Nigel Charnock (1960–2012)

September 30, 2012


Whether in breakthrough roles with the seminal DV8 Physical Theatre, or later in a string of increasingly improvisatory solos that exploited his nervy comic energy and unexpected musical talent, Nigel Charnock was an unforgettably incandescent stage presence. Slight, fair-skinned, and wiry, his performances thrived on risky self-exposure and archly abrasive excess. 

Charnock’s fiercely honest, exhibitionist impulses spilled out into the audience with a go-for-broke urgency. He could be scabrously funny, but with a defiantly physical edge. Beneath the bright, barbed tomfoolery and manic wit was a vein of pain. This bittersweet court jester was as keen to uncover human frailty and loneliness as he was ready to target our follies, hypocrisies and pretensions.
Born near Manchester, Charnock studied at the Welsh college of Music and Drama before heading to the London School of Contemporary Dance. Stints with Ludus Dance Company and Extemporary Dance Theatre ensued, but it was a partnership with fellow dancer Lloyd Newson that put the pair on the map. Drawing upon punk attitude and Pina Bausch, queer sensibility and sexual politics, they formed DV8 (a pun on “deviate”). The results were galvanizing, yielding such productions as the bruising My Sex, Our Dance (1986), the stunning Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men (1990) and Strange Fish (1992), in which Charnock excelled as a tragicomic motormouth offset by the equally idiosyncratic Wendy Houstoun.  
In 1993 Charnock left DV8, but even before that he began cultivating an international reputation as a soloist via the shows Resurrection, Original Sin and Hell Bent. Human Being and Frank followed on after that and, more recently, the autobiographical One Dixon Road. I recall seeing one of the earliest pieces and thinking, “This is more important for him than me,” but the experience has never left me.


Lloyd Newson and Nigel Charnock in
My Sex, Our Dance by DV8 Physical Theatre, 1980s. Photo by Chris Nash, Dance Magazine Archives.

Charnock’s work was never going to be mainstream, but he performed it with blistering commitment. Take Frank (2002), a camp, caustic blend of improvised monologue, song, and motion. Reviewing it for The Times of London, I marked Charnock out as a liberating entertainer at home with “balletic steps or bump and grind. He shook, slithered, and goose stepped, a whirlwind…hell-bent on a self-indulgent, taboo-baiting shake up of complacency and convention….He functions as our mirror, breaking down the barrier between performer and spectator by encouraging us to confront big issues (birth, sex, love, death, and the meaning of life and art/entertainment). Charnock is a user-friendly provocateur, careful not to put us on the spot. Rather he places himself on display.”

Prolific and versatile, Charnock worked in theatre, dance, film, and radio, frequently outside the UK. His time as artistic director of Helsinki Dance Company (2002–2005) was a highlight among numerous international workshops, festival commissions, and collaborations. Among the latter was Fever (1998), a suitably febrile, music-based exchange with German composer and jazz musician Michael Riessler. Charnock also teamed up with Houstoun for a cabaret act, and led the improvisational quartet Stupid Men. More recently he made new work for the maverick Canadian dancer Louise Lecavalier and, in Britain, Candoco Dance Company, Ludus, and National Dance Company of Wales.

Last summer he was movement director of In Water, I’m Weightless, a production by National Theatre Wales for Britain’s Cultural Olympiad. Diagnosed with stomach cancer in mid-June, he had just made the duet Haunted by the Future for Talia Paz and Stupid Men co-star Mike Winter in Israel. (Ora Brofman of the Jerusalem Post described it as “wild, noisy, hilarious, and rude.”) Charnock was just getting to grips with a new dance-theatre piece for his own company to be called Ten Men when he died on August 1.

Dance Umbrella, which had a long and fruitful relationship with Charnock, will present the UK premiere of Haunted by the Future on October 13 in London. —Donald Hutera


At bottom and top: Charnock in
One Dixon Road. Photos by Hugo Glendinning.