 11th annual Fresh Festival. (Courtesy Fresh Festival)

Raine/Vortex, by Fresh fixture Sara Shelton Mann and New York artist Jesse Zaritt, was a riveting bout of emotional whiplash. Zaritt moved nonstop, strafing the stage like someone who’s intimidating to pass on the sidewalk. Mann, who’s known for contact improvisation, danced hardly at all, opting for a microphone. I only caught snippets of one monologue (“Do you remember? ... We were roasting a pig”) above a booming torch song. In another, Mann recalled her decades-long relationship with the neighborhood’s shifting arts spaces in a vertiginous rush.

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And what was the relationship between Mann and Zaritt? One moment suggested tormentor and tormented: Zaritt, wearing an excruciatingly forced smile, splayed himself along a wall while Mann cackled creepily from a stool. But her tone would shift. “Jesse, what are you doing?” she asked, sounding confused and maternal. Zaritt scribbled on a piece of butcher paper; they dragged ropes around. After leading a chant that started, “At the moment the house is upside down,” Zaritt pranced out the door to a polka-like beat.

Lux Boreal, a six-dancer ensemble from Tijuana, Mexico, followed Mann and Zaritt on the second weekend of performances with La Ciudad Que Arde (The Burning Town), choreographed by Henry Torres Blanco. It was the festival’s most elaborate feature, with multiple costume changes and projections. It also had the most narrative contour, outlined in Spanish and English asides, seeming to comment on the technological gaze and apocalypse fetishism.

Leading much of the highly lyrical ensemble dancing was a performer who at first sat behind at a computer while lines of code appeared on the wall. Dancers emerged furtively from corners, crawled on their knees and collapsed, suggesting druggy submission, followed by passages of cross-hatching leaps and limp-armed languor. The motif of objectification surfaced as the coder-dancer hovered with a webcam over a soloing woman dancer.

brontë velez performed at the 11th annual Fresh Festival.
brontë velez performed at the 11th annual Fresh Festival. (Alan Kimara Dixon/Courtesy Fresh Festival)

I already wanted webcam man deposed when he tried to do something cruel with boiling water and ice cubes, and the piece’s climax obliged: He was forcibly disrobed, and the group reformed as equals in jumpsuits. But maybe the mutiny that felt like victory came too late? Lava and glacier imagery lit up the wall, and a nuclear mushroom erupted as a dancer flung a fistful of dust in the air.

Other artists located “tenderness” in allusions to healing and resilience: Enter: Light, a series of solos and duets by dana e. fitchett, derives its name from a Rumi line about recovering from trauma, while a projected quote noted African Americans’ long-denied “right to move." brontë velez’s meanwhile, the mud still mothers drew its choreography from the black feminist scholar Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ description of “mud mothers” in her book M Archive

Navarrete, the festival’s co-curator, has close ties to artists incorporating activism into their practice; he works at Oakland social-justice hub East Side Arts Alliance. Fittingly, some of the performance programming broached topics that were then addressed more directly in events billed as “deep community engagement,” a range of participatory workshops led by local artist-activists such as poets Regina Evans and Tongo Eisen-Martin.

Owing to the dozens of artists involved in this “exchange” programming as well as the daily movement instruction, the three weeks of events at the 75-seat Joe Goode Annex had a familiar, easygoing atmosphere that perhaps realized tenderness more than any one piece. To wit, Brontez Purnell’s Tender Dub Remix, headlining the last weekend, began with audio of his mother sounding ambivalent about his birth. At the end, he served birthday cake to everyone present.