At the 2009 Pick’n’Mix Festival – the last to be held at Belfast’s Old Museum Arts Centre (OMAC) – the word on everyone’s lips was Ponydance. Its ever-so-slightly crazy, high energy performance turned out to be the hit of the weekend and, in that single brief but dazzling appearance, an exciting new company claimed its place in the dance arena.
Three years on, both Ponydance and OMAC have come of age. The OMAC has morphed into the MAC, Belfast’s spectacular new multi-million pound arts space. Ponydance is one of its resident companies, bringing reflected glory to its home venue through huge open-air performances and international awards, most recently for best dance show at the Adelaide Fringe Festival.
No surprises then that one of the co-commissions of the MAC’s opening season is Straight to DVD, a new show that combines physical theatre, video projections, snappy sketches, slapstick and audience exploitation – sorry, participation – with a colourful palette of dance, some of it so bad it’s brilliant. In the skewed world of Ponydance, nothing is quite as it appears and there is ever-present potential for things to turn out, well, not quite right.
The quirky, mischievous humour of its founder and artistic director, Galway-born Leonie McDonagh, is at the heart of its work. Here, McDonagh chooses to satirise reality television, complete with false smiles, painted faces and a forced sense of everybody having a really great time.
The opening sequence vividly illustrates the naughty treats in store. To the familiar strains of Grieg’s 'In the Hall of the Mountain King' from Peer Gynt, the four dancers – Paula O’Reilly, Duane Watters, Neil Hainsworth and Deirdre Griffin – emerge, tastefully kitted out in neon-coloured velour tracksuits and unlaced trainers, each pushing an empty toddler buggy.
The dancers weave and pirouette around the MAC’s upstairs studio space, perfectly capturing the body language of teenage parents, vying for attention, eyeballing one another and fixing any passing expression of disapproval with looks that could kill
Here and, indeed, during the entire evening, O’Reilly is the cheerleader and the star of the show. Of her own cheerful admission, she does not conform in any way to the image of the conventional dancer – not a size 8, not 5’6', not a natural mover and with lots of curves, though not necessarily in the right places.
But she is a consummate performer, expressive of face and winning of ways. Her presence is simply irresistible and the other three, terrific dancers all, generously give her her place as uncontested crowd pleaser.
The Ponydance brand is risky, kitsch and knowing. Only performers as technically proficient and personable as these could achieve such controlled clumsiness, while at the same time making clever social comment and challenging sexual stereotypes.
Some of the content is fashionably retro, one minute invoking the ludicrous posturing of the Gladiators games show, the next hitting on the hearty shamrockery of a Riverdance spin-off talent competition; other sketches are downright camp, with O’Reilly shamelessly flaunting her flowery knickers in a desperate attempt at pole dancing, before Watters, lithe, lean and leather-clad, minces forward on his high-heels to demonstrate how it should be done.
Over the years, Ponydance has established a strong rapport with its growing army of fans, to the extent that it feels free to break the rules of dance by actually chatting with them during the performance. A clever dialogue develops through witty back-projected conversations, which perfectly capture what audience and performers are thinking.
A series of captions above a spoof tap sequence, gamely undertaken by Griffin, helpfully signals the steps and techniques that are coming up, as well as illustrating the rising levels of calf pain inflicted on the dancer. It all culminates in an alarming blur of physical agony. Talk about suffering for your art.
A screened image of the Olympic hoops, with one missing, prepares us for a whole new take on London 2012. A synchronised swimming sequence in a large paddling pool guarantees that we will never again view this strange sport in quite the same way, while O’Reilly’s beaming attempts at a gymnastics floor routine are a far cry from the graceful movements of gold medal-winning, Beth Tweddle and Co.
Ponydance’s extrovert brand of performance – part saucy postcard, part Beryl Cooke roly-poly, part circus, part top notch dance – may not be to the taste of the purists. But it would take a sense of humour by-pass not to applaud this new show as a real winner, appealing as much to the initiated as to those on the look-out for a well performed and presented evening’s entertainment.
Straight to DVD runs in the MAC until May 26.