Fresh Meat Festival is a three-day music and dance festival of trailblazing queer and trans performance. Finding home in San Francisco, Fresh Meat goes beyond centering trans and queer artists; in all aspects, this festival is planned with a mosaic of bodies and needs in mind. Tickets are on a sliding pay scale (with no ID required to purchase or pick up!) and accessibility information is front and center: ramps, accessible bathrooms, armless chairs, scent-reduced areas, all-gender bathrooms, and ASL interpreters available for every performance. Fresh Meat is not just put on each year, rather it is curated. The performers—ranging from queer boy bands to comedic storytelling to vogue ensembles—provide a breadth of expression and experience not often afforded to trans creatives in culture, let alone performance.
The Rumpus spoke with Fresh Meat founder and celebrated dancer Sean Dorsey about this year’s festival and why Fresh Meat is about queer justice and trans liberation—not just artistry.
The Rumpus: Sean, you are an acclaimed, widely traveled dancer and choreographer, as well as the founder and Artistic Director of Fresh Meat Productions. Your work has been honored with five Isadora Duncan Dance Awards and you were recognized by American Theater Magazine, Dance Magazine, San Francisco Weekly, and others for your ingenious and trailblazing dance.
However, I am most struck by your continued dedicated to trans visibility in your field. Tell me about your career and why you started Fresh Meat Productions. What did you hope Fresh Meat would accomplish? Where do you see Fresh Meat going?
Sean Dorsey: While today I’m a full-time dancer and activist, when I was growing up I never imagined that I could become a professional dancer, let alone a choreographer who would get to tour my work to thirty cities across the US and abroad.
I never imagined this was possible because I grew up without seeing a SINGLE person like me in dance. I literally didn’t see a single trans person anywhere in the modern dance world. So how on earth could I imagine a future for myself there?
This is the importance and the POWER of seeing ourselves in art and culture: if we don’t see ourselves reflected in that mirror, it’s like we don’t exist and/or have no worth.
This is why I’m so passionate about supporting the creative expression and cultural leadership of transgender and gender-nonconforming communities: when we are supported to become culture-makers and culture-changers, then we show each other (and the rest of the world) that trans people are brilliant, wise, capable, gifted, complex, beautiful, powerful and worthy.
This is why I founded Fresh Meat Productions in 2002: at that time, literally almost no one was putting trans artists on stage. Including the Bay Area. No one would fund our art, mainstream media wouldn’t touch us (unless it was to ridicule or mock us) and we had very few professional (and well-paying!) performance opportunities. In the last seventeen years, Fresh Meat has paid/presented/commissioned over five hundreed transgender, gender-nonconforming, and queer artists.
When I think about the future of Fresh Meat Productions, I think about the incredible people we have in the Fresh Meat family… the staff, artists, volunteers, and crew who are so brilliant and so passionate about what we do. We are intentional and intersectional, we are heart-centered, we work our asses off, and we work lovingly at the intersections of racial and trans and disability justice. This is a love revolution we are building!
Rumpus: The breadth of performers at the Fresh Meat Festival is stunning. There’s vogue by #kNOwSHADE Vogue Ensemble , queer bachata champions Jahaira Fajardo & Angelica Medina, disabled dance trailblazers AXIS Dance Company, and Antoine Hunter, as well as poetry, comedic storytelling, folk-punk, and R&B. It’s exciting and refreshing to see so many types of different bodies and genders take center stage in despite of—and because of—a world that actively injures and excludes trans people. Tell me about the Fresh Meat Festival lineup. What does it say about queer and trans artistry?
Dorsey: Oh my gosh I LOVE THIS ARTIST LINEUP! What an incredible group of artists. We chose these artists because they are all on the cutting edge: they’re each recognized as trailblazers and history-makers in their respective genres.
Antoine Hunter is internationally known and has been producing the Bay Area International Deaf Dance Festival since 2013. As a Deaf choreographer, he continues to shatter stereotypes about Deaf artists and forge change across the dance field.
Shawna Virago has been performing and touring her brilliant music as an out trans woman since the 1990s—she was boldly doing this long before there was any mainstream acceptance let alone celebration of trans artistry, and faced tremendous harassment and exclusion along the way. She’s also an acclaimed filmmaker and the Artistic Director of the San Francisco Transgender Film Festival.
Jahaira Fajardo and Angelica Medina continue to make history in the US Latin Dance field, which is profoundly cis- and heteronormative: as an openly queer couple in life and on stage, they have won First Place in multiple categories at the WORLD Latin Dance Cup! Talk about historic.
Tajah J is a gifted contemporary R&B, soul, and pop artist. She shares her experiences of being formerly incarcerated and her passion for trans empowerment in her deeply moving music. She is also a busy activist here in the Bay Area, working with Taja’s Coalition—a coalition of trans folks working to stop the genocide of transgender women of color.
We founded Fresh Meat Productions seventeen years ago out of a love for our transgender and gender-nonconforming and queer communities. We know that the most beautiful cultural landscape is one that celebrates the leadership and artistry of ALL bodies and gender and identities. We’re proud of how our work continues to transform and expand the Bay Area cultural landscape.
Rumpus: The mission statement of Fresh Meat says that you all are “invested in the liberation of all communities—we stand for trans/gender justice, racial justice, disability justice, immigrant justice, economic and social justice, and understand these as intersectional movements.” How does the work of Fresh Meat advance the fight for liberation? How does trans art extend beyond “just” art and affect the wider culture? Does its effects have limits?
Dorsey: Fresh Meat Productions understands that Arts and culture is not just about “entertainment”: rather, arts and culture are how we make sense of the world around us, describe power dynamics in the world around us, how we connect to each other, and how we articulate our dreams for our futures.
Lifting up and celebrating culture-makers who are trans and gender-nonconforming, disabled, people of color and/or immigrants is absolutely about liberation: it puts us back in charge of our own narratives.
In everything we do, Fresh Meat Productions works to build solidarity—by building relationships, love, trust and JOY in our collective work for liberation. We think the revolution can be heart-centered, can be joyous, and MUST center trans and gender-nonconforming and BIPOC and disabled and migrant folks.
The Fresh Meat Festival is an absolutely extraordinary, transformative experience—I really encourage and welcome readers to come check it out! There is literally no event like this in the US. We’ll feed your soul, recharge your batteries and inspire you!
Feature photograph of Sean Dorsey by Lydia Daniller. Photograph of Sean Dorsey Dance by Kegan Marling. Photograph of Tajah J by Gwen Park.