by Lewis J Whittington for The Dance Journal with collaborative editing by Steven Weisz
“Walk on the beach of the morning without desire
Open my mouth not to talk but to sing
Speak with my whole being
Soul heart brain muscles bone and skin
That I be what I am
Be free of concepts past present and future
Be moved to move breath by breath
Let my life be danced by grace
Let my life be dance.” – Manfred
That autobiographical verse by Manfred Fischbeck appears in ‘Group Motion in Practice,’ a bio-history of the dance theories, techniques, and unique artistry of a 50-year creative journey traveled by Manfred Fischbeck and Brigitta Herrmann. A journey that was tragically interrupted in 2019 when Manfred sustained severe injuries when he was struck by a car walking to the Community Education Center (CEC) to teach. Manfred survived and was fighting to return to his life as a choreographer, musician, teacher, and inimitable collaborative artist. A dance warrior to the end.
In the hours and days after his daughter Aura announced his passing on Facebook, dancers, choreographers, musicians, students, educators, and fellow artists worldwide posted photos and remembrances of Manfred, noting how much he had influenced their own lives and as creative artists. He was a down-to-earth force of artistic nature.
Manfred was a true renaissance artist – poet, composer, choreographer, musician, visual artist, and genre-busting visionary. In Philadelphia, his lasting legacy will be the friendship, inspiration, and mentorship to over four generations of Philadelphia Dance artists.
It would be impossible to encapsulate all of Manfred’s achievements as a dancer, choreographer, teacher, and director. His multi-arts collaborations include over forty productions by Group Motion Multimedia Dance Theater from the mid-80s to the present. His workshops and Group Motion retreats have brought together both dancers and non-dancers in collective movement. His classes and performance forged a new and lasting era in Philadelphia for the allied performing arts.
Here are just a few observations and scenes from the oral history given to Ellia Sinaiko and Anna Beresin for his autobiography…
“It’s amazing how the landscape of Philadelphia dance has changed since we came here.”
“At the time, people always would ask us…why not New York.” In 1968, Manfred was a writer, filmmaker, dancer, actor working with a troupe called Motion Berlin. “Seven dancers including Brigitta Herrmann and Hellmut Gottschild performed ‘Countdown for Orpheus.’ The piece received a mixed reception. Philadelphia dancer Kathy Pira was also in the cast and suggested the piece may go over better in Philadelphia.” Fischbeck recounted and “A year later we performed it at Temple University and Judson Church in NY.”
In New York, the reviews, Fischbeck said, “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 Philadelphia, recognizing that “there would be more opportunity here than there would have been in New York,” he recalls.
From 1998-2002 “we formed an artist-driven cooperative of several dance companies including Rennie Harris PureMovement, Scrap Performance Group and Ausdruckstanz under the name of Kumquat Dance Center” Fischbeck noted.
Simultaneously, the Group Motion Friday Night Workshop and Workshop Retreats continued to grow and thrive in Philadelphia, and eventually in satellite iterations globally.
As an improv dance composer, Manfred’s music and soundscapes were never backdrops, but real-time improvisational soundfields with the dancers, evoking the synergy between them and pushing the boundaries of choreography.
Composer Andrea Clearfield recalls the uniqueness of collaborating with Manfred and what it was like dancing to his music. “He had an uncanny ability to translate the energies of the dancers’ movements into music without even looking at the keyboard. He could seamlessly transition through a plethora of styles if it served the dance. He and I co-composed one work together, The Diary of Justyna, which was premiered in Philadelphia in 1988, and for which he also directed and choreographed.”
“He also wrote beautiful and soulful poetry, and often accompanied himself on the keyboard while reading the poem, playing inside the spaces to reveal layers of meaning. The poems lend themselves to musical settings and I have set many of them to music – from large cantatas with chorus and orchestra to art songs, chamber works and pieces for dance.”
A few years ago, Manfred played the piano and recited poetry at the celebration of Group Motion hosted by composer Andrea Clearfield’s monthly Salon at her storied loft in Center City.
“movement is an essential form of human knowledge and interaction, Like math, science, and language.” – Manfred Fischbeck
I first met Manfred in the 90s on the upper floors of the Kumquat studio space on 4th Street off South Street while covering one of his performance showcases, an upcoming dance-theater piece for the Fringe Festival, and a workshop showcase at the Kumquat studio that same evening. Over the years, it was always a distinct pleasure interacting with Manfred vis-à-vis writing about dance. Whether he was creating something experimental or dance and musically abstract, Manfred was clear about his concepts and choreographic intent. He was generous with his time in interviews to talk about his work, intent, and excitement about working with his collaborators.
For a feature article for City Paper in 2002, Manfred, in his office at UArts, made time for me in the middle of a packed schedule of classes, rehearsals, and performances. It was there that I first saw Manfred perform his own music on keyboards and percussive instruments in a warehouse space during the inaugural Philadelphia Fringe Festival centerpiece production ‘Icarus.’
ONCE A DANCER
Flash-forward to a 50th-anniversary performance of Group Motion at the Performance Garage, Fischbeck and Herrmann were on stage dancing, narrating, and performing throughout the evening with a slate of former and current company dancers. The year before, he and Brigitta performed as the elders in Nicolo Fonte’s two-act ballet ‘Beautiful Decay’ set on BalletX. The run was a sell-out and was revived two years later.
At the 50th Anniversary celebration of Group Motion held on the top floor of CEC, artists from every discipline, from many eras, filled the hall to celebrate Group Motion and what it has achieved, nurtured, and meant to the dance and cultural landscape of Philadelphia.
Collaborators from all over the nation and globally had been attending the many events, performances, and happenings for Group Motion’s milestone year. Those who could not attend sent messages of appreciation and specific moments that changed their performance lives because of Group Motion.
As valedictory as it was for Brigitta and Manfred on this day, they were not pausing for a farewell victory lap or even reliving the past. On a stifling hot day in Philadelphia, an amazing tribe of artists created another happening that embodied its legendary founders’ vision and history. Manfred’s legacy, so apparent that day, was simply the possibilities of dance and music’s universal language.
Andrea Clearfield will be dedicating her virtual Zalon to Manfred Fischbeck on March 28, 2021.
For information, go to https://www.zalonarts.org/programs/march-28-2021.
To attend, contact Clearfield and RSVP at http://www.andreaclearfield.com/contact/