Monica Bill Barnes & Company
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
February 28, 2017
by Gay Morris
copyright © 2017 by Gay Morris
Over the past few years, museums have rushed to add dance to their programming, and as they have, debates have arisen on a number of issues concerning dance in the museum. The major question, put succinctly, is: what does dance have to gain by moving into institutions whose aim is to collect and display objects? Does dance find opportunities to reimagine itself in new spaces or does it simply become part of the museum economy, collected and exhibited as a living, time-based art? The answers to these questions are complex, and depend much on the museum and dance involved. However, Monica Bill Barnes & Company provided one answer in an event at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Tuesday. It was entitled “The Museum Workout,” and was part of a series that started in February and continues on various dates in March.
Anna Bass and Monica Bill Barnes executing lunges before Count Prosper d’Epinay’s “Sappho.” Photo by Paula Lobo.
At 8:45 a.m., before the museum opened, Barnes and her dance partner Anna Bass met a group of about a dozen participants (I was one of them). Wearing sequined dresses and running shoes, they were there to lead the workout. “Workout,” however, is a misleading word because although the individual steps might have been taken from the gym and parcourse, the nearly one-hour piece was meticulously choreographed and proceeded, without a break, over an intricately routed two miles of the museum’s corridors and galleries. So the workout was truly a dance, and the participants, dancers.
With Barnes and Bass at the head of the group, we started by jogging through several large galleries, pausing to jog in place before such works as Antonio Canova’s marble “Perseus with the Head of Medusa,” then jogging on to perform modified jumping jacks at several sites, including Franz Xaver Messerschmidt’s strange metal bust of “A Hypocrite and a Slanderer.” We continued weaving through galleries and up and down stairs, speed walking much of the time, then stopping before various works to perform aerobic and stretching movements. Joining us on the journey was the company’s producing director, Robert Saenz de Vitaeri, who carried a portable recorder that played disco and Motown hits, including “Staying Alive,” which seemed particularly appropriate by the third jumping jack sequence.
Barnes created the workout in collaboration with writer/illustrator Maira Kalman, who chose the objects to be visited and the complex route through the museum. Crucial to the project was Kalman’s recorded commentary, interspersed with the pop music, which dealt primarily with how the act of looking at art makes her think and feel. She said nothing about the art itself, none of the anonymous bullying usually found in museum commentary, which instructs you on the supposed meaning of the painting or sculpture and how you are to respond to it. We were free to use our own thoughts and imaginations and to respond accordingly.
I have to say that at first I was so concerned with the choreography I wasn’t concentrating much on the art, but Kalman’s route took us past some works twice, and as we continued on our way there seemed to be increasing time to look more closely at the objects and the spaces around us. There was also something thrilling about being in the vast rooms of the museum with only a few security guards and an occasional staff person in sight. It felt expansive and empowering.
There are two ways in which dance is most commonly presented in the museum. First, it is seen in a place specifically set aside for performances, either an actual theater within the museum or a designated room or area (the ubiquitous white box). Second, dance is presented in the galleries and other public spaces of the museum. The Museum of Modern Art, for example, often shows dance in its cavernous atrium, or in its galleries and sculpture garden. The performances may take place in the evening when the museum is closed (these are usually restricted to the atrium), but often they are presented during opening hours with crowds moving around the dancers, either trying to see them, or trying to view the paintings and sculpture that the dancers obscure.
The Barnes event was quite different. It took place before the museum opened. There were no spectators; everyone there was a participant (although there were a few people videoing parts of the event). Because it occurred when the building was closed, the dance was able to take over the space. It was as if the museum was ours as we jogged, strided, and pranced through the galleries, stopping to execute wide squatting pliés beneath John Singer Sargent’s painting of “Madame X,” or doing quad stretches before Henry VIII’s monumental suit of armor. Our bodies cut their own patterns in the museum spaces as we flowed around a bronze “Diana,” zig-zagged through a room of Roman marbles, lined up before a disquieting masked figure from New Guinea, or encircled a medieval saint.
The choreography, ascribed to Monica Bill Barnes & Company rather than a single creator, was simple enough for most anyone to do. It didn’t call for virtuosity or anything more than a vague familiarity with what goes on in an exercise class. It wasn’t choreography for viewing, it was choreography for doing. And since there was no audience, the dance didn’t lend itself to the form of museum exhibition, nor did the dance or dancers become objectified. The dancers didn’t disrupt the museum spaces or fit awkwardly into them, which sometimes happens. Rather, they streamed easily through the galleries, or inhabited them on their own terms. (I like to think that a dozen people doing squats beneath Madame X’s averted gaze, is inhabiting space on its own terms.) And this brings up another point: Barnes’ well-documented sense of humor, which showed itself in a refusal to be overawed by the Met’s magnificence. There is a touch of Duchampian cheekiness in doing aerobic exercises amidst artistic masterpieces.
But if the dance held its own in the august halls of the Metropolitan Museum, it also provided something for the Met. While the dance was going on, Kalman’s sensitive commentary reminded the dancers of what is inspiring in visual art, why we look at it and return to certain works again and again. And in the process it suggested the value of museums that preserve objects, even as the dance moves on.
Photo above: Anna Bass, left, and Monica Bill Barnes high stepping through the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Paula Lobo.