EXTROVERT, extravagant, generous to a fault, unique in taste, vital, volatile, a shooting star of peculiar brilliance in all forms of dance theatre, Tom Jobe also was the warmest of human beings and the image of a generation.
He lived to the limit. Meeting him as a student at London Contemporary Dance School, as principal dancer with London Contemporary Dance Theatre, as a star in Starlight Express and Chess, and socially as part of his immense circle of friends, I observed the energy, the high-voltage gift of all he gave in performances as brilliant off stage as on stage. I would think, 'It can't last.' It didn't. 'Something must intervene.' It did.
Tom Jobe was born in Las Vegas and raised in Missouri, beginning dance training quite late at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. In doing so he told me he had to overcome the prejudices of his Methodist upbringing not only against dancing but particularly against his openness as a gay person. From then on challenging prejudice and upholding dance causes became his way of life.
Aged 21, he came to England in 1974 to continue dance training at London Contemporary Dance School. Immediately he made an impact, dancing as a student in a Fergus Early/Michael Finnissy company, Dance Organisation; in William Louther's Dance and Theatre Corporation, and as a founder member of Extemporary Dance Company at the Edinburgh Festival in 1975. Not bad for a first year in a new country. Dancing, performing, pushing back the frontiers of movement were his contribution to dance in Britain.
From Edinburgh he joined London Contemporary Dance Theatre under Robert Cohan, and became one of its most notable artists. 'As a dancer,' Cohan said, 'he was extraordinarily talented. Possessing an unusual body, tall, long- limbed and elegant he moved with an animal grace, like a gazelle. You could count on him to perform to the limits. Always on time in rehearsal, very professional and an example to other dancers, he learned instantly. Therefore he became someone for whom I created special roles. He was a choreographer's ideal and a distinguished dancer in a distinguished company.'
The roles Cohan and others created for him were bizarre, nonconformist, extra-ordinary. Jobe would ask to be an ordinary person, but he wasn't. Choreographers exploited his technical virtuosity, his flamboyance, his ability to make the outrageous seem natural, his skill in make-up and the communication his personality established with an audience just by walking on stage. I remember him especially as Death in Cohan's full-length Dances of Love and Death and in Richard Alston's Rainbow Bandit. There were many, many other roles embellishing a particularly fine creative period in the life of London Contemporary Dance Theatre.
Contemporary dance though is a world of ensembles rather than stars. Tom Jobe was a star and could not stay only with ensembles. He began to look around, attending the International Dance Course for Professional Choreographers and Composers at Surrey University in 1978 and 1979. In 1980 he co- founded a production company in New York for which he choreographed and directed an off-Broadway showcase science-fiction musical in which he also performed. This signalled the direction of his life. He needed to reach out, experiment, experience new things as much in personal relationships as in the theatre. In England he choreographed, danced and produced for Phoenix Dance Company, Extemporary Dance Company, Union Dance Company, and the Dundee Repertory Company, as well as for London Contemporary Dance Theatre. Among films and videos he made a video for Tina Turner in 1986, then a television series in Germany in which he acted and sang as well as danced.
Finally he made the great leap into commercial theatre. As Electra, the electric train in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Starlight Express, and as the Arbiter in Tim Rice's musical Chess he became not only a star but built for himself a huge new audience of mostly young people. They saw him as one of themselves in lifestyle, dress style, musical style and rejection of conformity. Of course his image was bigger than theirs but it was open and challenging, lived at break- neck speed and with many similar values. Unusually among theatre people, he had two publics, quite different.
Actually he had three publics because he was a campaigner for gay rights, a marcher for Gay Pride, a choreographer and producer of shows for the Aids campaign, a compere and judge of brilliance for charity occasions. As a person he was hugely popular with fellow dancers yet in himself solitary, often moody, sometimes difficult, always controversial.
Too sick to go to New Zealand to co-produce Chess, which he wanted desperately to do, he acknowledged at last his illness. He withdrew from his theatre world, started to go to art classes. Unable to move, he planned to write, but movement remained his life. 'It is not often artists can link in themselves two different audiences,' said Val Bourne, artistic director of the Dance Umbrella Festival. 'He had a natural rapport with the serious and the popular.' Maybe we have lost in him the link dance needs between the serious and the popular.
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