On a recent morning in August, I found myself lying on the cool marble floor of the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art gazing up at the gilded silhouette of Diana, goddess of the hunt. Lying on the floor of the MET? Yes, indeed. After a whirlwind, two-mile guided workout through this cathedral of art, a group of approximately fifteen winded participants were instructed to lay on the floor and listen to the final words from our omnipresent guide, Maira Kalman. Her reassuring voice boomed from a laptop held by a man dressed in a suit and New Balance sneakers. I couldn’t help but lay on that floor and reflect about the curious path we had all taken to get there.
A commision from MetLiveArts and a collaboration between Monica Bill Barnes Dance and writer/illustrator Maira Kalman has produced a fascinatingly new experience for those willing to understand “the museum” in a new way. After two very successful sold out runs, The Museum Workout has returned for a limited time this summer through December.
As one might expect, there are several rules to follow when participating in this experience, most poignant of them being no cellular devices allowed! Participants quickly learn that there is no room for dilly dallying anyway as they are instructed to follow the rather quick movements of sequin-clad Monica Bill Barnes and her associate artistic director Anna Bass.
This forty-five minute exercise takes place in the hallowed MET complex before the museum opens to the public to the tune of feel-good anthems from the likes of the Bee Gees and Elton John. Other than the occasionally intrigued or confused MET employee, you feel like you have the expanse of the museum to yourself while you lunge, stretch and glide around one of the finest collections of art in the world. One can’t help but smile or chuckle at the absurdity of stretching in front of suits of armor or doing jumping jacks in the European sculpture court.
However, the contemplative voice of Maira Kalman sprinkled throughout the experience is a crucial dimension to this exercise. Her musings are not entirely structured or historically relevant to the art you are looking at, but she offers up ways for participants to question their own relationship with art. On the track, she admits to not really enjoying talking about art, relaying a personal anecdote about framing an onion ring and contemplating why people seek truth and inspiration from art.
As someone who spends at least two hours in the MET each week, in both a professional and personal capacity, I never expected that being physically present could change my perception of the artwork and the building itself so completely. The Monica Bill Barnes motto may be “bringing dance where it does not belong”, but this experience sheds light onto the fact that this is exactly where dance belongs.
As museums question how they make art relevant to new generations, they have to begin to embrace new and inventive ways for museum-goers to digest art. And guess what, it doesn’t all have to be technology based! This production’s meticulously crafted and thought-provoking experience should set the standard for participant-related commissions and collaborations to come.