writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, Washington, D.C. edition

Beyond Time

Beyond the Eastern Standard Time: A Celebration of 35 Years
Group Motion Dance Company
Arts Bank Theatre
Philadelphia, Pa.
June 4-6, 2004

By Lisa Traiger
Copyright ©2004 by Lisa Traiger
published June 8, 2004

The greatest potential and the greatest fear both reside in the in between, in the moments between life and death, in the transitions of life. Heady as this idea is to grasp, "The Tibetan Book of the Dead" suggests that the intermediate period, the bardo, the period between life and death, is when the greatest opportunity arises to attain a state of truth, or reality.

Ultimately it's a book meant to instruct the living, not the dying. And as choreographic inspiration, Manfred Fischbeck and Brigitta Hermann approached this esoteric instructional manual as a life-giving force. The two choreographers founded Philadelphia's Group Motion Dance Company 35 years ago along with Hellmut Gottschild. Their mission: build a collaborative company of performing and multimedia artists. The chamber-sized company was born in Germany in 1962 as Gruppe Motion Berlin. Mary Wigman was a primary influence and the company claims rights as the first post-war, independent avant-garde dance group to form in Germany in the 1960s. An invitation to dance in Philadelphia, at Jacob's Pillow and in New York brought them to the United States. Fischbeck relates that the three founding artists found in Philadelphia a conducive environment in which to create adventurous experimental art in environs around South Philly, pre-gentrification, pre-Gap and pre-Starbucks. Group Motion has been a fixture in the Philadelphia dance community ever since.

In celebration of Group Motion's 35-year anniversary—notable in the life of a modern dance company—the troupe returned to its 1973 Beyond the Eastern Standard Time, a work inspired by the Tibetan Book of the Dead. It's a piece that feels both time-bound to that 1970s experimental milieu and timeless in its foundational ideas about existing in the continuum along life and death. The five women first line prone on the stage as Warren Muller's film plays: a naked man, curled in a fetal position, is embraced by shadowy darkness. A windswept soundtrack joined by the sharp exhalations and inhalations of the dancers suggests the life force at the root of this work. Pink Floyd's hard rock gives way to a more psychedelic sound and the women rise, breathe and sway, pulsating their limbs like underwater reeds releasing into watery currents. Their sheer unitards and the sometimes overly self-involved approach to the movement recalls the 1970s era, when Eastern Standard Time was created.

Ritualistic, rhythmic stamping, accompanied by semaphoric arm gestures soon draws the women into a circle where their multisyllabic chant suggests a ceremonial offering, or a coming sacrifice, Rite of Spring style. Then one woman enters the circle where she sways, undulates, then spins, dervish-like. The work proceeds cryptically. Eastern Standard Time is not about time at all but emphasizes the usurpation of time. As sands slip through an hourglass, these dancers push themselves through the physical trenches Fischbeck and Hermann have laid out, until a chosen one makes her way through a passage created by the curved bodies of her colleagues. It's liberation and rebirth, death turned around into a life force, spirit transcending reality. It's inspiring and confusing, convoluted and, finally, reassuring for time has stopped and then begun once more.

Coupled with Beyond the Eastern Standard Time, Cultures and Species, Fischbeck's newest work from 2003, relied on a similar approach and motifs, yet felt entirely contemporary. Much of that au current feeling derived from the way the dancers' attack movement. In Eastern Standard they pounced into phrases, their limbs and bodies scoring sharp edges against the changing backdrop, while in Cultures and Species dancers melded from one softly posed section to another. They sighed and breathed their way through relying on the loose-jointed release technique currently in vogue. Fischbeck, clad in black blouse and slacks, looking like a t'ai chi master entered the semi dark stage as a bird's eye view of the earth came into focus on the large screen. Using a conglomeration ethnic music, this Cultures and Species represents Fischbeck's travelogue, his journey across and beyond the world in eight sections that cover species and cultures as well as the ancient essences of earthly matter: water, fire, air and ether. Sounds from Africa and Siberia, the Middle East and South America, set his journey on its course and the dancers, who contributed to the collaborative process, mined these influences. At one point a pair seemed in underwater heaven as undulating seahorses, at another, they skip sprightly, flicking their feet hitch-kick-like away from the ground. Fischbeck, a conjurer or high priest of sorts, remains the solid base from which his dancers cut a path with syrupy walks and curvaceous scoops, their loose joints filled with helium.

A solid work, Cultures and Species envisions world peace and memorializes the Space Shuttle Columbia astronauts in touching, though not profound fashion. It is not as deeply felt nor evocatively expressed as Eastern Standard. The two works together, though, demonstrate that 35 years isn't yet long enough in the creative output of Group Motion's lifecycle.

Photos: both of the company in Cultures & Species.

Originally published:
Volume 1, Number 21
June 8, 2004

Copyright ©2004 by Lisa Traiger




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The Autumn DanceView is out:

New York City Ballet's Spring 2003 season reviewed by Gia Kourlas

An interview with the Kirov Ballet's Daria Pavlenko by Marc Haegeman

Reviews of San Francisco Ballet (by Rita Felciano) and Paris Opera Ballet (by Carol Pardo)

The ballet tradition at the Metropolitan Opera (by Elaine Machleder)

Reports from London (Jane Simpson) and the Bay Area (Rita Felciano).

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last updated on April 19, 2004