I couldn't remember the last time I felt as nervous as I did Wednesday morning, balancing on one leg next to a priceless painting at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Disco beats reverberated around me. This is what reverberated in my head: Please don't fall and bankrupt yourself.

I made eye contact with a security guard, who seemed equal parts unsettled and amused by the unexpected cardio in front of him.

That's right — for those bored with sprinting up the Art Museum's Rocky steps, there's a new way to work out at the storied institution, inside. Temporarily, anyway, as part of this year's Fringe Festival. (The best part? The museum is better air-conditioned than any gym you're likely to find.)

Contemporary dance company Monica Bill Barnes & Company, which focuses on taking dance  to where it's not supposed to be, has partnered with the museum for a performance piece called The Museum Workout, which is exactly what it sounds like.

Barnes and her artistic partner Anna Bass lead audience members on a tour of the museum during which they jog around and do jumping jacks, lunges, and other exercises in front of artworks. The tour is narrated by illustrator and children's book author Maira Kalman, who has worked with the Museum of Modern Art and the rock band Talking Heads.

The whole performance lasts 45 minutes and covers 2½ miles. Fifteen people are allowed to participate per workout, and performances run through Monday, Sept. 17. The last available tickets sold out Thursday morning.

Getting ready to exercise in the Great Stair Hall at the start of the Fringe Festival “Museum Workout.”
Getting ready to exercise in the Great Stair Hall at the start of the Fringe Festival “Museum Workout.”

The Philadelphia Museum of Art is the sixth museum to host the performance. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York hosted 100 workouts last year.

"I think for the audience, there's this pleasant surprise of how wonderfully inappropriate it seems," said creating producer Robert Saenz de Viteri. "You're not supposed to do this in a museum."

As far as "inappropriate" workouts go, though, there are many rules. You're not allowed to hold anything. You must stay at least an arm's length away from paintings. Participants are required to keep up, so if you have any leg or knee injuries, it's probably best to sit this one out. Talking is discouraged.

The point of the piece is to generate an emotional experience for the audience in hopes of creating a physical relationship to each piece of art on the tour and a strange memory of it. It worked — I don't think I'll have a stranger memory about art than doing jumping jacks in front of Cezanne's The Bathers to the Bee Gees' "Stayin' Alive."

"We've observed a lot of people in museums," Barnes said, and some "spend more time reading the plaque next to the painting than actually looking at the painting itself."

"Part of the hope is that listening to the music and the commentary while continuously moving will create a new avenue for seeing something and reframe what you might notice," she said.

Bodies at rest as the “The Museum Workout” concludes.
Bodies at rest as the “The Museum Workout” concludes.

As we jogged through the museum, I found myself engaging with the art in new ways because of the absurdity of the experience.

I imagined the Countess of Tournon laughing as we fist-pumped in front of her portrait by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. I imagined Alexander Calder furrowing his brow, wondering what the 21st century has come to, as we ended our workout — on our backs — in front of his mobile Ghost.

If you're looking for a serious workout that will leave you out of breath by the end, that's not what The Museum Workout is about. But for visitors who have been to the Art Museum dozens of times by now, this might be a chance to see familiar artwork in new ways.

"It's really fun, in this nontraditional environment," Barnes said. "One of our favorite and most frequent comments that people share with us is that they'll say they've been coming to a museum for years, but this alters the way they feel about being in the space."

Additional reporting by Grace Dickinson.


The Museum Workout

  • Sept. 13-17, sold out, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2600 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, 215-413-9006, philamuseum.org/calendar