Monica Bill Barnes and ‘The Gallery Workout’: The art of sweating

Monica Bill Barnes and Company's 'The Gallery Workout'. Photo by Mallory Lynn.
Monica Bill Barnes and Company's 'The Gallery Workout'. Photo by Mallory Lynn.

The notion of getting outside the black box is common enough in dance, and the “site-specific thing” is no longer a novelty. However, what would happen if you deliberately set out to situate the dance “where it doesn’t belong” and, furthermore, if you wanted to alter the entire dynamic of viewing and participation? The answer would most likely be something like The Gallery Workout.

This winter, Melbourne audiences are invited to take to the “stage” with Monica Bill Barnes & Company and to blur the boundaries of everything from dance and visual art to the monotony of the morning gym sesh. As part of the MEL&NYC series, Monica Bill Barnes and her sidekick Anna Bass will lead participants through a 50-minute workout in the rarefied halls of the NGV, moving and stretching whilst they simultaneously “appreciate” the gallery’s renowned collection of fine art.

It’s an intriguing synthesis that began when the New York-based contemporary company got an invitation from The Metropolitan Museum of Art last year. The brief was to make a work for one of their spaces. “We love visiting The Met. It’s one of the treasures of our city; but we couldn’t imagine our work in one of their galleries,” Barnes recalls. “We deal in humour, irony and everyday feelings, gestures and stories. We couldn’t imagine this against the background of some of the most amazing art in the world; but we wanted to be at The Met, even selfishly as artists to just spend time there. So we started to imagine ways in which we could use our artistic practices to reframe the museum experience.”

Of course, the primary juxtaposition here is that of the moving body and the static nature of the exhibits. As Barnes explains, “As a dance company, we create meaning out of movement, but the experience of an art gallery is very still. The art is fixed on the wall, and we are mostly standing and sitting. [We’re] really interested in the way we behave in museums. First of all, there’s an overwhelming amount of art and an even more overwhelming desire to experience it in the right way. When you combine this with the physical experience of the galleries — you are moving slowly, your body is not really engaged, you are often on hard stone floors — it starts to feel draining rather quickly. We began to ask ourselves if we could create a physical relationship to the art. Could that lead to a more emotional, memorable experience of it?”

The company’s response was Museum Workout, which they have already performed more than a hundred times. Now, for a month in Melbourne, the re-branded Gallery Workout will bring the gym class to the art class. “Many people go to gyms and take workout classes,” Barnes says. “It’s a physical experience of movement that so many people have; but you’re often running on a treadmill and watching a TV or focused on the instructor in a mirror. But what if you could look at something more meaningful while you were exercising?”

Without necessarily intending to be subversive, Workout re-frames the usual gallery experience. “When we go to the gallery, it’s often because we’re looking to have an experience of art,” Barnes notes. “We want that to be inspiring, we want it to be meaningful, we want the art to be a catalyst for some experience outside of ourselves; but we often find that the desire for that particular kind of meaningful experience gets in the way of actually having it. Introducing the idea of being physical and working out is a way to change the agenda, to bring a different purpose to the art viewing experience, but ultimately in the hopes that we do get closer to the art on an emotional level.”

Whilst there is undoubted intellectual and aesthetic appeal to this, the experience is also avowedly physical. Part performance, part guided tour, but also very much a sweat sesh, Workout demands a level of participation. As the company’s namesake and artistic director reveals, “The movement varies and hopefully is challenging enough that the audience feels they have to pay attention and push themselves a bit more than they thought they would. To put it simply, the workout is intended to make people break into a sweat and feel like they could get left behind if they aren’t paying attention. But at its heart, the movement is created and performed to encourage people to participate. It’s easy to follow, familiar workout movement, not complicated, graceful dance material.”

All of which is front row centre for Monica Bill Barnes and Company as the troupe continues its mission to push dance into spaces it wasn’t originally intended for. “The Gallery Workout asks us to bring seemingly unrelated ideas into the same experience,” Barnes states. In a zeitgeist of increasingly calcified identity silos, this may well be the kind of fluid transgression we need right now. Either way, it’s probably the sweatiest you’ll ever get in an art gallery.

Monica Bill Barnes & Company’s The Gallery Workout will be presented at NGV from 14 July – 18 August, every Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7am and 8:30am. For more information and bookings, visit www.artscentremelbourne.com.au/en/whats-on/2018/festivals-series/mel-nyc/the-gallery-workout

By Paul Ransom of Dance Informa.

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