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Young hearts dance free – Group Motion turns 50

by Lewis J Whittington for The Dance Journal

Group Motion is about to commemorate their 50th anniversary season and co-directors Brigitta Herrmann and Manfred Fischbeck have been orchestrating several events this weekend including a gala performance at the Performance Garage in Fairmount, a ‘Mega’ Workshop session at the YGym Dance Theater in Center City and the release of their book about the company “Group Motion in Practice” at the Community Education Center in West Philly.

Earlier this month, Brigitta Herrmann and Manfred Fischbeck took paused to reflect on what it took to reach this milestone year at their offices at CEC and conjured some magical moments of Group Motion’s storied artistic journey.

The Big (Dance) Apple or Philly Neighborhoods?

” It’s amazing how the landscape of Philadelphia dance has changed since we came here,” Fischbeck observed. “At the time, people always would ask us…why not New York.”

When Fischbeck, Herrmann and Hellmut Gottschild decided to relocate Gruppe Motion Berlin, their vanguard company in the style of legendary German expressionist choreographer Mary Wigman, to Philadelphia, what may have appeared risky since Philly was still perceived as in the shadow of the dance epicenter in New York,
New York was the epicenter of innovative dance in the 60s and the Judson Church brought together a magnet collective of vanguards including Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown, Lucinda Childs, Steve Paxton, Meredith Monk, exploring new concepts, breaking choreographic conventions and writing new movement vocabulary for a new generation. The rebellious culture mirroring what dance-theater in general and Gruppe Motion, in particular, was doing in Berlin.

Herrmann decided to relocate Philadelphia, soon joined by Gottschild and Fischbeck, the initial acclaimed performances here and in NYC, at Judson Church and Jacobs Pillow Dance Festival inspired three co-directors to reestablish the company in the US, incorporated as Group Motion Multi-Media Dance Theater. The reviews, Fischbeck recalls “were very strong in recognizing the uniqueness of our work.” But despite that auspicious beginning in New York, they chose to establish the company in Philly, with the foresight to recognize that “there would be more opportunity here than there would have been in New York,” he recalls.

Group Motion Multi-Media Dance Theater was founded here in 1968, in what was perceived by many as a very conventional artistic town.

Auspicious Beginnings

Although Philly had a rich dance history, in the 60s it remained in the shadow of New York. There were few full-fledged companies here- Balanchine protégé Barbara Weisberger established Pennsylvania Ballet in 1962 and Joan Myers Brown was working to establish Philadanco, in the same era, after she started her school for African American students and dance professionals. And outside some brave independent dance artists, the city had little commercial identity as a postmodern dance destination.
“But when we started our work regularly in Philadelphia, we discovered the audience was there, even though we were pretty avant-garde,” Fischbeck said. “We engaged immediately with the community of dancers who were available and that started this story of ongoing collaboration with dancers from all parts of the city and background….and generations of dancers that had evolved.”

Group Motion early happenings

Herrmann said that from the start the focus from the start was “the diversity of the Group Motion artist community with visual artists, musicians, writers, and choreographers.” Fischbeck adds, “yes, we were working collaboratively with dancers and other artists, this was always an empowering way for the participants to be encouraged to do their own work. Out of the work we were doing together, we became a mothership for other choreographic initiatives.”

Fischbeck said one early performance stands out “we performed a piece at the Y called ’Arrival’ with live music and film in an hour-long piece and at the end of the hour we invited the audience to participate in one of the structures of improvisation and 300 people joined in…that was possible then, maybe even because they had no concept of modern dance, so they took it in…. as a fresh experience.” Fischbeck said.

Also in the early 70s, Brigitta cites a particular performance of her work ‘Arcanova’ at the Zellerbach Theater in which “after an evening-long piece the audience became part of the production after being when they joined and everybody left the theater in slow motion. When we came in and started methods of improvisation, which I was already starting to develop through living theater and physical theater concepts and practice.”

Such spontaneous audience interactions were continually developing through the Group Motion Workshop series and tours that have been acclaimed on tours in the US and around the world.

Multi-media dance dialogues

Fischbeck said one of the performance touchstones of the company was remembered ‘The Old Eastern Standard Time’ the image that is being used a graphic for the 50th-anniversary posters. The piece was based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead. “I consider this one of the high points. In the way that it combined all of these elements, dance of course in the center…and film, text, and improvisation, those signature elements. And we had a very powerful group of dancers.”

Manfred said it is based on the Tibetan Book of the dead and “I consider this one of the high points. It had all of the elements that we had at the time, dance at the center, film, and text as well. That piece was shown again at the National Dance Critics Conference when it was here and we reconstructed this piece with the group that was available to us.”

One truism in the company repertory, Brigitta observes that “all the different works, over all these years, also have been embedded and connected in the culture of the time. Inspired by personal visions and experiences…. which sparked artists to move in certain directions.

“It reminds me of the view of Mary Wigman, who used to emphasize that she could never dance the dancers of past again because it was also linked in with her own life at the time of creation…the political and social context of the time.”

“I think that this is also true in the context of creating works for Group Motion. Why certain pieces needed to be created…. specific interests came into the foreground, sparked by social, political, environmental and personal.” Herrmann said that she brought the same sensibility to her company Ausdruckstanz Dance Theater, which she founded in 1989.

Group statements

Fischbeck cites the pivotal work ‘Cultures and Species’ that was created shortly after 9/11, “I feel this piece was particularly important,” he said.

“I happened to be in Africa at the time and we came back into this buildup of the war in Iraq. The experience of globalism of different ethnic, racial and cultural diversity- and in this country as one beautiful cultural aspect- now facing destruction… we wanted to make a beautiful statement of the diversity of cultures and species.

Culture and the environmental concerns came up in another way to Herrmann in the 70s. “I had created pieces related to the Earth- ‘Earth Matters’ and ‘Earthlings…and related to the environment and the situation in this country to the denial of rights to Native Americans. somehow…Not that the pieces were deliberately political, but it triggered a certain focus as a ritual for the earth and Native American spirit and culture,” Herrmann explained.

“One other piece that was important,” Fischbeck interjected ” We spent the summer in New York on a farm to work on a piece based on “The Teaching of Don Juan” by Carlos Castaneda. We were reading that book, going through the experiences and wonders of drug culture (like so many artists) … so this piece evolved from that. We worked with Musica Orbis, we collaborated with five musicians and each dancer had a corresponding musician. The spirits that were described as dialogues in the Castaneda book, we developed as an alternative reality.”

Improv in prose

“Group Motion in Practice” on and off, since 1976. It is a memoir of their personal artistic journeys and an anthology of the company’s aesthetics, theories, techniques and artistry exploration that has changed the narrative of dance in Philadelphia.

The book’ was initiated after scientist Elia Sinaiko attended a performance and afterward told the company that he would like to write about their movement and artistry. Fischbeck recalls “he actually invited us to his house on Cape Cod, he is not a dance author per se …he’s a Ph.D. physicist actually, but he wanted to give his account. So we sat there luxuriously at the beach and talked about a general outline idea what the book could be and should be.”

Herrmann said that it sat for many years, as a “sort of manuscript” that they re-evaluated and edited over a long, long time.” “we had another 30 years of working and we had a chance to look back and the application of the structures and techniques of the company became more vivid….and actually a more diversified in theory.”

the last two years with the support of Anna Beresin, an author and a theater professor at the University of the Arts, we finished it. ” They also received a faculty grant from the University of the Arts, “that gave us the last push to get it done.”

Herrmann said the essence of the book is “is about the movement structures that we developed. Also about having passed through another 20 or 30years of working and looking back – what did we actually do. The application of the structures became clear…more vivid

Coming Soon – Part 2 of Group Motion at 50 with remembrances from collaborators





Schedule of the upcoming anniversary events 

June 30, 7 pm 
Gala Performance
Featuring performances by past and present company members and collaborators alongside works by Brigitta Herrmann and Manfred Fischbeck
The Performance Garage, 1515 Brandywine Street, Philadelphia

July 1, 2 pm-4 pm
Mega Group Motion Workshop
YGym Dance Theater at the University of the Arts, 401 Broad Street, Philadelphia

July 1- 7 pm-10 pm
‘Group Motion in Practice’ Book Launch and Party
Community Education Center, 3500 Lancaster Avenue, Philadelphia

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