It’s not unheard of to have a few laughs at a dance show. But that’s usually all you’re allowed – a few. Stand outside a ponydance show, however, and you’ll hear two things: top tunes and laughter. Lots and lots of laughter.
Better yet, get yourself a ticket and head inside, where the “crack” is almost certainly better than any dance performance you’ve ever attended.
Based in the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland, ponydance first trotted on to the scene in 2005. Since then, founder Leonie McDonagh has brought in a range of dancers and collaborators to help serve up her very unique brand of dance comedy.
Previous Edinburgh Fringe hits, Where Did It All Go Right? and Anybody Waitin’? have gone down so well that the company is pretty much guaranteed to sell-out its brief run at Dance Base with Ponies Don’t Play Football.
Once again, the subjects of love, sex and relationships will be played out, Lycra and strange footwear will be worn, and popular music will be played. But when I ask McDonagh about the show’s title, she makes no attempt to sugar-coat her answer with themes or layers.
“Oh, I don’t know,” she says honestly. “People ask me stuff like that, but I don’t know. It was just a case of thinking ‘oh, that sounds good – we’ll call it that’. That’s about as deep as I get.
“A lot of the humour is really cheap, and we’ve got lots of stereotypes, I’ll put my hands up to that. But I’d like to think it’s intelligent cheap.”
She’s absolutely right, “intelligent cheap” is just about the best way to describe a ponydance show. Laugh-out-loud funny, but never dumbed down. Astute, well-crafted and fun, but never offensive or cruel.
Ponydance flirts with the mainstream, but never quite enters it – preferring to drag people over to their side of the paddock instead.
“The mission from the beginning was always to attract new audiences and bring in people who never go to the theatre,” says McDonagh. “We’ve done a lot of site-specific work – taking the show to them – and now people say they come to a ponydance show because they know they’ll have a good time.”
Both Where Did It All Go Right? and Anybody Waitin’? were performed in Edinburgh nightclubs, but this time around, ponydance is setting up stage in Dance Base’s main theatre.
This is partly to make room for their invited guests – musician Donal Scullion and his band. Four dancers and six band members come together for Ponies Don’t Play Football, a show which may not make McDonagh rich, but is certainly giving her a good time.
“Anybody Waitin’? toured a lot and sold really well, so I thought well that’s a winning formula, let’s do another one of those and make some money,” she recalls. “And then I met Donal and his band and I thought ah, screw it, let’s do a show with a band, that’d be awesome! And it is. Not a good financial move, but we’ve had a great time. Even just rehearsing with them, they sit there playing guitar while we’re warming up, it’s a whole different thing, it’s lovely.”
McDonagh describes Scullion as a “jack of all trades, master of all”, with the musician fusing soul, funk, jazz, rock and reggae into his mix. But, recognising that “people love what they know”, Ponies Don’t Play Football features familiar songs by the Jackson Five, Patti Smith and David Bowie amongst others.
People also love to laugh, of course – and when they do, it’s music to McDonagh’s ears. “I love getting laughs, it’s really satisfying,” she says. “And once you start getting them, it’s addictive – I’m hooked on it, I’m a laugh junky.
“I have thought that I’d like to make a show that’s just beautiful, but then I start making stuff and always end up going ‘wouldn’t it be funny if we did this?’. So now I’m really just interested in making comedy. I like giving people a good time, and there’s plenty of serious stuff out there, by people who do it way better than I ever could. So I’ll just stick with the comedy and keep honing my craft.”
The craft she speaks of isn’t just comedy, however. Years of dance training have also fed into the ponydance style, starting with disco troupes during McDonagh’s youth, followed by ballet, jazz and contemporary classes, including a spell at The Place in London. All of which has given her, and the dancers she recruits into the company, an appreciation of all forms of dance. In particular, the much maligned world of commercial dance.
“It always amazes me how little contemporary dance and commercial dance combine,” says McDonagh, “They really are two separate worlds. The philosophies don’t cross at all, and I find that sad. They’re almost anti each other, which is a bit of a pity.”
In the hands of McDonagh, with her “intelligent cheap” humour and strong contemporary training, commercial dance takes on a whole new life. Her choreography is fun, accessible and engaging; her shows larger than life, often risqué, and always enjoyable.
Watching her on-stage, and seeing her vision played out with others, you start to wonder if that’s who she is in real life (and, if so, please could she become your new best friend?). Having spoken to her, I’m starting to think the answer is probably “yes”.
“I think it kind of is,” she agrees, “And I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. But the work comes from an honest place, which is always the best way to be. It’s a very exaggerated form of me, but I guess the answer is still ‘yes’.”
l Ponies Don’t Play Football is at Dance Base until 30 August. Tomorrow 9:30pm.