Week One of FRESH 2017: Guts, Meridians and Brains

FRESH Festival 2017 has fearlessly ushered in the new year with a jam-packed week of dance practices, performances, potlucks, and musical interludes. Berlin-based writer and artist Francesca Lisette takes a look at the first week of workshops with Kathleen Hermesdorf & Albert Mathias, Sara Shelton Mann and Jess Curtis.

I arrived at FRESH 2017 completely unprepared for what was about to take place (and therefore perhaps in an ideal state to register the full impact of the week ahead). The sleepiness of the limbo period between Christmas & New Year interrupted by a transatlantic flight, I had barely recovered from my New Year hangover when I arrived bright and early to register for the first day of Kathleen Hermesdorf & Albert Mathias’ ALTERNATIVA: GUT Motives workshop.

Kathleen’s class is strongly oriented around themes of gravity & freefall, dis/orientation, and waking up our energetic musculature in order to tap into the real breadth of our personal kinespheres. We frequently engage in partnered bodywork to warm up our physical systems and gain familiarity with our material (our bodies) and to cultivate a simultaneous sense of both the body’s weight and its potential for effortless lightness. Kathleen’s proposals for improvisatory work often involve just such binary pairs, reconceived as mutually necessary couples rather than exclusive opposites, such as: Freedom & Responsibility, Instinct & Impulse, Buoyancy & Resilience.

Underscored by original and responsive beats courtesy of veteran San Francisco-based musician Albert Mathias, Kathleen guides us into challenging physical terrain with a fierce sensitivity and awareness. I’m hoping that by the end of the three weeks I might have mastered the choreographic phrase we’ve been learning with her (emphasis on might). Kathleen’s movement vocabulary is full of jazz-influenced fluid flings, kicks and swoops, positing the body at its centre as grounded and defined, yet continually dynamic and evolving; capable of flight, full of avant-garde angularities yet never off-balance. She truly opens up one’s consideration of what your body too could do, if you dropped your socialized conceptual limits, and it’s this intent to revive the primal, animalistic limbic system at the heart of her classes which makes GUT Motives such a fitting moniker, and such a generative start to the day. Please do join us if you haven’t already; the class continues on weekdays for the remainder of the festival. It is, after all, a perfect time to form new habits or destroy the ones that have outlived their usefulness.

From 1 – 3pm every day this week, Sara Shelton Mann, legendary Bay Area-based dancer, choreographer, writer and healer has shared some of her practices with an extremely fortunate group. Shelton Mann is a key influence on the contemporary dance world both in the US and beyond, with makers such as Keith Hennessey, Peter Pleyer, Stephanie Maher, Jess Curtis, Maria F. Scaroni, Jesse Hewitt and countless others citing her work as a touchstone and utilising her methods in classes around the US and Europe. The combination of being able to work with Kathleen and Sara is what drew me to FRESH, as I imagined it unlikely that I’d get the opportunity to work with her in Europe. As it happens, she will be offering a summer teacher training workshop at pOnderosa, our sister organization in the countryside near Berlin, so consider registering your interest soon.

Sara’s practices with us this week were informed by a focus on energy: the unseen forces that initiate movement, and how such impulses can be transferred between bodies, both through contact and without it. By the end of the week we were engaging in improvisation which truly confirmed my belief in the possibility of telepathy, as I watched fellow dancers receive precise movement impulses before I signified it to them. If this all sounds a little airy-fairy, these exercises were the culmination of a week in which Shelton Mann instructed us to work with the understructure of the body: its weight, anatomical muscle & curve, the back and front of a movement. Her aim falls nothing short of bringing consciousness and attention to every fiber of one’s dimensional structure, often through working with energy meridians, to discover how depth traces surface on the visible layer of our bodies. Working closely with others, we are encouraged to find our own relationships to roles such as giver and receiver, leader and follower, and to thus retain maximum self-awareness throughout our movement work. Sara delivers correction and feedback as needed with wit, warmth and sharp attentiveness. Grounding and cultivating energy through chi movement exercises and incorporating elements of visualization and esoteric healing practices, this week offered a thrilling insight into the comprehensive movement philosophy of a contemporary master, and a true original.

Jess Curtis’ afternoon class, Embodying Theory, provided a perfect complement to the high-intensity physicality of Kathleen and Sara’s classes. Each day we discussed an assigned text on a chosen theme. Our readings included Michel de Certeau on the revolutionary potential of reading, Robin di Angelo on White Fragility, Susan Leigh Foster on kinesthesia and Amelia Jones on whether presence in live art should be prioritized over its documentary traces. This brilliant set of readings led to a series of provocative and thoughtful discussions, and Jess then led us in a series of exercises related thematically to each reading. The class gave us new tools to play with, such as duration, motor systems to lead movement (flesh, joint, vestibular), awareness of identification, empathy and boundaries. Jess is a teacher who bursts with enthusiasm to share his knowledge and understanding of a subject, and directed us through sometimes sensitive or densely abstract material with openness and compassionate support, and in addition gave us a whole new set of ways to conceptualise our work as makers and movers.

Keep your eyes on the blog next week, as we take a deeper look into the practices of the artists sharing their work with us in the evenings and performing for us over the weekends!