Group Motion celebrates 50 years in artistic style

by Lewis J Whittington for The Dance Journal | photos by Johanna Austin

Without fanfare, Group Motion co-directors Brigitta Herrmann and Manfred Fischbeck rightly commanded the spotlights at the 50th anniversary of Group Motion Dance this past weekend, in a deserved victory lap that brought together area dancers, musicians, poets, visual artists, filmmakers and performers who traveled from afar to pay homage. At the opening night gala concert June 30, it felt like a reunion in the lobby of the Performance Garage with a palpable sense of artistic occasion as longtime colleagues and fans reminisced and celebrated the milestone.

Musicians Rick Iannacone, Lenny Seidman and Tim Motzer performed as the audience settled and the lights dimmed to blue in the theater for ‘…In Bits & Pieces…virtual & ahh—live: A collage of images and reflections.’  By Brigitta Herrmann, who suddenly appears at the corner of the stage and moves in halting phrases that give way to a natural lyricism. as she ponders out loud how to capture the breadth of so much performance history in her 15- minute dance.

“My history, my teachers, the great pioneers, my inspiration, so now….50 years in Philadelphia. The City of Brotherly love, some brotherly love and some sisterly love…”  and after she finishes She takes a seat to watch a short film montage (edited by Peter Price) of Group Motion works over 5 decades that just gave a glimpse at the creative range of their aesthetic and their commitment to collaborative creative exploration.

Random gala performance moments

fidget kicked the concert off in classic Group Motion style with ‘Morphic Resonance’ by Megan Bridge and composer Peter Price in a collaborative improvisation of music and dance.

Former dance-theater soloist Erneste Junge and percussionist Franko Frankenberg also performed music/ dance improv for ‘Time Goes by Still There is the Dance.’ Junge’s movements and spoken recollection of 90’s collaborations with Herrmann in choreography from two works, ‘Opening Doors’ and ‘Invocation’ now resonating themes of an aging dancer, with commentary by Erneste on what it does and doesn’t mean.  That was also the theme of Sheila Zagar’s ‘Now, My Aging Body’ whose airy phrases and nonsense vocalese conveyed the wonder of body, mind, and spirit.

Dancer Olive Prince’s legs folded over a briefcase in what looks like a 50s pin-up shot is the opening tableau of choreographer Silvana Cardell’s arresting 1991 solo ‘Soma.’ . scored to “A woman sees the world with no eyes” by composer Pauline Oliveros.  Prince commands as she morphs a hajib veil into a cocktail dress, and her stockings now a stretch of sculptural fabric for her upper body.  Her one high heel on the briefcase straddled over her back, the other dangling from her hand as she continues to mold the objects with her body into, hinting at the ephemera of culture iconography as she morphs into a slow spinning sculpture as concrete and elusive as a dream.

Two films by Kath Rose – ‘Reverie of the Puppets’ with the dancers’ heads and limbs seemingly trapped in almost blinding torrents of macabre film images. The second piece Opera of the Interior of the dancers performing onstage with as surreal images are projected over their bodies.

Manfred and Brigitta’s daughters, Aura and Laina Fischbeck, dancer-choreographers in their own right, also returned to Philly to perform at the gala events.  Aura’s ‘Shapeshifter’ or, I/you am a circle/cycle’ a performance interior dialogue describing the “experience of a continuous present” (a Group Motion core technique) as it is explained in the text scroll that screens behind her as she danced.   Laina both dancing and burst into a rock song in her work ‘Lost and Found’ as guitarist Mathieu Broquerie played.  At times Fischbeck portraying a soused rocker breaking up with a lover. The structure allows for her to match Broquerie’s “psychomorphic” guitar effects accompanying Laina’s equally electrifying bursts of dance- from Matrix-style backbends dropped to the floor, to slashing paroxysms of dance take a toll on her voice.

Choreographer Lindsay Browning performed the elegiac ‘Mercy’ a duet with guitarist Evelyn Berquist:  Browning moves from trancelike yogic positions, serene but also conveys a sense of not in a protective spiritual space.  Browning radiant stage presence and precision movement expressing everything from transcendence to existential pain.

 

The multi-media highlight of the night was Manfred Fischbeck’s ‘Archangaliens’ A Video/Dance/Spoken Word Performance and altogether exemplar of Group Motion’s aesthetic. Like Herrmann’s opening, it also was an apotheosis of their artistic past and present. The opening segment with Fischbeck onstage dancing in front of his younger self onscreen behind him, in an excerpt from his choreography from ‘Memory Man.’  His hair and body older, but the indelible physicality is the same and the effect of both bodies juxtaposed hypnotic. It is classic Group Motion multi-media magic.

Fischbeck steps off the stage to a mic starts reciting his own poetry as dancers Nicole Diaz Pellot and Renee Kurz dance in front of a chromatic negative of a film of a woman dancing next to a busy highway.  Poetry, vocalizations, and layers of music engulf the space. The film shifts to a silver gelatin film effects as a naked dancer escaping a stark city environment to a gushing natural waterfall.

Then came ‘Inroads Revisited- 1990s Group Motion Tribute. the virtual reconstruction of Fischbeck’s ‘Inroads’ filmed by Jorge Cousineau, Sebastian Gaebel and Mr. Dread.  Inroads theme of isolation against urban skylines resonating in different ways since the original cast – Germaul Barnes, Jorge Cousineau, Niki Cousineau, Myra Bazell, Esther Cowens, Monica Favand, Liana Fischbeck and Heidi Weiss- recreating their performances it from different urban locales.

The closing improvisation, brought all of the evening’s performers back onstage, who were joined by past performers with the company Laura Berlin, Kristin Narcowich, Vickie Seitchik, Nina Sherak and Suzanne Wright.

 

Artistic legacy ~ Perpetual Group Motion & Practice

“…art as a process, the creation as the process, not the product. And since improvisation is a process, it makes available to the observer the opportunity to see something coming to life. Rather than something finished and polished. To see life power, life energy that is transparent in it, whenever that happens. To feel the stream of time pulsating – the change element.”  Excerpt quote from Manfred Fischbeck in “Group Motion in Practice.”

On July 1, the day after the gala performance, the temperature in Philly climbed to 95 degrees, but that didn’t deter about 75 Group Motion improv devotees from participating in the company’s ‘Mega-Workshop’ at the Ygym in the air-conditioned Gershman Hall on Broad St. The support of all the events by many fellow artists who flew in for the events, in itself was a tribute to the influence and enduring legacies of the company.

Later that night, artists and fans gathered at CEC for the book launch of Herrmann and Fischbeck’s ‘Group Motion In Practice.’  Nearly everyone there was lining up to purchase a signed copy.  And there was an informal line up of performance poetry, music and personal remembrances from Group Motion collaborative artists, past and present.

Composer Andrea Clearfield said that the Mega-Workshop was “remarkable” and among other things, she ran into a woman who she hasn’t seen since they both attended a Group Motion workshop in Europe thirty years ago. Clearfield is a longtime artistic collaborator with the company and said this was hands down the best workshop happening. Clearfield said the music and soundscape, directed by Manfred and Brigitta, “became a mosaic of experimental vocals, instrumental, world rhythms, modal, percussion, soundscapes…it was a remarkable improv.”

Clearfield who has been both a composer and a dancer with Group Motion is a much-commissioned artist by orchestras, choral and chamber groups all over the world.  “When I was very young, my parents made me chose between music or dance. I chose music, but I never stopped dancing…. I discovered Group Motion at 25 and I found my home. It fed me as a composer, as a musician and with a community of artists.“ Clearfield said.

Choreographer Megan Bridge, a company member for five years and frequent collaborator since echoes those sentiments. Bridge told the crowd that Manfred and Brigitta were indeed her ‘artistic parents’ and expressed her gratitude for “this outpouring of support, a reminder of how Group Motion has impacted our city.” She later credited them for also changing her artistic vision. “They were the ones who taught me improvisation. That as a dancer the movement arrives in the moment. I would never have gone down that path had it not been for them.”

World music composer Rocky Wilson also spoke of the impact Group Motion had on his life and career. Telling the crowd that at a particularly difficult period in his life, a dancer with the company invited him to one of the improv workshops “Eight weeks later, I am performing on stage with them” he recalled. “For 35 years, I’ve been fed. This family that we are, is profound. Dance language and music still bring us together.”

As the evening was coming to a close, Anna Beresin, editor of Manfred and Brigitta’s book, gave the first toast and the emotional highlight followed by a toast from Brigitta and Manfred’s daughter’s Aura and Laina with their own kids dancing around them. The champagne started to flow to top off the weekend, and then, unexpected disco music blasted out of the sound system and everyone was on their feet with the kids on a sultry summer night in Philly bursting with Group Motion.

About Lewis J. Whittington

Lewis Whittington is an arts journalist based in Philadelphia. He started writing professionally in the early 90s as a media consultant for an AIDS organizations and then as a theater and dance reviewer for the Philadelphia Gay News. Mr. Whittington has covered dance, theater, opera and classical music for the Philadelphia Inquirer and City Paper.

Mr. Whittington’s arts profiles, features, and stories have appeared in The Advocate, Dance International, Playbill, American Theatre, American Record Guide, The Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, EdgeMedia, and Philadelphia Dance Journal. Mr. Whittington has received two NEA awards for journalistic excellence.

In addition to interviews with choreographers, dancers, and artistic directors from every discipline, he has interviewed such music luminaries from Ned Rorem to Eartha Kitt. He has written extensively on gay culture and politics and is most proud of his interviews with such gay rights pioneers as Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings.

Mr. Whittington has participated on the poetry series Voice in Philadelphia and has written two (unpublished) books of poetry. He is currently finishing Beloved Infidels, a play about the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh. His editorials on GLBTQ activism, marriage equality, gay culture and social issues have appeared in Philadelphia Inquirer, City Paper, and The Advocate.

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