FringeArts: Getting Moving at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

by Jane Fries for The Dance Journal

The Philadelphia Museum of Art hosted two dance offerings at this year’s Fringe Festival. Both pieces, Le Super Grand Continental and The Museum Workout, capitalized on the museum’s iconic setting and featured an appealing blend of performance and audience participation.

Montreal choreographer Sylvain Émard’s Le Super Grand Continental, a massive line dance for 200 amateur dancers, served as an unofficial opening ceremony for the Fringe Festival’s first weekend. The sound design, by Martin Tétreault and Michael Kiley, included a special Philly Soul section that delighted the sizable audience assembled in front of the museum.

In the free, half-hour extravaganza, local folks of diverse ages and dance backgrounds executed Émard’s slinky choreography at the base of the Art Museum’s outdoor steps, against the spectacular backdrop of the city lit up at night. They sported a wide range of colorful outfits as they boogied their way through the synchronized steps. The real star of the show, however, was the unison precision achieved by the large group. When the performance ended, the audience joined in for a giant dance party to the beat of Rocky’s “Gonna Fly Now.”

Monica Bill Barnes and Company’s The Museum Workout, co-presented by FringeArts and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, sent participants (including me) on a fitness circuit through the museum’s galleries. Barnes and her performance partner Anna Bass, wearing sequined dresses and running shoes, instructed the group to “do exactly what we do,” as they performed a choreographed exercise routine that covered 2 ½ miles within the museum.

The duo was accompanied by their creative producer and sound-man, Robbie Saenz de Viteri, who kept a straight face as he carried a laptop computer along the way.  A portable speaker slung over his shoulder blasted disco tunes interspersed with comments from artist and author Maira Kalman (an unseen collaborator who planned the tour route). Kalman’s opening words asked the group to forget about being in an art museum and to imagine walking outside in nature –observing but not judging the scenery.

We took off jogging/power walking to the sound of the Bee Gees “Staying Alive,” moving quickly through the European and American galleries and up and down out-of-the-way staircases. We stopped in front of selected works by Cezanne, Matisse, and Duchamp to do basic exercises and to hear more musings from Kalman through the portable speaker. We raised both arms overhead in a Rocky-esque pose at the bottom of the Great Staircase, gazing up at Saint-Gaudens’ gilded sculpture of the goddess, Diana.

We did squats in front of Titian’s 16th-century portrait of the Archbishop Filippo Archinto as Lionel Ritchie crooned, “I’m easy like Sunday morning.” We stood straight and tall in front of a suited knight in the Arms and Armor Hall, and we slowed down to stretch in front of the large meditating figure of Jina in the Asian galleries. We ended the tour lying flat on our backs on the floor, looking up at the awe-inspiring ceiling in the Great Stair Hall – an unexpected yet profound experience.

The Museum Workout took place before the museum opened for the day, and with the galleries empty of other visitors, we moved quickly and without conversation on our tour. Usually, when I visit the Art Museum I spend an hour taking in one or two exhibits because after that I’m overloaded. The Museum Workout was the flip-side of this approach – it was less than an hour, but we saw almost everything in the museum.

Enlivening the public spaces of the Art Museum, this year’s Fringe Festival tapped into the city’s creative potential with engaging interactive events. Two hundred Philadelphians shimmied their way through Le Super Grand Continental, attracting large crowds of family, friends and other revelers.  Meanwhile, via The Museum Workout, active groups of exercisers (because there were no audience members per se), took an art tour to remember – including an essential stop for coffee at the balcony Art Café.

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