Straight to DVD

Ponydance present 'Straight to DVD' at the MAC, Belfast. Neil Harrison Photography

Ponydance present 'Straight to DVD' at the MAC, Belfast. Neil Harrison Photography

Ponydance Theatre Company have come a long way since their first performances back in 2005. Following on the success of their award for Best Dance Show at the Adelaide Fringe earlier this year, they opened their latest show, Straight to DVD  in the Upstairs space of Belfast’s spanking new Metropolitan Arts Centre. This was commissioned by the MAC, which has championed the company since its appearance at the Pick ‘n’ Mix Festival in 2009. Not that they need a bespoke venue, given that their repertoire of work includes shows on the street, pubs and the Aviva Stadium, and they have already collected a slew of awards and accolades a-plenty. These awards are matched too by a burgeoning fan-base and the experience of this show was only enhanced by a very partisan crowd who were audibly committed to a good night out. Belfast has clearly taken Ponydance to its heart.

Their reputation is for high tempo, contemporary dance that is witty and irreverent, influenced in part by the clowning techniques of their mentor, Ira Seidenstein. This sketch show doesn’t disappoint. Over the course of an hour and a half, they maintain the precarious balance between demonstrable skill and apparent blundering at the heart of clowning. From an opening as a baby buggy display team, the four performers take on pole dancing; not one but two Olympic events; air freshener advertisements; and many other subjects before finishing in a climactic dance-off. Some of these are topical; others parody aspects of mass culture, like a mock Irish dance talent show, replete with video interviews with the married couple carrying Ireland’s hopes. Repeatedly, the performers end in a heap or limping off as the routines climax in disaster. Afterwards, I kept getting flashbacks to images and sequences that caused me to burst into random giggles much to the bewilderment of people around me. The fact that I couldn’t explain what had tickled me is due almost entirely to the fact that so much of the entertainment relies on its liveness. You just had to be there.

It’s not that the sketches aren’t well-structured. For the most part, they are taut, witty and playful. The use of video and projected text acts as an additional presence that demonstrates a command of the fun to be had in the relationship between the mediated and the live. A quotation from a review that noted the presence of some “pointless group numbers” immediately Neil Harrison Photographyheralded just such a number. Deirdre Griffin performs an increasingly frenzied tap dance while the screen projects instructions and commentary on her moves and flashes of a meter charting the pain in her calves.

But the real joy in the performance comes from the presence of a double layer in the live elements: the sketches which are performed and the performance of an interpersonal dynamic between the company members into which the audience is drawn. It is the performance of these psychological tensions that informs and subverts all of the physical dexterity on display. At the heart of this is Paula O’Reilly, who performs archness and self-absorption in equal measure. She has her match in Duane Watters, playing a gay man whose capacity for high camp would outdo a field of boy scouts halfway up Everest. The hapless and low status Neil Hainsworth and aggressive Deirdre Griffin serve as foils to these two. This requires a generous approach to ensemble playing and this is evident throughout. Even when the two lads in skimpy Lycra one-piece swimsuits compete against the women in an Olympic synchronized swimming competition (in an empty paddling pool), we see both the cattiness between the teams, and the skilful set-up of the performers that allows them to carry the whole thing off.

I’m not able to judge whether by any objective standard (if such a thing exists) these are or are not great dancers or if this is inspired choreography. Paula O’Reilly’s Olympic gymnastic floor routine, for example, was reminiscent of Dawn French’s ballet sketch with Darcey Bussell, though actually much funnier. Certainly when they want to, the performers can carry off sequences of dance repertoire across different forms from street dance to contact improvisation. The physical control and dexterity of the performers is wonderful to behold, but it was unrestrained laughter that they were working for and got back in buckets. Did I enjoy it? Yes, so much so that I’ll be booking my ticket for when they tour and bringing a gang with me.

Tom Maguire lectures in Theatre Studies at the University of Ulster.

  • Review
  • Theatre

Straight to DVD by Ponydance

22-26 May 2012, and on tour

Produced by Ponydance
In the MAC, Belfast

Directed by: Leonie McDonagh

Design: CiarĂ¡n O’Melia

With: Paula O’Reilly, Neil Hainsworth, Duane Watters, Deirdre Griffin


'Straight to DVD' is a MAC Commission co-produced with Ponydance.