Laughing with Leonie Pony of ponydance
For a reason that will become clear shortly, I recently became curious about why it is that we go see performances. As a dancer, I wonder what it is that drives people to fill seats in the audience, and, as an audience member, what is it that compels me to purchase a ticket to a show? So with the help of some handy crowdsourcing (i.e. Facebook), I decided to turn to the collective mind (you) for responses to my quandary. Here are some of the things you said (thank you to everyone who responded to my text, Facebook message, email, call, etc.!) in response to the question: When you attend arts events (i.e. musical, visual art exhibition, theater piece, dance show, opera, movies, Tuvan throat singing, etc.), what do you most hope to get out of your experience? I received responses from 30 individuals, distributed as follows (size of the word corresponds to how often people cited the word as a response):
Though hardly a controlled, representative, or well-orchestrated survey in any conventional sense, the 30 respondents shared some insights with me that I hadn’t expected. In reviewing responses, my own motivations to see art became clearer. I began to realize that, generally, when I go to an arts event, I am looking to experience some sort of renewal, whether through provocation of new thoughts or ideas, transportation to another place or time, or deep emotional movement, all of which leave me with some sense of new vitality. Which brings me (finally) to ponydance.
In the same way that I watch Braveheart to be profoundly emotionally stirred by Mel Gibson’s famous speech, or that I listen to Eminem’s music to be moved to passionate anger, and go see Frank Gehry’s architecture to feel expansive joy, when I saw ponydance’s Anybody Waitin’? in 2010, I was moved to deep laughter. I left Anybody Waitin’? feeling renewed through the rejoicing happiness I had felt in watching the performance.
When I learned that ponydance would be coming to New York on October 7-10 to perform Anybody Waitin’? as part of Travelogues, a dance series curated by Laurie Uprichard and hosted by Abrons Arts Center, I could barely contain my glee. As Laurie so aptly expressed about ponydance’s humor, “Paula’s [dancer] face is priceless.” With her experience presenting ponydance at the Dublin Dance Festival in 2011, Laurie felt strongly that ponydance’s unique approach to dance comedy was something New York needed to see. In response to a question about what makes ponydance different than other dance comedy, Laurie shared, “they’re uniquely Irish in their approach to humor in ways, and they understand theater really well. They also have a really amazing understanding of their audience’s energy.” Put simply, “They are just funny.”
Leonie McDonagh, Artistic Director of ponydance, very kindly and generously agreed to participate in an interview about her approach to the craft of dance comedy. I was thrilled to catch a glimpse into what went into crafting the moments of Anybody Waitin’? that had me roaring in my seat; that certain something that makes me ache to go see art. Here’s what Leonie had to say.
Why dance and comedy?
I like both of those things. I’m drawn to them. I love laughing. I loooooooove laughing. I love humor. With dance, I went to contemporary dance school, so that was the language I spoke. And at some point during my training, I realized it would be good if I laughed a bit while I was at it.
Where did the skill for each of your crafts (dance and comedy), and your combined craft (dance comedy) come from?
I suppose in terms of training, it would’ve been the contemporary dance program I did for a lot of the dance language. I use a lot of really cheesy commercial language. And it works because people love what they know. For comedy, in terms of formal training, I studied with two clown artists by the names of Ira Sidelstein and Frazier Hooper. They both have influenced some of the approaches to comedy I use, I imagine. It’s interesting; it’s like dance is the bread for the honey. Dance is the vehicle for comedy. And you know clowns generally would have a lot of physical skill sets before training as a clown. A lot of clowns come from acrobatics before going into clowning.
Tell me a little bit more about how you approach comedy. You mention in another interview that often times whether a situation reads as humorous or not depends on how well you know your audience. When you perform pieces in different places around the world, do you find that humor reads better in some places than others because the humor has been crafted for a particular audience?
Hmm… comedy can be a real hit or miss. Rhythm is VERY important. If you catch your first wave it just rolls and from the start the whole thing just has the audience roaring. But sometimes you’re maybe having an off night, and you don’t quite catch the wave or the rhythm, and it just isn’t as funny. The international bit, you know it’s interesting. We’ve done Anybody Waitin’? in Edinburgh, Dublin, France, Zimbabwe, and it always seems to work! People were always laughing. You know, it’s a boy and girl thing, love, jealousy, angst – that stuff is universal. Humor can be universal. It doesn’t have to be specific to one group of people or another. Now another piece that ponydance does called Ponies Don’t Play Football has been made with some culturally specific jokes, you know, so that may not read as well in different places around the world. But then, you never know!
How is it that you craft humorous moments in rehearsal? You’ve mentioned before that often you don’t know if what you’ve made is funny until it’s in front of an audience. How do you work with this challenge in rehearsal?
A lot of humor we end up finding through accidents, where other gags are just structurally obvious, and a lot of the time you’re just hoping for the best!
Those structurally funny moments, how do you approach crafting them?
Hmm, good question. Well, I’ve learned that it can happen a few different ways for me. I might go into a rehearsal with some dance material for example, and that would be the inspiration for the physically humorous structural moments. Other times I might go into rehearsal with a notion of something comedic, like a sketch. Or maybe I’ll have a nugget of an idea and we’ll just be bashing it out through rehearsal. Some notions work out well and others don’t.
You know, comedy is a composition. I had the chance to work with students at the American Dance Festival to create a piece in 2014 and it really made me realize what I knew and had learned about the compositional elements of comedy. Things like juxtaposition, surprise, parody, and — so important — rhythm. It makes it sound a bit sterile when you list them out like that, but really there’s a reason those things work. All of our psychologies work in a lot of the same ways to an extent.
In the end, most of the time I know how things are going to start, and then everybody else finishes it. It’s like working with a band. You may never know what happens next, how you’re going to end… it’s a collective process. Then again, sometimes you do know!
You talked a little bit about your dance training, but I’m curious: what inspired you to move to include comedy in your work?
Well, I suppose I laugh at home a lot with my mother and sisters. I’d – this is really bad – I just love to wind my mother up, and she just gets really heated really easily and would overreact, and it would just set my sisters off roaring with laughter! Like a deep belly laugh. Awful! I know it’s bad. My mum is just pretty high strung and we’d get a real laugh out of that.
My dad is the total opposite – like really relaxed. He’s a really great storyteller. Every now and again, he’ll just come out with these fantastic one-liners at that just set us off laughing at home.
Like this one time – I can still remember it – we were eating together as a family in this restaurant, and one of my sisters had this friend who was sitting with her family across the room. Mind you, it was a huge room. I still remember after dinner, the friend came up to my sister and said, “we could hear you laughing across the room!” And it was a big room! That was us. That loud family at the restaurant. Roaring laughers. And the food! We’d just be drunk on food. It was wonderful. We just laughed a lot at home. I wonder if that’s where the laughs come from. I guess I just love it. I love that moment at a wedding when you’re just laughing with sheer glee, that feeling when you see your uncle stand up and start dancing, that feeling when it’s in your belly and you just want to smile. That’s the moment.