Interview: David Toole

Wednesday 7 May 2014 by Carmel Smith

David Toole in Stopgap Dance Company's 'Artificial Things'.Photo: Chris Parkes

In 1992 David Toole took part in a Candoco workshop, joined the company, studied at Laban and left his job at the Post Office behind forever. If you haven’t seen him on stage yet, chances are you’ve seen him in DV8’s film The Cost of Living, or swooping on a high wire, hundreds of feet above the stadium in the Opening Ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympics. David is London next week for the London premiere of Stopgap Dance Company’s new show Artificial Things at the Lilian Baylis Studio Sadler’s Wells, so we took the opportunity to catch up with him…

Tell us about Artifical Things – where did the idea come from and how did you all develop it?
The ideas for the piece came from Director Lucy Bennett’s experience over the last ten years of watching the company and how they behaved as a group of people. She had watched how they worked together to solve problems and discover new movement and also how they acted a little more like siblings with all that entails. She also had an image in her head that came to her while walking to work in the snow of Laura [Jones] being watched by a stranger. Laura was out of her chair and the chair was tipped over. This first image was the basis of a duet for myself and Laura.. The look of the show was inspired by Goran Djurovic, a Serbian artist.
You’ve already been touring the UK – how’s it been going?
Really successful so far, with some very positive feedback from audiences. We’re looking forward to our London premiere.

Are you a Stopgap company member – or still freelancing?
I suppose I am still technically a freelancer but I do and always have felt part of the company. They have always been very welcoming and my connection with them goes back pretty much to their creation in 1996. It’s hard to say whether this is a one off or not. I have been part of a previous piece, Tracking , so never say never…

Do you remember the first dance performance you saw that made an impression on you?
I grew up watching musicals and loved people like Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor. I’m also a big Elvis fan too so these were very important in my youth. When I first began dancing properly (almost by accident after attending a dance workshop for both able bodied and disabled dancers in 1992) I was drawn to the work of DV8 and aspired to being part of that company. I could hardly believe it when that opportunity came along in 2000…

How did that happen?
One day Lloyd Newson came to see a show I was in with Candoco. Afterwards he was gracious enough to send me a card to say how much he had enjoyed my performance. This was just amazing but I still never imagined I would get the chance to work with him. Then, one evening my phone rang at home in Leeds and it was him calling to ask if I would be interested in being part of a new piece he was working on as part of the build up to the Sydney Olympics in 2000. I could not believe it but tried to remain calm. I said yes of course, put the phone down and immediately began dancing around the room in excitement until it dawned on me what I had done. Then I was full of self doubt too. Was I ready for such a job? My friend, who was there at the time, had absolutely no idea what was going on.

The first days of rehearsal were a little nerve wracking but one of the great things about Can We Afford This? (which later became The Cost of Living ) was the fact that Lloyd was interested in our stories and what you could offer as an individual. It was an incredible adventure, spending three months in Sydney creating the work, performing there and then moving on to London and finally Hong Kong. Unfortunately, during that time I became very ill. I thought it was just exhaustion but it turned out I was in the advanced stages of kidney failure – a story in itself. I always regret it meant I felt I never really was in a position to give my all to that work…

Presumably a dance career wasn’t always high on your agenda. When did you realise that you could be – and were – a dancer?
I still ask myself how I got to this point to be honest. I don’t think for the first few years I took the work too seriously. It was a big adventure so I didn’t really think much about it. It sounds strange now but the day it dawned on me that I was a professional dancer was when I found my name in a book about dance in a library. This was a strange experience for someone who still considered himself a postman from Leeds (which I was for nine years).

Where did you train?
I spent a year at Laban Centre for Movement and Dance [now Trinity Laban] on their Community Dance course. This was quite an experience as my lack of dance knowledge and their inexperience of having disabled dancers in technique class at the time proved to be quite a challenge. I was also working with Candoco so was learning on the job as well, so to speak.

Is it your experience that ‘integrated dance’ is more mainstream than in those pioneering Candoco days?
I think it has come a long way but I long for the day when integrated dance is on a theatre’s schedule as ‘dance’ alone. I certainly think audiences are more aware of the possibilities where disabled artists are concerned and no doubt the Paralympics was a huge help in this. It remains to be seen what the long term effects of that are. I remain optimistic.

What has been a stand out highlight of your career so far?
Every day I am still dancing is a good day but career highlights would include my work with DV8’s Cost of Living , the play Blasted with Graeae Theatre Company, the Paralympic Opening Ceremony and of course Artificial Things.

Tell us about the Paralympics opening ceremony – how did it feel to be suspended hundreds of feet about the stadium in front of an audience of millions?
It was of course an amazing experience. I am actually afraid of heights so getting over that was an issue. The strangest moment was just before going on. I was stood with Sir Ian McKellen on one side and Stephen Hawking on the other. The most surreal moment of my career so far.

Did you get recognised on the street afterwards?
Actually not that much to be honest.. On the odd occasion though, people were very nice about my work and the ceremony as a whole. It was noticeable however that more people in London recognised me than when I got back up North to Leeds where I am based. Not really sure if that actually means anything but it just struck me as strange.

Who was Johnny Eck and why did you want to make a show about him? Do you still perform it?
Johnny Eck was a performer in the ’30s and ’40s. He had the same disability as myself but he first began work in freak shows and the carnival circuit. In 1932 when Tod Browning the director made the movie Freaks he decided to use real people with various conditions that were working in the circus and freak shows. Johnny had a part in this film and thought it would be his big break. However, the film was banned for over 70 years so he was reduced to playing a ‘Goony Bird’ in Tarzan films and his great acting career never really took off. I have always been fascinated by him as he bears a striking resemblance to me and vice versa. Sadly, his career ended pretty much after he was robbed while he was alone in his house and sat on by the burglars. He never left his house again and died in the early 90s. It was a pleasure playing him and I would really love to do the show again but at this moment in time it seems very unlikely. As a side note, I almost got to play him in a movie several years ago. I had meetings with the then director Tim Burton (my hero) and had been offered the part, but the studio pulled the plug due to the expense of the project and my one big shot at stardom was gone in a flash. Still, it makes a good after dinner story…

How long are you going to carry on dancing? Do you ever think about retiring – and do you have anything else in mind?
As I said, I am thankful for every day that I still dance. I am 50 this year and apart from a few aches and pains, I feel pretty fit and seem to still be moving quite well. I think I will know when the day comes but it’s not here yet. It may be decided by others. At the moment, I have no real plans and nothing else as a back up. I suppose one day I may write about my adventures, we’ll see. I am loving my time with Stopgap and Artificial Things for now. There are potential offers in the future so it’s nice to still feel wanted.

Stopgap Dance Company is in Artificial Things at the Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadler’s Wells on Tue 13 & Wed 14 May
More details & booking:

Stopgap are offering a workshop – Responsive dance practice and integrated choreography – suitable for professional dancers and teachers on Wed 4 May
More details

Photos: Chris Parkes

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