David Toole, who has died aged 56, was perhaps the world’s most renowned disabled dancer, a double amputee whose combination of physical power and bewitching delicacy created arresting imagery on stage and TV around the globe.
Watched by 146 million viewers at the opening ceremony of the London Paralympic Games in 2012, he swung his body across the stage on his hands, defying preconceptions about dexterity and beauty with a display of heart-stopping gracefulness, accompanied by the singer Birdy performing the Antony and the Johnsons song Bird Gerhl.
The show itself was an epic staging with hundreds of performers and much spectacle,but no one took their eyes off Toole as he ascended high into the night sky, gliding gracefully, the gentle flutter of his arms-as-wings juxtaposing with his upper body strength to extraordinary effect.
Born in Leeds, he was the youngest son of Terrance, a joiner who also performed comedy and sang in pubs, and Jean (nee Dawson), an auxiliary nurse and care home worker. David came into the world with sacral agenesis, a congenital disorder affecting the foetal development of the lower spine, causing malformation of the legs – leading to their amputation when he was 18 months old. He was educated in the city, at the John Jamieson school and then Park Lane college before studying computing at Leeds University, after which he began a nine-year stint working for the Post Office.
Bored with the routine nature of his job “sitting all day typing postal codes as letters flew by”, and encouraged by a former teacher, he attended a workshop with Candoco dance company. He was inspired; when he told his mother that he wanted to be a dancer, she told him: “Can I just remind you that you don’t have any legs.” Undaunted he enrolled at the Laban Dance Centre in London (now Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance), learning on the job by working part-time with Candoco during his studies, and graduating in 1993.
His remarkable control, buoyancy and adept physical displays, sometimes giving the impression that his body was in flight, made him a key ingredient of Candoco’s groundbreaking work in the field of disabled performing arts and he toured the world with them for several years. He also played Puck in Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Broomhill Opera, Tunbridge Wells, Kent, in 1994, proving himself a fine actor, with a virtuoso physicality, able to convey mesmerising, impassive inscrutability or, contrastingly, deadpan, lugubrious humour.
In 2000 he was invited to be one of the principal characters in Can We Afford This, fulfilling his ambition to work with DV8 Physical Theatre. It premiered at the Sydney 2000 Olympic arts festival, toured internationally and became a 2004 Channel 4 film called The Cost of Living. Concerning two out- of-work performers (Toole and Eddie Kay) negotiating their way around a desolate, out-of-season seaside resort, it was a surreal and provocative masterpiece that was garlanded with many international awards including a Prix Italia and Rose d’Or. The film’s final image, of Kay crawling along the beach, Toole perched atop his coccyx creating the illusion that Kay’s legs were his, was a beguiling fusion of strange beauty and symbiotic friendship.
Toole also enjoyed a fruitful collaboration with the deaf and disabled theatre company Graeae, appearing as Edgar in The Fall of the House of Usher (2000), De Flores in The Changeling (2001), and the Soldier in Sarah Kane’s Blasted (2006). He also acted with the Royal Shakespeare Company in I’ll Be the Devil (2008) at the Tricycle theatre, London.
For Slung Low theatre company he appeared in They Only Come at Night: Resurrection (Lowry theatre, Salford, 2012) and The Johnny Eck and Dave Toole Show (West Yorkshire Playhouse, 2013), telling his own story in parallel with that of the 1930s American performer who had appeared in Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932).
For Stopgap dance company he worked on Tracking (2009), Artificial Things (2014), Bill & Bobby (2015) and The Enormous Room (2017-19), the last of which was devised with him in mind. In May this year Toole contributed to a live Twitter commentary on the award-winning 2018 screen version of Artificial Things, directed by Sophie Fiennes. The original performance piece, to the company’s delight, had previously been included on the GCSE dance syllabus.
He had appeared on screen in Sally Potter’s The Tango Lesson (1997), Michael Apted’s Amazing Grace (2006) and the TV series Rome (2007), and participated in Naked on the Inside (2007), a revealing, raw and honest documentary about body image. A 1998 Nick Knight photograph of him in an Alexander McQueen dress, art directed by McQueen himself, was part of a 2015 exhibition at Showstudio in Belgravia, London.
In person droll but sometimes curmudgeonly, blunt and never starry, he remained in touch with his roots and graciously gave his time to help up-and-coming artists. When appointed OBE last year for his services to dance and disability he reacted with his trademark down-to-earth humility.
His last live performance was with Stopgap on tour of Japan in March last year– their autumn tour of 2019 was cancelled when he became critically ill. He faced hospital with fortitude, optimism and good humour and was hoping to go back to work.
He is survived by his sister Cath, nephew Jack and niece Mary.
• David Vincent Toole, dancer and actor, born 31 July 1964; died 16 October 2020