Manfred Fischbeck, Co-Founder and Co-Director of Group Motion Multimedia Dance Theater, Dies at 80

April 25, 2021

Manfred Fischbeck, the co-founder, co-artistic and executive director of Group Motion Multimedia Dance Theater in Philadelphia, was a creative force who believed in the power of dance and all art forms as vital languages of expression, communication and transformation to be shared by all human beings. His life’s mission was to awaken and inspire the collective creative spirit through the mediums of dance, theater, music and poetry. For more than 50 years, Fischbeck worked as a teacher, director and celebrated contributor to the contemporary experimental dance and performance scene in Philadelphia and internationally. He died at age 80 of a ruptured aortic aneurysm at Penn Presbyterian Medical Center on March 17, 2021.

Together with Group Motion’s co-founder and co-director Brigitta Herrmann (to whom he was married for 18 years), Fischbeck created and conducted the Group Motion Workshop in Philadelphia and in the form of retreats throughout the U.S. and abroad. This workshop offers a space for interactivity and communication through movement and sound, accessible to people of all ages and backgrounds, dancers and non-dancers alike. Started in 1970, it continues into the present (currently on Zoom every Friday night).

Born in Tanzania, Africa, to German missionary parents, Fischbeck grew up in Stendal, East Germany, where he received his musical training. He moved to West Berlin as a teenager, completing high school and attending the Free University of Berlin, where he studied literature, philosophy and theater. He became professionally engaged as an actor in theater and film.

As his interests expanded to include dance, Fischbeck studied with Brigitta Herrmann and Hellmut Gottschild of Gruppe Motion Berlin, a modern dance company which evolved from the Mary Wigman School of Dance. He joined forces with Gruppe Motion in 1967 as a dramaturg to create their first multimedia dance theater work, Countdown for Orpheus.

Black and white image of dancers in front of a wall with shadows. Some stand, some crawl on the floor.

Countdown for Orpheus at Jacob’s Pillow in 1968

Courtesy Aura Fischbeck

In 1968, Fischbeck, Herrmann and Gottschild re-established the company in Philadelphia, making a stir with early performances at Jacob’s Pillow and Judson Church. Group Motion’s presence in Philadelphia over the last 50 years has shaped the city’s dance culture. Dozens of performers and collaborating artists have passed through the company; many of them have gone on to create their own work, and establish their own companies, carrying the influence of Group Motion’s German expressionist lineage. A few of note include Philadelphia based companies Subcircle (co-directed by Niki and Jorge Cousineau), Cardell Dance Theater (Silvana Cardell), Fidget (co-directed by Megan Bridge and Peter Price), Berlin-based Zen in the Basement Company (Heidi Weiss and Jennifer Mann) and L.A-based Trip Dance Theater (Monica Favand).

In the words of his daughter Laina Fischbeck (also a professional dancer/choreographer and director of D.E.A.D, company in France), “We were always dancing . . . on the beach, in the forest, in the streets. Thanks to him and our mother, my sister Aura and I have danced our entire lives and will continue this lineage as dance artists and teachers.”

In a recent email sharing her condolences, veteran dance writer Rita Felciano wrote, “I loved Manfred for who he was as a person and as an artist. Modest, gifted—as a choreographer, a man of the theater and as a musician, and working so hard all the time—a very special human being to whom we owe so much.”

Fischbeck was known for his innovative work in the areas of multimedia and technology and for his collaborative initiatives in which he invited prominent national and international artists and arts organizations to work with the company, including architect Joseph Wong; composers Phil Kline, Andrea Clearfield, Tim Motzer and Peter Price; and leading dance artists including Carol Brown, Kenshi Nohmi and Akiko Kitamura, Oscar Araiz, Masaki Iwana, Wally Cardona, Rennie Harris, Kun Yang Lin and Silvana Cardell. Under Fischbeck’s direction, the Group Motion Company toured to Germany, France, England, Cyprus, Argentina, Japan, Taiwan, Poland and Lithuania.

As a performer, he continued to enjoy an active life on the stage performing in recent years including in Deborah Hay’s solo I Think Not (as part of Hay’s solo performance commissioning project) and more recently, he performed with BalletX in choreographer Nicolo Fonte’s work Beautiful Decay where he once again shared the stage with his life-long creative partner Brigitta Herrmann.

Fischbeck served on the faculty of the University of the Arts as adjunct associate professor in the School of Dance since 1985, and in the Theater Arts Department at University of Pennsylvania since 1976. Fischbeck and Herrmann co-authored the book “Group Motion in Practice: Collective Creation Through Dance Movement Improvisation” with Anna Beresin and Elia A. Sinaiko, published in 2018 to coincide with Group Motion’s 50th anniversary. As stated in its preface, part guidebook, part memoir, the book “offers insight into the study of professional dance, but more importantly it encourages practicing movement as a means to living an expressive and gratifying life.”

His projects received many awards grants, and fellowships from foundations and councils. During the last few weeks of his life, Fischbeck conceived and directed his final work, The Heritage Project. It presented the choreography and performance of eight dancers of local, national and international origin. It was streamed at an online performance on March 13.

FIschbeck is survived by his life partner of 56 years, Brigitta Herrmann, two daughters, Laina and Aura, a grandson, Kazimir, and a brother, Hans-Jurgen.

Tax deductible contributions in Fischbeck’s honor can be made at Donations towards the family can be made here. —Aura Fischbeck