At 8:15 on Sunday morning, I sat on The Met’s front steps — the first time I could ever remember having them all to myself — watching runners cut through the fog and the proprietors of the not-yet-open-for-business hot dog carts on Fifth Avenue study their phones. The museum wouldn’t open for nearly two hours, but I had an appointment.
I’ve experienced a broad spectrum of New York City fitness classes, thanks in part to a brief but eventful stint on ClassPass. I’ve been whipped in the face by a pint of sweat from a neighbor’s ponytail in the grapefruit-scented candlelight of SoulCycle. I’ve pulsed and squeezed among the branded grippy socks and gravity-defying chignons of Physique 57. I even logged a memorable hour in a Midtown studio (that shall remain nameless) with a broken buzzer, a broken heater, and a curtain by the bathroom that seemingly concealed someone’s bedroom.
But The Museum Workout is a fitness class unlike any other. Even calling it a “fitness class” feels a little like calling The Met the world’s fanciest storage unit. This interactive piece takes place within the galleries of the museum before it opens to the public. Workout is a collaboration between the contemporary dance company Monica Bill Barnes & Company and artist and author Maira Kalman, who narrates the choreographed series of exercises and curated the artwork highlighted within it. Tickets are $35 — that’s 53 cents cheaper than the after-tax price of one NYC SoulCycle class — but be forewarned the entire four-week run has already sold out.
Inside, I signed a waiver and placed my coat and belongings in a storage closet. (Phones, in particular, were forbidden during the performance.) The two women waiting next to me — one of whom brought a SoulCycle tote, the other a coffee from Zabar’s — discussed the previous day’s Women’s March. In total, there would be 12 of us: nine women and three men, mostly in their 40s and 50s, with the notable exception of a pair of college-aged female friends. Robert Saenz de Viteri, Monica Bill Barnes & Company’s creative producing director, led us into the Great Hall. He wore a tuxedo and gray New Balance sneakers and cradled a laptop in his arms.
Awaiting us on the museum’s grand staircase were two women in sequined dresses — and New Balance sneakers identical to Saenz de Viteri’s — standing at attention, their hands clasped behind their backs. Choreographer Monica Bill Barnes wore gold, and her longtime dance partner and collaborator Anna Bass sparkled in a dark shade of copper.
The duo offered a brief introduction as to what we were about to experience, something “part performance, part guided tour, part workout.” Other than that we were to never, ever, under any circumstances touch the art (again: don’t touch the art), our only instruction was to do as the dancers do, exactly as they do it. With the press of a key on Saenz de Viteri’s computer, “Stayin’ Alive” boomed into the Great Hall. After stretching back on each heel, Barnes and Bass took off at a trot, their elbows bent at their sides and bouncing in time with the music.
What followed was, honestly, pretty magical — something like a grown-up, musical version of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, or maybe Sleep No More as a light comedy. We spent the next 45 minutes in almost constant movement, covering two miles through The Met at what they later explained was Kalman’s own brisk museum-going pace. Although prerecorded narration by the illustrator (who described their intended product as “a glorious walk through nature”) intermittently played throughout the workout, the dancers themselves were silent, acting as docents only by means of where they chose to pause. Their gazes were fixed on the art as they demonstrated exercises, not on the audience members behind them — it was almost as if they were inviting us to join them in a collective act of devotion.
We performed modified jumping jacks in front of Antonio Canova’s eight-foot-tall Perseus with the Head of Medusa. We lunged as Jean Antoine Houdon’s bust of Ben Franklin looked on. We strode through Arms and Armor with both arms raised overheard in a power pose. We squatted to the beat of the Commodores’ “Easy” in front of Madame X, positioned to make direct eye contact with John Singer Sargent’s decidedly unimpressed Lady with the Rose, who seemed to be judging my form.
When you’re marching in place or pumping your fists skyward, there’s no time to read labels, no time to interpret, intellectualize, or grasp for a clever observation to make to your companion. The art washes over you. And when the flesh-and-blood contingent is so vastly outnumbered by marble statues and portraits in oil, you begin to feel like maybe it’s you who’s on exhibit for their benefit. Frankly, I’m a little depressed to think that, the next time I visit a museum, it’ll be under very different (that is, very regular) circumstances.
The playful soundtrack, heavy on disco and funk—think ”Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” and “More Than a Woman” — would be cheesy if Barnes and Bass weren’t so earnestly committed. Instead, the implicit suggestion is that Sly and the Family Stone are a worthy accompaniment to, say, Washington Crossing the Delaware. No argument here.
The high-art aerobics are user-friendly by design, although I definitely broke a sweat — but the performance’s biggest draw is, of course, its once-in-a-lifetime setting. I felt giddy in the early-morning stillness, like I was getting away with something wonderful. That’s not say there was any reason to feel unwelcome. Security guards grinned and waved as we pranced by them; one woman shook her hips along to Elton John. Within the group, the atmosphere was undeniably joyful. My fellow audience members slash backup dancers were totally un-self-conscious, quick with a giggle, and occasionally unable to resist singing along.
I only had one fear going into The Museum Workout, which was that I, being incurably clumsy, would topple over a priceless, fragile masterpiece and have to flee the country. I’m happy to report that I didn’t come close, although once, when my squats threatened to breach the rope barrier that protected a painting, a museum employee laid her hand on my shoulder and gently nudged me forward.
We took a shavasana beneath August Saint-Gaudens’ Diana, the bronze statue that once stood guard over New York City from the top of Madison Square Garden, then enjoyed a brief reception of coffee, tea, bread, and clementines. There was a “Keep Moving” card hand-lettered by Maira Kalman for each of us.
A ticket to The Museum Workout includes entrance to The Met, which I gladly took advantage of while the museum was still (mostly) gloriously empty. I found myself in front of a massive window that looked out on the obelisk in Central Park. A half-marathon was in progress, and runners in countless shades of neon streamed by — it was almost too beautiful a sight to be a coincidence. For a moment, I found myself wondering, idiotically, if this too was a performance. After the morning I had, anything seemed possible.
The Museum Workout runs Thursday to Sunday at 8:30 a.m. through February 12.