Nigel Charnock: Choreographer and dancer celebrated for his raw energy and punk attitude

One appearance on television provoked the 'Mirror' headline 'GAY SEX ORGY ON TV'

Click to follow
The Independent Online

For most of his life Nigel Charnock, who died seven weeks after being diagnosed with cancer at the age of 52, was the contemporary dance and theatre world's most uncompromising star. Ferociously funny, physical and vulnerable, he inspired, and at times frightened, his audiences. He constantly confounded critics, being seen, in the words of one, as "too wordy for dance – too dancey for drama", and critical responses at times struggled with the possibility of jokes and serious content sitting side by side.

It was while training as an actor at the Welsh College of Music and Drama that Charnock was inspired and mentored by his dance teacher, Tim Hext, who had trained in New York with Martha Graham. From college Charnock won a year's scholarship at The Place, before working with Ludus Dance Company and Extemporary Dance Theatre. Performances with them had all the hallmarks of his later work: raw energy channelled through his slight frame, punk attitude mixed with pantomime timing and a mesmerising commitment. He was all high kicks and unexpected fragility.

This early performance work really found its power and place in Charnock's now-legendary partnership with Lloyd Newson, with whom he co-founded DV8 Physical Theatre. Their duet My Sex, Our Dance was the first of a number of seminal works with the company, which also included Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men and Strange Fish. Both these later works were made into acclaimed television films, with the premiere of Dead Dreams... on The South Bank Show making the front page of the Sunday Mirror, with the headline "GAY SEX ORGY ON TV". David Blunkett denounced it as "vulgar and tasteless for Sunday night viewing".

Typically, it was at the height of DV8's success that Charnock decided to concentrate on a career on his own. His subsequent solo works became his performance emblem, with Hell Bent, Original Sin, Heroine, Resurrection, Human Being and Frank touring worldwide for a number of years. He also gave a noted acting performance in Stephen Whittaker's TV drama Closing Numbers, playing alongside Jane Asher as her husband's lover dying of Aids. He formed his own company to produce works for larger casts, his touring productions including Asylum and Watch My Lips.

He began to work increasingly outside the UK, producing works with theatres, festivals and companies in mainland Europe, Canada and Israel, and he was Artistic Director of the Helsinki Dance Company from 2002 to 2005. He collaborated with the German musician and composer Michael Riessler, performing Fever, a work with Riessler on saxophone plus string quartet, with Charnock improvising a performance which included several of Shakespeare's sonnets.

Prolific by nature, Nigel Charnock was always in study mode: religion, literature, music in all its forms, languages , politics, rubbish TV, action movies and chick-flicks. These fields of study increasingly surfaced in what was to become the most important area of his later work, improvisation. He started to move into a place that would allow him to be spontaneous with all elements of performance: singing, playing saxophone and harmonica, dancing, performing excoriating monologues, moving on into pure, unadulterated and disturbing movement.

The liberation this brought him was palpable. Nevertheless, audiences and critics alike found it hard to believe that what they were seeing was indeed completely improvised, such was the skill and pure connection that Charnock had with his work, and the unstoppable stream of words, dance and music.

I saw his last solo piece, 1 Dixon Road, at The Place not so long ago. His presence and the piece itself were crystal clear: light, funny and beautiful. He had recently found a way to fill his life with all the things he loved: more work in Wales (both with National Theatre of Wales and also reviving an early piece, L.O.V.E, with Volcano) and improvisation work with the jazz musician Gwilm Simcock.

When he was found to have cancer in June, Charnock had just launched the first stage of Ten Men, a large and ambitious project with 10 powerful and intelligent gay men who found themselves, like Charnock, to be on the outside of homogenous gay culture. Displaying the exuberant pleasure of being alive, Ten Men found him entering a new phase of his life and work. As he said, "My work is a celebration of life and of love, and it is all made with love". Ten Men had all of Charnock's energy, his love of theatre, life and humanity, expanded and amplified, and was ready to spin around the world.

Nigel Charnock is survived by his two elder brothers, Peter and Andrew, and died at St Christopher's Hospice in London, cared for by the staff there and his closest friends, Deborah, Nick and Graham, and his partner of the last three years, Luke.

Nigel Charnock, dancer, director and choreographer: born 23 May 1960; died London 1 August 2012.