Working Up a Sweat at the Met

No running!

Sweat Through the Met

The latest cult fitness craze to hit Manhattan can now be found at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

Starting on Thursday, the Museum Workout is an aerobic exercise that takes participants through the hallowed halls of the museum before it opens to the public. Every morning, a class of 15 guests will have the chance to do jumping jacks in front of John Singer Sargent’s Madame X, lunges under the watchful eye of a Benjamin Franklin bust, and butt kicks in the European Sculpture Court.

Choreographer Monica Bill Barnes, right, and her associate artistic director Anna Bass in the European Sculpture Court.

Photographer: Paula Lobo

This display of aerobic exertion is a new performance from American choreographer Monica Bill Barnes and commissioned by MetLiveArts. “I love the museum, but I don’t always know what to do physically when I am there,” said Barnes, whose performances often use humor and unusual locations to create memorable experiences for the audience. “The workout was a way for me to bring myself as I am accustomed to moving in a space I want to know better.”

Dressed in sequin gowns and sneakers, Barnes and her associate artistic director Anna Bass lead the 45-minute class on the roughly two-mile trek through 36 of the Met’s galleries. Robert Saenz de Viteri, the creative producing director at Monica Bill Barnes & Company, follows us carrying a small, but impressively loud, stereo that mixes audio from author and illustrator Maira Kalman with 1970s tunes from Elton John and Sly & the Family Stone.

Light stretching in the Arms and Armor Department.

Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Though upbeat tracks like Don’t Go Breaking My Heart and the Bee Gees’ Stayin’ Alive encourage you to move physically, Kalman’s narration creates space to self-reflect. Kalman does not act like a typical docent as we jog past Washington Crossing the Delaware in Gallery 760, and she does not shed insight on the 16th century busts in Gallery 549. Instead, she describes her love affair with the Met and her experience with art. While we stretch next to Rodin’s mammoth work The Burghers of Calais, Kalman talks about enjoying museum visits on her own, preferring not to “talk about art.” Strange as it sounds, I find it more enjoyable to experience the stillness of the museum this way, while performing my flamboyant workout moves, than the normal pressure of lingering and commenting on artwork with others.

The Museum Workout is not expert-level fitness. Barnes said it was important for anyone to be able to participate, so it’s filled with lunges and bursts of light cardio. (Barnes, who doesn’t “work out” in the traditional sense, had to research the proper way to do a squat.) The energetic routine continues through various sections of the building: We do some light stretching in the Arms and Armor Department, high knees in the European Paintings section, and then an exercise inside the Main Africa Gallery where we walk around with our hands straight up—an oddly tiring exercise made all the more strange because of our setting.

The workout cools down and comes to an end facing Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s Diana.

Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

For the Met, offering the performance as a workout instead of a dance gave it a chance to think differently about how movement can happen in its revered halls. “The workout is a conceit, lowering the threshold to a general audience,” said Limor Tomer, the general manager of MetLiveArts who commissioned the Workout. “When we go to a museum, we are encouraged to only bring our heads, not our bodies. I think the memory of moving in front of a sculpture in the Medieval Sculpture Hall is going to change people’s perception of the museum experience.”

The workout ends in the Met’s American Wing. As we lie on the cool marble floor in the shadow of Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s gilded Diana, Kalman’s voice begins talking about hallucinating. Looking out the enormous glassed ceiling, it’s easy to think the Workout was all a dream. 

The Museum Workout costs $35 per class and runs Jan. 19 through Feb. 12.

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