David Toole OBE: dancer, actor and disability-rights activist

Born: July 31, 1964;

Died: October 16, 2020

THE news of David Toole’s death, at the age of 56, has saddened dance communities and disability-rights activists across the globe. The heartfelt tributes that continue to grow in number carry a profound sense of loss, alongside a grateful awareness of his remarkable achievements. For whether David Toole was on-stage, or on-screen – or mid-air, as in his solo at the Opening Ceremony of London 2012 Paralympic Games – his performances were always a compelling witness to how an artist with disability could bring new energies and perspectives to mainstream productions.

David Toole was born in 1964, in Leeds, with a condition called sacral agenisis: his lower spine and legs had not fully developed in the womb. When he was 18 months old, both his legs were amputated. His mother, however, was determined that – within reason – David should do everything for himself. He proved not just equally determined, but resiliently resourceful.

Years later, when he was gaining widespread acclaim as a dancer, Toole would say that he started off by using “some of the ‘tricks’ I used around the house to achieve things. Standing on one hand to reach a light switch for example looked impressive when moved away from the wall and incorporated into the choreography. I wouldn’t think twice about leaping off my wheelchair, landing on my hands and ‘running’ across the stage”

In fact, his movement vocabulary went way beyond those so-called ‘tricks’. He became known for routines in which he would move, swing and balance on his arms, often playfully exploiting his stature, not restricted by it. This creative invention spoke of empowerment, and for many emerging artists with disability, Toole became a role model who led by virtuosic example.

His increasingly high-profile career was a far cry from his first job, working at the Post Office where he sat at a desk all day, typing postal codes as letters flew by. He did this for nine years until, in the early 1990’s, a former teacher encouraged him to take part in Candoco Dance Company’s integrated workshop at Yorkshire Dance. He went along, and it would prove to be a turning point that shaped the rest of his life.

That first encounter with Candoco re-awakened his schooldays’ enthusiasm for performing. He bade farewell to the Post Office. He enrolled at London’s Laban Centre of Movement and Dance, combining his studies there with his on-stage stints with Candoco. After graduating from Laban, he joined Candoco full-time, touring nationally and internationally with them between 1993 and 1999.

In interviews, the ever-forthright Toole never shied away from discussing how audiences responded to dancers with disability. He reckoned that, in the early days, an integrated dance company was something of a novelty and there were undoubtedly people who came along out of curiosity. That changed when Toole’s prowess and artistry became a praise-laden talking point for audiences and critics alike.

There was no need to ‘make allowances’ - Toole didn’t need that kind of condescension: he consistently delivered dance that was expressive, nuanced and often tinged with glimmers of humour and sly mischief. Defying expectations was a hallmark of his being. No-one he worked with was ever fooled by his moments of growly grumpiness: he was unstinting as a performer, and a valued colleague on-stage and off.

His performative charisma attracted opportunities across various artforms. He played Puck in Benjamin Britten’s opera of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, appeared in Sally Potter’s film, The Tango Lesson, and performed with Graeae Theatre Company in 2000 and 2001, playing Edgar in The Fall of the House of Usher and Deflores in The Changeling, respectively.

In 2000, he realised a cherished ambition: to work with Lloyd Newsom and DV8. The piece, The Cost of Living, was part of the build-up to the Sydney Olympics and Toole would later describe the months spent creating and then performing the work there, before touring it to Hong Kong as ‘an incredible adventure.’

It would be another Olympics – the London 2012 Paralympics – that made Toole a global hero when, watched by some 146 million people, he performed an ‘aerial ballet’ as part of the Opening Ceremony. Moving to Bird Gerhl, sung by Birdy, suspended in the air and flown around the stadium, Toole vividly captured the Games’s essential spirit of endeavour . He would later admit he didn’t have a head for heights.

Site-specific projects with Leeds-based company Slung Low, being part of the early days of circus company Extraordinary Bodies, and a committed involvement with smaller companies such as Frontline Dance did much to change the public’s perception of disability within the realm of performing arts. A 2008 collaboration with Stopgap Dance Company led to a decade-long association that was ongoing at the time of his death.

In December 2019, he received an OBE for his services to dance and disability. He was, however, too ill in hospital to subsequently collect it in person. He said, typically wryly, “It’s been an odd day. Woke up a clapped-out dancer but going to bed a clapped-out dancer with an OBE. Funny old world.” He also said on occasion: “I do have moments when I wonder, how did this dodgy postman from Leeds get to do all this?” The worldwide outpourings of love and loss have the answer: David Toole was a glorious, special, ground-breaking talent who will be much missed.

He leaves behind his sister, Cath, and his nephew, Jack, and niece, Mary.

David Toole can be still be watched on-screen:his Paralympic solo, excerpts of the multi award-winning film Cost of Living, and Stopgap’s Artificial Things directed by Sophie Fiennes are all available on YouTube.