Manfred Fischbeck, 80, of Philadelphia, a celebrated avant-garde dancer who blended improvisation, multimedia, and technology into intercultural dance performances, died Wednesday, March 17, of a ruptured aortic aneurysm at Penn Presbyterian Medical Center.
For more than 50 years, Mr. Fischbeck was an indefatigable contributor to the contemporary experimental dance scene in Philadelphia and around the world. He was, among other things, a director, choreographer, musician, writer, performer, and teacher.
Mr. Fischbeck; his former wife, Brigitta Herrmann; and fellow innovator Hellmut Gottschild founded and directed Group Motion Multimedia Dance Theater in 1968. The Philadelphia dance troupe, internationally known for its avant-garde performances and outreach to enthusiasts, is celebrated locally for its continuing Friday night workshops that encourage nondancers to express themselves through movement.
His goal during performances and workshops, he told The Inquirer in 2018, was to “perform a bit. But the main focus is to get [everyone there] to respond.”
Mr. Fischbeck collaborated with dozens of local, national, and international artists, and Group Motion performed on stage and at other venues in the United States, Germany, France, England, Cyprus, Argentina, Japan, Taiwan, Poland, and Lithuania.
His projects received many awards, grants, and fellowships from foundations and councils, and he envisioned a future in which people communicated through art, movement, and dance. His final work, “The Heritage Project,” premiered online on March 13.
Mr. Fischbeck was a longtime adjunct associate professor in the school of dance at the University of the Arts and a lecturer in theater at the University of Pennsylvania. In 2018, Mr. Fischbeck and Herrmann, with Anna Beresin and Elia Sinaiko, published Group Motion in Practice: Collective Creation Through Dance Movement Improvisation.
The book was described by The Inquirer in 2018 as “a combination memoir, philosophical treatise, and guide to the ‘improvisational structures’ [theater games] that Group Motion has used to inspire dancers, actors, musicians, and nonperformers since its founding.”
“He was funny and fun to be around,” said his daughter, Aura Fischbeck-Wise, also a professional dancer and choreographer. “Everything for him revolved around creative practice.”
On Oct. 11, 2019, Mr. Fischbeck was struck by a car while crossing a street in West Philadelphia. He broke both legs, sustained multiple internal injuries, required intensive care and rehabilitation, and finally returned home late last June. He resumed participating in the Friday workshops via Zoom.
Mr. Fischbeck was born to missionary parents on July 31, 1940, in Tanzania. The family went back to East Germany when he was 4, and he sang in the church choir and took piano lessons. He went to high school in West Berlin, and studied literature, philosophy, and theater at the Free University of Berlin from 1959-67.
At first, he got acting jobs in the theater and on film. The turning point came in 1967 when he met Herrmann and Gottschild, the founders and directors of Group Motion Berlin. He joined them, and all three moved to Philadelphia in 1968 to create Group Motion Multimedia Dance Theater.
Gottschild left the company in 1971. Mr. Fischbeck and Herrmann married in 1970 and divorced in 1988 but remained creative partners.
Group Motion’s first U.S. performances were hits in New York and Massachusetts, and 300 people packed the old Gershman Young Men’s Hebrew Association hall on Broad Street in Philadelphia.
Mr. Fischbeck loved Bach and soccer, which he often described as a kind of dance. He wrote poetry, told silly jokes, talked politics, and put on puppet shows when his two daughters were young.
“He was deeply thoughtful, playful, and funny,” said Megan Bridge, a longtime dancer and staffer at the company. “He thought dance could heal the world.”
In addition to his daughter and former wife, Mr. Fischbeck is survived by another daughter, Laina Fischbeck; a brother; and a grandson. A sister died earlier.
A service is to be held later.