The Museum Workout
Monica Bill Barnes & Company
Metropolitan Museum of Art
January 21, 2017
I saw Monica Bill Barnes & Company a few years ago when the troupe performed Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host which I found very entertaining. This experience was just as engaging but in a very different way. About fifteen women gathered before the museum opened and were ushered to the Education Area to put away coats and anything else we’d brought. We were told to wait “and stretch if you like.” After a brief introduction from Robbie Saenz de Viteri, the company’s Creative Producing Director, we were led to the foot of the great stairs where Monica Bill Barnes and her longtime dance partner, Anna Bass, both in sequined gowns and sneakers, greeted us.
From there Barnes and Bass led us on a two mile jog, (sometimes a brisk walk with swinging arms), around the museum, through the Greek and Roman Section, in and out of Art of the Americas, trotted us through the American Wing, up a flight of stairs and later down and pausing frequently in front of works of art to stretch, do squats, pump arms or do jumping jacks, always with the energy level on high. We moved to music of the 70s—the Bee Gees Stayin’ Alive; Elton John with Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart; Lionel Richie singing You Are, and so forth. The dancers led the way, stopping every so often to let us hear the voice of writer/illustrator Maira Kalman discussing her views on visiting museums. Throughout we followed the dancers, observed only by early-arriving museum staff smiling benignly at our antics.
It was a lot of fun and even at the pretty good pace that was set, I glimpsed (we were moving too fast to really absorb) works of art I’d never noticed before. We stopped in front of many familiar pieces including Sargent’s Madame X, whose pinkish ear beamed at me as we rhythmically raised our arms; Houdon’s bust of wily, old Benjamin Franklin who seemed to smile approvingly at our squats and men and horses clad in armor, where I noted that their outfits were far bulkier and probably a lot less comfortable than our tights, tops and sneakers.
I don’t agree entirely with Kalman’s admonition not to talk to a companion when visiting a museum. Sometimes another person’s observations make me see a work of art in a new and illuminating way. Nor do I imagine myself involved with an artist while viewing his or her work. I’m not totally convinced that working out in a museum makes one “connect” to works of art although it’s certainly delightful to be at the Met minus crowds and rather thrilling to lie on your back on the floor at the end of the workout, gazing up through the glass ceiling at birds flying over Central Park.
Humor is integral to Barnes’ work and she and her company are known for “bringing dance to places where it typically doesn’t belong, certainly true of the august Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s refreshing to enjoy dance in a completely unstuffy way where the work isn’t esoteric or hard to connect to but deliberately in your face—or, as in the case of Museum Workout, in and of your body. World’s greatest art tour? Probably not but a truly unique setting for a workout that I’ll remember for a long time. My daily gym visit is nothing like this.