Beginning this Thursday, Monica Bill Barnes & Company, the irreverent contemporary dance troupe, will offer “The Museum Workout”: a 45-minute physical journey that spans two miles of the Metropolitan Museum of Art before opening hours. The workout, commissioned by the MetLiveArts, contains a route curated and narrated by the illustrator Maira Kalman, the author of “The Principles of Uncertainty,” and encapsulates the company’s motto to “bring dance where it does not belong.” “We wanted to honor what exists and build from it,” Barnes, the company’s artistic director, says of the unlikely setting.
By pre-selecting objects to encounter along the way (the Met’s permanent collection houses over two million items) and dictating participants’ movements, Barnes hopes the format’s “physical framework allows each audience member to have a unique emotional experience.” The workout begins promptly at 8:45 AM; at this hour, the museum’s usually clogged steps are clear, shrouded in shadows and bright patches of morning light.
Within the museum, Barnes and the performer Anna Bass serve as our athletic docents. They dance side by side, snaking through the museum, trotting, marching, speed-walking with ease. When objects, like a terracotta monument carved with angels, obstruct their path, they diverge like hand-holding lovers, separated by an oncoming crowd.
Make no mistake: this is a workout. Your body will perspire, your heart rate will rise and you’ll shed any light layers. (That said, my one request would be to increase the cardio incrementally and start with more stretches that early in the morning.) And because our enjoyment of anything increases when it’s otherwise prohibited, the workout’s massive pleasure derives from its illicitness: “trespassing” the Met before opening hours, writhing to Elton John within the galleries, gently sweating on various marble surfaces. It confers other singular bragging rights as well — like having done jumping jacks before the marble statue of a nude Perseus.
Though Kalman isn’t physically present, her presence is pervasive. Her narration proffers personal thoughts about art and unexpected aphorisms on mortality. Barnes admired her work as an acquaintance, and admitted that, like anyone she approaches for projects, “It’s just an excuse to become close to somebody that you think is going to add value and perspective to your own life.” Novelty aside, the building is exceptionally beautiful uncluttered with people. What the workout gives participants is an appreciation of the museum itself: the soaring ceilings, narrow hallways, spacious galleries; how the sunlight rakes and refracts through the windows, then scatters like beads from a broken necklace across the floor.
Yet these moments of sublimity are tempered by irreverence. The workout, with its pop-rock playlist and jazzercise-y moves, successfully removes any pretense or affected erudition. For one, talking is prohibited. (Kalman, at one point, narrates, “I really hate talking about art.”) And the constant disorientation disallows for higher cognitive thought to occur. Mostly, conflicting emotions arise: elation (speed walking, arms flung behind you like a Thunderbird from “Grease,” before a Sol LeWitt wall drawing!) or annoyance (must we observe this suit of armor again?). Even primitive enthusiasm (at one point, a woman next to me gutturally yelped like a SoulCycle devotee).
At the end, there’s coffee, clementines, crusty bread and butter. The assortment, neatly spread in the American Wing cafe, was chosen by Kalman, and her handwritten notes — scribbled with “KEEP MOVING” — lay arranged for participants to pocket. Though thrilling, the experience is ultimately ruinous. Wandering the halls after the museum has opened, your resting heart rate restored, How wonderful, you’ll think, as school children scuttle around, when none of you were here.Continue