David Toole, OBE, 1964-2020

Posted: October 28th, 2020 | Author: | Filed under: Obituary | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on David Toole, OBE, 1964-2020

David Toole, OBE, 1964-2020

David Toole
David Toole in Stopgap Dance Company’s Bill and Bobby (photo: Ludovic Des Cognets)

One of the themes of Lloyd Newson’s 2004 film The Cost of Living lies in the ambiguity of its title. It is not a film about economic statistics but about the effect of economic and political policy on the lives of a group of people whose occupation falls outside the norms of sustainability: freelance performers. The current Covid 19 pandemic has only exacerbated the persistence of this covert ideological policy, and yet to watch The Cost of Living again is to be reminded not so much of the policy’s effect as of its antidote: it’s a film of enormous wit and heart that punches through the thickset callousness of the policy it decries. If its caustic wit is embodied in the performance of Eddie Kay (Eddie), the powerful heart is that of the late David Toole (Dave). Another thread within the film is the perception and treatment of disability, and the probing integrity of this was borne entirely by Toole. He was born with a condition known as sacral agenisis that causes a malformation of the legs. When he was 18 months old both his legs were amputated to improve mobility. 

After leaving school David Toole spent nine years working for the Post Office before being encouraged by a former teacher to join a workshop offered by Candoco Dance Company at Yorkshire Dance in his hometown of Leeds. On the strength of his participation he was offered a part-time job in the company while studying dance at the Laban School. He was 29 years old and subsequently pursued an illustrious career in dance and physical theatre, working with Candoco, DV8, the Royal Shakespeare Company, Graeae Theatre Company, Stopgap Dance Company, Slung Low Theatre and in film. His performance at the opening of the 2012 Paralympics was watched by millions. In recognition of his services to dance and disability, David Toole was awarded an OBE in December 2019; his example did so much to break down barriers between disability and acceptance on stage, opening a path to integrated dance and individual dreams. 

Toole used his long arms and powerful hands for propulsion while his muscular torso and expressive face were capable of a broad range of emotions; like a powerful voice, his body  had an accent that could command attention, that could inflect meaning and speak volumes in silence. I remember a Stopgap Dance Company performance of Artificial Things in which he lip-synched Family’s Old Songs New Songs to the voice of Roger Chapman; while his arm span seemed to contain the lyrics within its grasp, his expression corresponded uncannily to the haunting, gravelly tones of Chapman’s voice. 

David Toole was a constant reminder of that ability of performers to transcend the notion of ephemerality. For those who saw him, it was his unadorned artistry that became indelibly imprinted on our memories, an integrity of mind and body that was a privilege to witness. Whatever the political and economic circumstances, the performing arts will survive through the example of artists like David Toole who convincingly embody the drama of their thoughts and feelings despite — or because of — a strong undercurrent of suffering that they turn into a source of such riveting inspiration.

Akram Khan, Until the Lions

Posted: January 25th, 2016 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Akram Khan, Until the Lions

Akram Khan Company, Until the Lions, January 19, Roundhouse, London

Ching-Yien Chien, Akram Khan and Christine-Joy Ritter in Until the Lions (photo: Jean-Louis Fernandez)

Ching-Yien Chien, Akram Khan and Christine-Joy Ritter in Until the Lions (photo: Jean-Louis Fernandez)

The truth is like a lion; you don’t have to defend it. Let it loose; it will defend itself.” Augustine of Hippo

We do not encounter performances in isolation and so to write about them without context tells only part of the story. Earlier on the same day I visited two exhibitions: WOMEN: New Portraits by Annie Leibovitz at Wapping Hydraulic Power Station and For They That Sow The Wind by Julian Charrière at Parasol unit foundation for contemporary art.

As an architect of mood Khan (and his creative collaborators) clearly frames our arrival into the Roundhouse with a low grumbling, electronic rumbling soundtrack and a 15m wide tree trunk splatted across the stage. Fissures run through the trunk and act as a future echo for the scenographic finale that lingers in the mind long after you’ve left the auditorium.

Until the Lions (the performance) is distilled from a collection of poetry by Karthika Nair (of the same name) who amplified the narrative and shone a light on some of the minor female character’s from the original hindu epic The Mahabharata (in which a teenage Khan performed in Peter Brook’s seminal performance). In 1966 the playwright Tom Stoppard excavated two minor characters (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and injected them with life and framed them within a play of their own. The process of ekphrasis is one that Nair practices regularly and she’s previously worked with Khan as a writer on DESH:

“Akram is not interested in my poems as poems, he is very clear that it is the story or mood, the content which he will mould into his language or languages for stage: movement and visuals and music.”

Khan and dramaturg Ruth Little attempted to stretch and deliver a slender narrative of male domination and female vengeance over 60 minutes with three dancers (Akram Khan, Ching-Yien Chien and Christine-Joy Ritter) and four musicians (Sohini Alam, David Azurza, Yaron Engler and Vincenzo Lamagna) with little success.

Don’t ask me who’s influenced me. A lion is made up of the lambs he’s digested, and I’ve been reading all my life.” Charles de Gaulle

My ears feasted on a driving and insistent live percussive score — an evocative vocal intensity, bordering on the shamanic, intoxicated me with a fervour, tension and delicious agitation; but my eyes nibbled on unimaginative repetition, 2D characters who didn’t want to connect with me and chasms of flabby, empty space. I felt little sense of drama, found no invention or choreographic hunger and left with a jarring sense of disappointment at this mismatched marriage of sound and vision.

There were too many examples of circumference running and walking which drained any pace and sagged any momentum being created by the urgent and cohesive soundtrack. As the performance developed I saw little nous or demonstration of the craft required for performances in the round. The centre of the stage is the weakest point for a performer as it’s here that half the audience cannot see the front of the body or face; yet Khan focused so much choreographic and illuminated action on this section of the stump.

However, there was a moment (around two thirds of the way through) when I felt an equality; the compositional and choreographic power aligned as Ritter began to take on a new form to vanquish her male nemesis. Here she writhed, scuttled and possessed arachnid qualities, totally inhabiting the movement, whilst my ears were possessed with voodoo screeches and relentless twitchy beats — it was in this moment I was magnetised; I zoomed in and wanted more. As a performer Khan was consistently rigid, restive and demonstrated little Kathak fluidity and I couldn’t understand the intention behind his own choreographic choices as it served only to highlight the lack of depth in the characters and narrative.

A lion among ladies is a most dreadful thing” William Shakespeare

Maybe Khan should follow in the footsteps of Lloyd Newson who recently announced he was taking a break. We know there is richness to be mined in Khan’s older work as exemplified by Chotto Desh (a work based on Desh but made for young people and expertly directed by Sue Buckmaster) which had no creative input from Khan and is currently touring under the banner of his company. The process of ekphrasis is already being practiced by Karthika Nair; why doesn’t Khan offer existing work to other choreographers and let them re-author it? An artist cannot constantly produce success after success and should not be beholden to a dance industry which demands new and more; otherwise fields become fallow, trees cannot grow and kittens will not become lions.

The Leibovitz portraits of Misty Copeland, Aung San Suu Kyi and others provided examples of female intimacy, power and drama that were authored by a woman whilst Charrière offered adventurous interpretations of how to merge past and present. Until the Lions explored similar territories and with the dance industry undergoing some very public reflection on the division of opportunities, commissions and performances between men and women it’s important to see how other artists are examining a similar terrain.

DV8 Physical Theatre: Can We Talk About This?

Posted: June 4th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on DV8 Physical Theatre: Can We Talk About This?

DV8 Physical Theatre, Can We Talk About This?, Brighton Festival, Corn Exchange, May 24

Joy Constantinides in Can We Talk About This? (photo: Gergoe Nagy)

Joy Constantinides in Can We Talk About This? (photo: Gergoe Nagy)

In the Corn Exchange in Brighton it is oppressively hot. The stage could be a classroom or lobby with parquet flooring and a partition wall (that swings back later to open up the entire stage area) of twelve mirror squares and a door. A section of the front four rows of the audience is reflected in the mirrors as we wait for the show to start, fanning ourselves with DV8’s large 25th anniversary program.

The door opens in the dark, and when the lights come up we see a character doing a handstand against the wall asking us: “Do you feel morally superior to the Taliban?” This is the opening salvo of what creator and director Lloyd Newson calls ‘a verbatim theatre work investigating the interrelated issues of freedom of speech, multiculturalism and Islam as manifest in Western democracies.’ Verbatim theatre means that the text of the performance is based on archival material and interviews with prominent people who have had first-hand experience of these themes in this country and in Europe.

The experience of these prominent people spans the period of multicultural policy from the forced resignation of Bradford school principal Ray Honeyford in 1985 to the present. We are told the question in the title may have come from Theo Van Gogh, the Dutch filmmaker, when confronted by his Muslim assassin. The doctor who carried out Van Gogh’s autopsy thinks it improbable he would have had the time or the breath to say anything, so perhaps it is a myth, one that Newson maintains nevertheless in deference to Van Gogh.

For those who saw the last DV8 production, To Be Straight With You, the format of Can We Talk About This? is familiar: quoted speech delivered by the cast in a choreographed, gestural format, with archival film material and a classroom board on the back wall on which relevant names, dates and figures are scrawled: a format that is as much documentary as physical theatre.

Although all the quotes are verbatim, they are nevertheless filtered through Newson’s use of body language and gesture, a form of choreographic editing. He can imply sarcasm and disbelief on the one hand or endorsement on the other; there is no middle ground. When a character makes a statement while hopping around the stage from one foot to the other, it is clear what Newson intends. When the figure of Philip Balmforth, the Bradford ‘Vulnerable Persons Officer’ for Asian Women who was suspended from his job by the local council, tells his story, he does so suspended from a bar. The solemn announcement by six performers of the names of those killed by Islamic fundamentalists for their crimes against Islam is staged as a denouncement, and the figure of Fleming Rose, the Danish publisher of the Mohammed cartoons, is portrayed slithering up and down a wall and balancing on his head with the same chilling nonchalance as his conclusion: “We don’t publish the cartoons any more.”

In these examples and throughout the performance, the level of artistry and commitment of the dancers is superb.

With 25 years of making visually striking, often controversial physical theatre, in which the message is bound up in the imagery, there is a sense in Newson’s two most recent works that he wants to undress his message and put it centre stage; that in Can We Talk About This? we are in effect in the (stiflingly hot) church of DV8, listening to Newson in the bully pulpit.

There are two problems here: firstly, there is a self-righteousness that permeates the sermon; whether or not it is intended, it is easy to come away from the densely argued performance with the impression that Islam is a force for evil that is encroaching on our freedoms. Given England’s legacy of colonial interference in the Middle East, there is an irony here that Newson simply waves away as an irrelevant distraction. It serves him well to start his story in 1985, but the history of multiculturalism in England has its roots from well before then and they have to be taken into account. The second problem is that by associating all Muslims with the fanatics, Newson is in danger of polarising his argument into an equally fanatical stance.

An essay entitled Violence & Civil Society by Nobel Laureate Professor Amartya Sen, a fellow and former master of Trinity College, Cambridge, addresses the basic issue of how to defuse tensions in a potentially violent, multicultural society: “The first challenge is to overcome confused and flammable readings of the world. While we human beings all have many affiliations – related to nationality, language, religion, profession, neighbourhood, social commitments and other connections – the cultivation of group violence proceeds through separating out one affiliation as someone’s only significant identity.
It is not just terrorists and other cultivators of group-based violence who champion this outlook. In the West those who see religious divisions as uniquely significant, who read conflict as an inevitable ‘clash of civilizations’, lend it support.”

Can we talk about this? Yes, of course we can, but let’s bear in mind another of Professor Sen’s counsels to “resist the tempting shortcuts that claim to deliver insight through … single-minded concentration on one factor or another, ignoring other important features of an integrated character.” Newson is undoubtedly brave to take on such an emotionally complex subject as multiculturalism but it is not well served by his well-known confrontational manner; his stance will inflame, which is perhaps what he wants to do. Rather than thinking Can We Talk About This? has gone too far, however, it may be more accurate to suggest it has not gone far enough. At the end of his essay, Professor Sen quotes a remark by Proust: “Do not be afraid to go too far, for the truth lies beyond.”