Obituary: David Toole OBE

The internationally acclaimed dancer who died, aged 56, on 16 October

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David Toole OBE was an internationally acclaimed dancer. In 2012, he captivated global audiences with a now renowned solo at the Paralympic Games Opening Ceremony in London. His graceful dancing offered a peaceful yet powerful interlude during this jubilant celebration of disabled UK talent as David delivered a mesmerising performance to a version of Anthony & The Johnson’s Bird Gerhl, sung by Birdy. This culminated with him raised high above, flying into the distance and over the stadium’s live audience of 80,000 people, watched by a worldwide audience of over 146 million. In 2018 he recalled the moment in a blog for Big Issue North.

David was born in Armley, Leeds on 31 July 1964, the youngest son of Terrance, a joiner who also performed comedy and sang in working men’s clubs around the region, and Jean (nee Dawson), an auxiliary nurse. David was born with sacral agenesis, causing malformation of the legs, which led to their amputation when he was 18 months old. He attended John Jamieson School and then Park Lane College before doing a short course in computing at Leeds University. He then worked for the Royal Mail, sorting post for nine years.

He was always an avid performer (called a show-off by friends and school teachers), but his life changed in the early 1990s when he participated in a workshop at Yorkshire Dance with the then nascent Candoco Dance Company. Having rung David to ensure his attendance, the company was amazed and excited by his extraordinary physical ability and expressiveness. As a result, he was invited to join this trailblazing company of disabled and non-disabled artists. Candoco began touring the world as its reputation grew, which gave David more confidence to branch out into acting in the late 1990s.

“He was funny, irreverent, droll and direct with an openness of spirit.”

David performed with the Royal Shakespeare Company and featured in various film and TV productions, most notably in Sally Potter’s film The Tango Lesson and the television series Rome. As an actor, he worked more prominently with Graeae Theatre Company – led by Jenny Sealey, who co-directed the 2012 Paralympic Opening Ceremony – and Leeds-based theatre company Slung Low.

Even prior to his solo performance in the Ceremony, David had reached national TV audiences in the multi-award-winning film The Cost of Living, created by DV8 Physical Theatre. Made in 2003, the film is recognised as one of the most important dance works of the past two decades and is adored by audiences to this day. It was originally performed as Can We Afford This in 2000 in major theatres, including West Yorkshire Playhouse. On David’s passing, artistic director Lloyd Newson wrote: “David made you marvel at what a body, his body, could say and do. He was funny, irreverent, droll and direct, with an openness of spirit that meant he was up for anything – and that’s what made him such a joy to work with. He had no time for pretension or middle-class waft.”

His last performance before his death was with his close collaborators Stopgap Dance Company in March 2019, when its production The Enormous Room was touring Japan. Its autumn tour had to be cancelled after David fell critically ill. The company rallied around and advocated for him to receive an OBE in December 2019 for services to dance and disability, as recognition of his generous support in mentoring up-and-coming disabled talent.

Throughout David’s career he continued to live in Halton, Leeds. He leaves behind his sister Cath Powell and her son Jack and daughter Mary. He will be missed by friends and audiences worldwide, as well as the UK’s arts community and the people of his hometown.

David’s most recent performance captured on film was Artificial Things by Stopgap Dance Company, which will be broadcast by BBC Four and on BBC iplayer on 18 November at 23.50, then available on iPlayer for 12 months.

Photo: from Stopgap’s Dance Company’s Bill and Bobby by Ludovic Des Cognets

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