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 proprietors of not-yet-open-for-business Fifth Avenue hot dog carts study their phones. The museum wouldn’t open for nearly two hours, but I had an appointment: the Museum Workout.
I’ve experienced a broad spectrum of New York City fitness classes, but this one was unlike any other. Even calling it a “fitness class” feels a little like calling the Met the world’s fanciest storage unit. 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. Tickets start at $35, which is 53 cents cheaper than the after-tax price of one SoulCycle class.
The Great Hall would be abuzz with activity by the time the Met opened, at 10 a.m., but when my classmates and I strolled in at 8:20 the place was utterly silent, a deserted cathedral. Awaiting us on the museum’s grand staircase were two women in sequined dresses and New Balance sneakers standing at attention, their hands clasped behind their backs: choreographer Monica Bill Barnes, who wore gold, and her longtime dance partner and collaborator Anna Bass, sparkling in a dark shade of copper.
The duo offered a brief introduction as to what we were about to experience, “a physical and interactive journey” through a few of the museum’s familiar corridors and galleries. Other than that we were to never, ever, under any circumstance touch the art (again: don’t touch the art), our only instruction was to do as the dancers did, exactly as they did it. With the press of a key on creative producing director Robert 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 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 motion, the squeaks of our sneakers careening incongruously through the solemn, cavernous galleries. The dancers themselves were silent, acting as docents by means of where they chose to pause.
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 overhead 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 (she seemed to be judging my form, which admittedly could use some work).
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. I won’t argue with that.
The morning’s activities were far from a vigorous workout, but that wasn’t the point. 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 illicit. My fellow audience members–slash–backup dancers were totally unselfconscious, quick with a giggle, and occasionally unable to resist singing along to the hits.
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. I’m a little depressed to think that, the next time I visit a museum, it won’t be under such magnificent circumstances.