“OOOOHH!” goes Michael Jackson’s opening yelp in Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough as you take your first apprehensive, sneaker-clad steps on the plush red carpet of the Arts Centre Melbourne. You’re here to dance your way to the National Gallery of Victoria for the Monica Bill Barnes Company Gallery Workout, a choreographed exercise experience direct from New York City.
On the surface it’s a novel workout that lets you sweat it out as you pass displays of delicate kimonos and works by Andy Warhol, but as the moisture beads on your forehead, the experience transcends your tightening muscles.
“It feels like we have such an association of being quiet, and looking carefully and being thoughtful,” says Monica Bill Barnes of The Gallery Workouts, which have run more than 100 times at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. “I think you just throw on some disco music and ask people to put their arms up over their head and it feels so shocking.”
Your fellow participants might be dressed in activewear for this early morning workout, but your guides – Barnes, and company co-director Anna Bass – have come decked out in sequin ball gowns.
Deadpanning the entire way through the dance in a rumpled black suit is creative producing director and performer Robbie Saenz de Viteri. He carries a laptop and speaker blasting classic hits that include Elton John’s Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, and Stayin’ Alive by the Bee Gees.
“I feel there are so few adults who will admit to really loving the Bee Gees, but when you put any song on people will move,” says Barnes. “All of disco is such a strange and wonderful moment in music where we all just let ourselves go, and I think we’ve buttoned ourselves back up in some regards.”
Unbuttoning social taboos is why we’re here after all. As you make your way around the usually silent galleries and salons with the music pumping, you’ll stop to perform simple exercises and stretches in front of 12 works of art from the NGVs collection, and its new blockbuster exhibition MoMA at NGV: 130 Years of Modern and Contemporary Art. Despite the simplicity of the movements you’re asked to perform, the action feels radical.
At several points the music stops for a narration by celebrated American artist Maira Kalman, who describes her own relationship to galleries and museums. Kalman’s attitude towards experiencing art was inspiring for Barnes and her company.
“She sort of bursts into a museum and passes so many important artworks and rolls her eyes at them,” Barnes says. “Then arrives at something that you’ve never noticed that’s remarkable. She’ll visit four or five things and have the confidence to say, ‘That’s enough’. We wanted to emulate that by making a show that allowed us to feel confident. We didn’t want to feel like some sort of inaccurate art historian. We wanted to feel like really physical, active, loud people with opinions and interests.”
The Gallery Workout is loud and physical, but despite the duress – or perhaps because of it – the artwork opens up in unexpected ways. Marcel Duchamp’s upended bicycle fork and wheel feels like it’s laughing at you, as you work out in front of its stationary spokes.
“Our hope is that … [audiences will] feel the ownership to spend time in front of a particular work and have a more personal relationship to art,” says Barnes.
Each squat and jump breathes new life into the static objects and creates connections between the works of art and your own body. The jiggling bodies of different shapes, sizes and ages running past a small stone female bust in a glorious procession of humanity highlight the absurdity of the idealised forms of beauty presented in galleries.
“We understand that we’re in this business that you age out of,” Barnes says. “In a museum the whole purpose is to preserve things exactly as they are and prevent any ageing from happening. Whereas it feels like the reality of all of our lives is that things are wonderfully and humanly falling apart all the time.”
But this reconciliation with your own corporeal form and its inevitable decay is ultimately empowering. As you skip past oil paintings of wrinkly old men, some with wigs and others with frilly shirts, but all of whom are definitely dead, a thought creeps into your head: “I’m so lucky to be alive.”
Broadsheet is a proud media partner of the National Gallery of Victoria.