Dance History Onstage: Pioneering dancers Brigitta Herrmann and Manfred Fischbeck in BEAUTIFUL DECAY

BalletX’s Fall Series 2017 see it reprise its 2013 full-length, Beautiful Decay. Nicolo Fonte’s choreography includes parts for two older dancers, Brigitta Herrmann  and Manfred Fischbeck. The pair’s own company, Group Motion Philadelphia, will be celebrating its 50th anniversary next year. Phindie sat down with Brigitta and Manfred to learn about their pioneering experience in dance and enjoyed a run-through of Fonte’s impressive meditation on aging and expression. Sketches by Chuck Schultz.

Rehearsal was beginning to take off and each dancer has their own way of preparing. Some dancers are more relaxed and others are stretching. Sketch by Chuck Schultz.

Rehearsal was beginning to take off and each dancer has their own way of preparing. Some dancers are more relaxed and others are stretching. Sketch by Chuck Schultz.

Phindie: You have a long history with dance. How did it begin?

Brigitta Herrmann: Growing up in Germany, during the war and then under communism, you always had to be careful of what you said. So for me, movement allowed a freedom of expression we didn’t have otherwise.

I moved [across the Iron Curtain] to West Berlin and began training in 1957 and performing professionally in 1962. But that’s me. Manfred has a different story.

Manfred Fischbeck: I was born in Africa.

Phindie: In German East Africa?

Manfred: Yes, what’s now Tanzania. I grew up in East Berlin and came to West Berlin as a refugee, aged 14. Brigetta was always with dance, I started with literature, writing, and theater and I got my opening with dance when I connected with Brigitta and Group Motion. I came in 1967 as a dramaturg for Countdown for Orpheus.

By the time we did the American version in New York I was also performing.

The opening solo with Briggita Herman in the background under florescent light demarcated the different performance styles. Sketch by Chuck Schultz.

The opening solo with Brigitta Herman in the background under florescent light demarcated the different performance styles. Sketch and caption by Chuck Schultz.

Phindie: Tell me a little about your company, Group Motion. What were its principles?

Brigitta: It was founded in Berlin Group Motion with Hellmut Gottschild and Inge Katharine Sehnert. We got excited about the idea of living theater. For the first time, we were integrating choreography with structured improvisation.

Manfred: Beginningwith Countdown for Orpheus, multimedia dance theater became the principle on which we operated and form in which we innovated.

Phindie: You moved to the States in the late 1960s?

Brigitta: 1968.

Phindie: To New York first?

Manfred: No, to Philadelphia. Group Motion Philadelphia will have it’s 50th anniversary next year. Since 68 we have been creating pieces of dance theater and pure dance.

 Later in the performance the dancers are separated, and leap through the walls of what seems to be four rooms. The dancers in their own space move and reshape the space around them. Sketch by Chuck Schultz.

Later in the performance the dancers are separated, and leap through the walls of what seems to be four rooms. The dancers in their own space move and reshape the space around them. Sketch and caption by Chuck Schultz.

Phindie: This is an impossibly broad question, but how has dance in Philadelphia changed in the last 50 years?

Manfred: It’s easy to say, when we came here there was not much dance. Maybe four or five companies: Joan Kerr, Arthur Hall, Pennsylvania Ballet, a tap dance troupe: that was it. So over the years the growth has been exciting and fantastic.

Brigitta:  You have to think about 60s and 70s as a hippie era. In dance, we were just starting to incorporate pedestrian movement and getting away from structured movement. And all over the country there were many choreographers who developed in different ways over that time. And then we’ve saw a new trend into athleticism — extreme athleticism.

Manfred: The spectrum of dance not only in Philadelphia but everywhere has opened up. And I think Group Motion helped pioneer that. But also the relationship to the general audiences was different then. In Philadelphia and New York we would have many more performances with audience participation, which you don’t see as much now.

Brigitta: It’s coming back to an extent

Manfred: Yes. There was also a spirit of open mindedness, of globalness, of welcoming influences from the East — meditation, spirituality — of welcoming social consciousness. And then unfortunately it moved toward competitiveness. We lost the social consciousness of those years, which included the arts

That’s how we began the Group Motion Workshops. We had a rehearsal in our rehearsal space on South Street, in a space that later became a clothes store,  and in the spirit of ‘60s, ‘70s people walked in. And Brigitta started guiding them into a dance

Brigitta: Well it was an announced workshop

Manfred: Not then. Not at first.

Brigitta: We remember this differently.

Manfred: But we soon began holding regular workshops, of guided improvisation accessible to dancers and non-dancers

Manfred Fischbeck moves to a different tempo, and the space between him and the other dancers start to vibrate. I was mesmerized and lost track of Fischbeck only to find him exiting on the other side of the stage. His slow moving steps are like a pendulum that disappears into the music and the background. It was so nice to sit down and talk to Fischbeck and Herman. Their connection formed a unique bond between audience participation and film and projections. Dance for them is a language that involves many perspectives and movement which is easily transferable on and off the stage. Sketch by Chuck Schultz.

Manfred Fischbeck moves to a different tempo, and the space between him and the other dancers start to vibrate. I was mesmerized and lost track of Fischbeck only to find him exiting on the other side of the stage. His slow moving steps are like a pendulum that disappears into the music and the background.Sketch and caption by Chuck Schultz.

Phindie: And they’re still going on?

Manfred: Every friday. We also do retreats, performance workshops, but we have the regular workshops every week. They were at 4th and south from ‘71 to 2000. The space is now a post office. It was a theater, and we had the upstairs floors. We’ve been at CEC [Community Education Center] since 2000.

group_move

It was so nice to sit down and talk to Fischbeck and Herman. Their connection formed a unique bond between audience participation and film and projections. Dance for them is a language that involves many perspectives and movement which is easily transferable on and off the stage. Sketch and caption by Chuck Schultz.

Phindie: How did you get involved in Beautiful Decay?

Brigitta: I have been invited to perform with various choreographers, at this age. Jeanne Ruddy. I did The Show Must Go On with Jérôme Bel. Christine [Cox, BalletX cofounder] called and asked if I was interested.

Manfred: Then she contacted me. I had known her through University of the Arts, where we both lecture.

Phindie: What do you like about it?

Brigitta: The choreography is very beautiful. I love the music. The dancers are great. The whole process . All the people in BalletX. It’s a pleasure to be around everyone.

Manfred: And the concept of the piece, juxtaposing the ages, is a needed thing.

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About the author

Christopher Munden

Your faithful correspondent and publisher Christopher Munden has written and edited for many publications, websites, and cultural institutions. He was an editor/publisher of the Philly Fiction book series, collections of short stories written by local writers and set in Philadelphia. He's also a soccer coach and a pretty good skier.