ponydance Are Straight to DVD

It all started in 2009 for Leonie McDonagh's dance company, now they are bringing their new show to the MAC

Leonie McDonagh, artistic director of dance company ponydance, is doing something graceful and implausibly bendy in the Factory, one of the new MAC's two dance studios. She is mid-rehearsal for Straight to DVD, their new show at the MAC from May 22 – 26. Although she isn't dancing in this show – for the first time – she is learning all the parts.

'Just in case,' she explains, downstairs in the MAC's cafe. 'We've never had to cancel a show because of injury – touch wood and long may that continue – but stuff happens. We try to mind ourselves, but we are going at rehearsals hard. We're all in pain, I'm in pain today.'

If she is, the animated Galway-born, but Belfast-based, dancer isn't letting it show her down. She sips her coffee and waves her hands as she remembers the one time they had a dancer drop out of a show at the last minute due to food-poisoning. 'She said “I'll dance, I just won't eat the muffin.” I said, “But the muffin's the best part! You have to eat the muffin.”. I was ruthless!'

McDonagh shakes her head in dismay at her past self's lack of sympathy, but she would probably be just as hard on herself. Cheerfully self-described as 'driven', McDonagh has, ever since her first dance class at 13, always wanted to not just dance but to create dance. 'I pretty much put all my eggs in that one basket,' she admits wryly.

Not that the trip from 13 year old learning jazz to director of one of the first dance shows in Belfast's most contemporary arts venue has been an entirely straightforward one. McDonagh describes her post-school years as involving a 'lot of mucking about', mostly because there was no good career guide for aspiring dancers. She did a secretarial skills course ('Which I hated, but my mother insisted.') before going to London for a Performing Arts course, only to leave when she didn't get as much dance as she wanted.

It was in Dublin, at Sallynoggin College, that McDonagh finally found what she was looking there. She describes her three years there as the 'making of me'. McDonagh went on to study at the London Contemporary Dance school, but left after two years.

'I got pregnant in second year,' she explains.

Not that that stopped her dancing. McDonagh danced throughout her pregnancy, morning sickness and all. Her only concession to her 'growing bump' was to give up 'nigh-impossible ballet and replace it with release technique dance.

'Ballet is all about trying to fight gravity, you have to be up and light. I was neither up nor light,' McDonagh says. 'Release technique is all about going down to the floor and working with your body. It's actually gorgeous with a pregnant bump.'

A month after her son, now 5, was born McDonagh was back at work teaching. Looking back she says that might have been too soon. 'I had a baby,' she says. 'That's quite hard work.'

At the time, however, she remembers that she wanted to prove to everyone that 'hell or high water, baby or no baby' she was going to make ponydance work. That determination paid off, with the company going from 2 performances in 2005 to 20 in 2011.

McDonagh credits 2009 being the year that they really got going, when they did the Dublin Fringe with their 'first proper show, Where Did It All Go Right,' McDonagh says. Earlier that year ponydance worked with Ira Seidenstein, a PhD in education who apprenticed at the Ringling Clown Circus, for the first time. McDonagh credits Seidenstein with influencing a lot of ponydance's artistic direction.

'He taught us clown and acrobatics and, most importantly, improv and performance and tapping into your creativity – at the risk of sounding wanky there,' she grins. 'He is brilliant. He is still a very important mentor to us. I don't think I realised that at the time, but I do now.'

In fact, ponydance recently had a refresher session with Seidenstein. So the company is honed and well-prepared for their first performance in the new MAC. Which is another relationship that started in 2009, after ponydance performed in both the Pick n' Mix Festival and the Belfast Festival at Queen's.

'They told us that they wanted to support and that they were building towards this.' McDonagh waves a hand at the impressive, angular walls of the MAC. 'We kept a dialogue going – while they were building and we applied for funding – and here we are. And getting the chance to perform in this space is the stuff that dreams are made of.'

Straight to DVD is a new show created by ponydance to debut at the MAC. Described as a 'comedy sketch show, only mostly danced' by McDonagh, it is has enjoyed an unprecedentedly long – they usually put shows together in one, sometimes two, weeks -rehearsal period of four weeks.

The extra time has given the cast – who collectively create the final performance - the luxury to develop a lot of material. McDonagh is quietly confident as she says it is all coming together well.

As for the final content, McDonagh says they reference popular culture and music, but 'there is no one in particular we make fun of. I wouldn't be so brave.'

Straight to DVD is at the MAC from May 22 - 26. For more information and to find out what else is on at the MAC check out CultureNorthernIreland's What's On guide.