David Toole, who died age 56 on Friday 16 October 2020 after falling ill last autumn, was a wonderfully expressive performer working across dance, theatre, film and circus, but it was his solo for The Opening Ceremony of London 2012 Paralympic Games, reaching 146 million TV viewers as well as 80,000 people inside the stadium, which really put him on the map. Co-directed by Graeae Theatre’s Jenny Sealey, accompanied by the music of Anthony Hegarty's "Bird Gerhl" sung by Birdy, he was the focal point of the ceremony. In December 2019, he received an OBE for his services to dance and disability.
Born with a condition called sacral agenisis, causing malformation of the legs, which were later amputated at 18 months to improve mobility, David’s richly deserved OBE was in recognition of his work in the development of new and emerging initiatives for disabled-led and inclusive arts. He played an important role in Candoco Dance Company’s global success in the '90s, which inspired a host of new disability and inclusive dance groups to appear around UK. The UK is now considered the world leader in this field.
His performances with Candoco Dance Company, DV8 Physical Theatre, Graeae Theatre, Slung Low, and Stopgap Dance Company, amongst others, changed perception of disabled people in the performing arts. He was working with Stopgap at the time of his death. He also played key roles in the early days of the circus company Extraordinary Bodies and keenly worked with smaller companies such as Frontline Dance.
He was born in Leeds to father Terrance Toole, who was a joiner by trade but performed around the North East Clubs and pubs with his brother Douglas in a singing and comedy duo, and mother Jean Lendill (remarried after Terrance’s death, née Dawson), who had several jobs as an auxiliary nurse, then as a pharmaceutical assistant at Boots and then as a Care Home worker.
His sister Cath says of his upbringing, “as a young child he had a very strong mum who was adamant that David would be made to do everything for himself within reason, but she knew she might not be around forever and he would have to look out for himself in future. This moulded David into the person he was today and without that tough love he would not have been able to achieve the heights he has. She was massively proud of him as we all are. David, I think, would have loved to be remembered as the expressive theatre dancer and for changing the perceptions for disabled dancers for the future. As proud as I am for all his life’s achievements, David will be remembered by me as my little brother, who was unique in so many ways.”
Educated at John Jamieson School, Park Lane College, with a 6-month short course on computing at University of Leeds, he achieved BA honours at Laban School in 1993 after nine years working in a post office in Leeds. Dave said in an interview with BBC in 2013, "it was basically sitting at a desk all day typing postal codes as letters flew by you. Very boring, and I desperately needed a change."
Encouraged by his former teacher, in the early '90s, David attended a workshop held by the then nascent Candoco Dance Company at Yorkshire Dance. Asked to join the company, David left his post office job and enrolled on a course at the Laban School while working part-time with Candoco in 1993. Toole’s career as a dancer then took off. Toole and Candoco began touring the world.
Towards the end of '90s, David began branching out into acting. He had small roles with the Royal Shakespeare Company and more prominently with Graeae Theatre Company, where he was cast as Edgar in The Fall of the House of Usher in 2000, as De Flores in The Changeling in 2001, as the Soldier in Sarah Kane’s Blasted in 2006, and Maverick, the driver of the giant ‘Iron Man’ puppet, in 2011. Graeae’s Artistic Director Jenny Sealey says that David informed a radical change in how Graeae worked when he first joined the company. He also featured in various film and TV productions, most notably in Sally Potter’s The Tango Lesson.
Lloyd Newson of DV8 Physical Theatre approached David to play one of the principle characters in The Cost of Living, a work commissioned by, and premièred at, the Sydney 2000 Olympic Arts Festival. It toured internationally and was subsequently turned into a film, which won multiple international awards including a Prix Italia and Rose d’Or. The film is widely recognised as one of the most significant dance works in the past two decades, reaching audiences worldwide, and is still adored by dance and theatre audiences to this day. It was this film that alerted me to David Toole and his captivating talent.
Post-Paralympics, David continued to work in theatre and dance, most closely with his long-term collaborators Slung Low Theatre Company and Stopgap Dance Company. With Slung Low Theatre, David took centre-stage with The Johnny Eck and Dave Toole Show in April 2013 as part of the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Transform season. He also had key roles in Resurrection, which was the second production in the vampire mythology trilogy, They Only Come at Night. The show was presented in the Lowry Studio 2–12 September 2012.
With Stopgap Dance Company, David featured in five different productions between 2008 and the present, including Artificial Things. The production became mandatory study for GCSE Dance in 2016 and became a dance film in 2018 directed by Sophie Fiennes, which won the award for best screen choreography at dancescreen 2019 in Wuppertal. David’s last live performance was with Stopgap on tour of Japan in March 2019 at Setagaya Public Theatre with The Enormous Room. Its autumn tour 2019 was cancelled when he became critically ill.
David can 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.
Born on 31 July 1964 in Leeds, died age 56 on Friday 16 October 2020, he leaves behind his sister Cath and his nephew Jack and niece Mary.