Fifty years of Fridays

Remembering Philly dance icon Manfred Fischbeck

5 minute read
A life spent dancing: Manfred Fischbeck on stage with members of Group Motion. (Image courtesy of Group Motion.)
A life spent dancing: Manfred Fischbeck on stage with members of Group Motion. (Image courtesy of Group Motion.)

“The three of them, Manfred, Gitta, and Hellmut, arrived in Philadelphia from Berlin, like an exotic cast of characters in a foreign film,” said Karen Bamonte, from her home in Italy, of Gruppe Motion leaders Manfred Fischbeck, Brigitta Herrmann, and Hellmut Gottschild. An early tyro of the company, Bamonte spoke about the three ex-Berliners who imported Gruppe Motion to Philadelphia in 1968, anglicizing its name to Group Motion. By the early 1970s it was virtually the only modern dance studio in town, and one with roots, unapologetically, in German Expressionism.

Manfred Fischbeck passed away March 17. His impact and legacy for dance in Philadelphia lives on. I spoke to many of his dancers and friends and went back through dozens of my own and other articles to choose high points of Fischbeck’s life and work. When Gottschild split off from Group Motion, forming ZeroMoving Company, Bamonte became a member, later spending years as a charismatic dancer and choreographer and a soloist on area stages. She gave me a new glimpse into Fischbeck’s and Group Motion’s early years.

Building Philly’s dance hub

Soon after they arrived, Temple University invited the three emigres to perform. They then set up dance studios in Philadelphia neighborhoods, eventually finding a Queen Village loft, where for decades, Herrmann taught her style of Ausdruckstanz and they operated a performance/practice studio.

“I was studying cinematography at the [Philadelphia] College of Art. Though I hadn’t found my place quite yet,” Bamonte said of her early years at what later became the University of the Arts. “I was a young, unfocused drifter.”

When she learned about the dance workshops that Fischbeck and Herrmann were leading (the two later married), she attended with other Philadelphia dancers. Among them were Ellen Foreman, who founded South Street Dance Company. Other dancers of the time, including Sheila Zagar and Anne Vachon, were also drawn to the South Street corridor. The original Painted Bride opened and hosted many small dance events, and eventually, Group Motion’s move to South 4th Street made South Street Philly’s dance hub.

“I remember those early classes with such vivid pleasure, the grounded primal energy in the room, the improvisatory synergy of their work and the wondrous connection to my fellow movers,” Bamonte told me. “Manfred and Gitta were exploring what they called “movement qualities.”

This best describes the ineffably tantalizing characteristic of much of Fischbeck’s and Herrmann’s performance practice. It spun off dozens, if not hundreds, of dance practitioners who veered off in various and often unique styles.

Early life

Fischbeck was born on July 31, 1940, to German missionaries who established a school in Tanzania during World War II. The family returned to Germany in 1944 in exchange for the release of Jewish prisoners from a German concentration camp.

As a young man, Fischbeck studied theater, leaving East Berlin for West Berlin, and his interest in dance and movement became more defined after joining up with Group Motion founders Herrmann and Gottschild (he was the last assistant of German Expressionism founder Mary Wigman).

In the mid-60s, not long before leaving Germany for the US, Gruppe Motion performed Countdown for Orpheus in Berlin, which, Gottschild said at the time, flopped. But American dancer Daniel Nagrin saw the show there and again in New York. Its artists provoked and fascinated him. “They were into formalism,” he said, “and played formal games very well.”

“Presence and embodiment”

Fischbeck taught classes in improvisation and “presence and embodiment,” to quote one of his longtime collaborators, dancer/choreographer Megan Bridge. At the time of his death, she and seven other dancers were working on solos based on their country of heritage, as Fischbeck had tasked them. He had toured the company to Germany and other countries as well.

From 1976, he taught student dancers at the University of Pennsylvania and also taught music for dance at the University of the Arts from the ‘80s until late 2019. He held annual retreats to Paolo Soleri’s Arcosanti complex in Arizona, where I visited the group one August. During that fall of 2019, he was struck by a car while on his way to teach at Community Education Center in West Philly. He never fully recovered. Yet for 50 years—from 1971 to 2021—he held Friday night movement workshops for anyone in the community who wished to attend. Herrmann ran the workshops during his convalescence.

A legacy lives

Another émigré to Philadelphia, choreographer Silvana Cardell, connected with Fischbeck on many projects and invited him to three residencies to her native Argentina in the ‘90s. For a time, composer Andrea Clearfield partnered with Fischbeck, in performance and as a couple, from late '80s until a few years ago. Also remaining a friend and colleague, she performed with him just a few days before his death.

Despite their eventual separation and divorce, Herrmann called him “my partner of 56 years, parenting our two beautiful daughters. We found a new home in this land where we have lived in a matrimony of co-creation, sharing a life of dancing, teaching, touring, playing, and nurturing a community of dancemakers.”

In 2013, BalletX commissioned choreographer Nicolo Fonte, who wanted to set Beautiful Decay on older dancers in contrast to the young company members. Fischbeck and Hermann were recruited as the main couple. Ballet X reprised the piece in 2017, with Gottschild and Brenda Dixon-Gottschild dancing the elders.

Survived by his dancer daughters Laina Fischbeck and Aura Fischbeck-Wise; their mother, Brigitta Herrmann; grandson Kazimir Fischbeck; brother Hans Jürgen Fischbeck; nieces and a nephew, Manfred Fischbeck left behind countless friends, students, and artistic collaborators.

Image description: A photo of Manfred Fischbeck, a man with gray hair wearing all black, dancing among younger performers.

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