Go Deeper Photo by Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Bringing Dance Where It Does Not Belong: Monica Bill Barnes on The Museum Workout

Posted August 13th, 2018

After a six-month run at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum Workout comes to the Fringe Festival with a unique opportunity to rediscover one of Philly’s most iconic institutions. Known for its impressive steps and collections of art spanning 2,000 years, the Philadelphia Museum of Art will host the 45-minute contemporary dance/participatory workout routine led by Monica Bill Barnes and Company. Author and artist Maira Kalman, known for her New Yorker cover illustrations and her books for children and adults, chose the artwork along the tour and provides commentary on select works and dance partners Monica Bill Barnes and Anna Bass lead high-energy, choreographed exercise throughout the many galleries.

The experience turns the typical museum visit on its head and forges a new relationship between visitors and art, to the tune of “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” (and other high-energy numbers mixed live by creative producing director Robert Saenz de Viteri). We talked to Monica Bill Barnes about the process of developing this work and the how it fits into her company’s mission.

FringeArts: How did the company come up with the idea for The Museum Workout?

Monica Bill Barnes: When the Met [The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City] first approached the company about making a show for one of their galleries, we were skeptical about creating a show in the midst of so much art. We did not want to add more art to this wealth of art. But the opportunity felt exciting and a challenge that we wanted to take on. I visited the museum with each company member and while Kelly Hanson and I were standing in the armor gallery looking at all the knights in shining armor, we started to wonder how long it would take to jog through the entire museum without stopping to look at anything, how many miles it would be, what song would we listen to and would that actually be an interesting thing to encounter as a visitor to the museum? We loved the idea of running in our signature sequin dresses that we have worn for several shows with the brand of running shoes that I grew up watching my dad run marathons in. These sequin dresses are designed to feel a bit like a suit of armor but with sequin.

FringeArts: What was the creative process?

Monica Bill Barnes: These costumes and the idea of jogging by all the art in this museum were the first impulse towards creating The Museum Workout. From this moment, it was a three year long creative process that included inviting Maira Kalman to collaborate with the company and involved several revisions of the idea.

Anna Bass and I created most of the workout movement with Maira in her home. We would march in circles and balance on one leg in Maira’s living room with the rug rolled up. We wanted to create movement that a non-dancer could easily do and follow. Maira was a perfect person for this movement development. We found the process of selecting art with Maira to be equally physical. Robbie and I followed Maira around the Philadelphia Museum of Art at a furious pace as she raced around the museum stopping suddenly to look at something and then as quickly as she stopped, she was off again to find something else that inspired her. The Museum Workout is inspired in part by Maira’s own pace in a museum and her confidence in making selections. She selects the art works that we focus on during the performance and we work with the Museum to gain permission to jog in front of these works, so the selection process is part inspiration and part practical.

FringeArts: How does this fit into the company’s other work?

Monica Bill Barnes: The company has been working together for 20 years, which has allowed us to have an ongoing conversation in the context of all the shows we have made in this time together. We describe ourselves as “a contemporary American dance company that brings dance where it does not belong.”  Within each new context and borrowed environment, we find humor in our awkward, everyday triumphs and failures. 

FringeArts: What did you and the company observe about the way that most people spend time in a museum and how is The Museum Workout a departure from that common behavior?

Monica Bill Barnes: Robbie Saenz de Viteri and I spend hours in the museum observing how people behave, how they stand and how long they stay in front of artwork. At the Met, Robbie actually spent an entire afternoon in front of John Singer Sargent’s painting Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau) and for several hours, he just timed the amount of time that people stood and looked at the painting. We felt like so many people experienced a certain fatigue in the process of looking at art, both in the physical state of standing and walking slowly on hard marble floors, in the soundscape of quiet chatter and shoes against the floor and in the constant decision making process of what to focus on. The Museum Workout is an attempt to both question and redefine what it means to go to a museum. Much like the initial impulse to jog around the museum in sequin dresses, the performance hopes to offer the audience a new way to experience museums.

museum workout

FringeArts: How do you think The Museum Workout reframes the way we experience the artwork?

Monica Bill Barnes: It is our hope that the experience of being physical while looking at the artwork that Maira selected and listening to disco and commentary from our interview with Maira will change the way the audience feels about being in a museum. The most common response that we received after doing this performance at the Met over 70 times was that after the experience, the audience members did not think they would be able to see the museum in the same way … that they would always hum “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” as they looked at the statues in the Greek and Roman Gallery, for example. The performances invite the audience to alter their customary museum behavior, by inviting them to exercise, listen to loud music, hear Maira’s commentary, experience the empty galleries and not be responsible for the selection of art work or how long to stay with each piece. Our hope is that these changes will create a new relationship with the museum itself and with the works of art that they view.

FringeArts: What should the audience know coming in to the piece?

Monica Bill Barnes: You’re really working out. You should wear clothes that you feel good doing light exercise in. Most importantly, wear sneakers or some sort of shoe that you would wear for physical activity. You can adjust to your own comfort level, but do expect to break a sweat and move differently than you normally do around the Museum.

FringeArts: Thanks Monica!

—Alyssa Kerper & Christopher Munden

What: The Museum Workout
When: September 12 – 16, 2018
Where: The Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2600 Benjamin Franklin Parkway
Cost: $15 – $35
Created by Monica Bill Barnes & Company

Photos by the Philadelphia Museum of Art