Darrel Toulon Portrait

Healing wartime trauma through stories and dance

Article by Rachel Preibisch

A Caribbean-born artist and master choreographer, Darrel Toulon has described dance as his first language. Since 1987 he has worked as a dancer, actor, and choreographer around Europe, and spent many years as ballet director of the second largest opera house in Austria, in the city of Graz from 2001-2015. However, when recently asked what he does Darrel responded, “I put people in spaces, so other people can look at them.” This is a simple description of Darrel’s work, yet it hints at its complexities and artistry. He has a track record in his industry of the Sleeping Beauties, the Nutcrackers, the Romeo and Juliets, turning to masterpieces of music and literature for inspiration to produce huge operatic as well as chamber productions.

However, in January of 2014, while invited to create a piece for a Kosovo National Ballet, he stumbled upon something that would change the trajectory of his work. This was the realization that he was working with people who had been between the ages of two and six during the 1998-1999 Kosovo war. Since then, Darrel has devoted his work to young people whose lives have been created or changed by war, stories that need to be told to the world. He uses people’s biographies to create performance art that gives them and their communities a chance to contemplate and work through topics they didn’t know how to begin to approach.

Darrel’s work with these individuals and their stories has gone from young people who experienced and whose lives have been influenced by the Yugoslavian wars, (U IME OCA/IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER about and with Bosnian Children Born of War, 2019), to his recent project of a group of Ugandan youths who were born in captivity (OTINO ONYWALO ILUM, 2020).

These individuals’ mothers were teenagers when they were abducted and forced into motherhood by the LRA soldiers. After escape or release, the young mothers were rejected by society, and their children were raised without their soldier fathers, many of whom were killed in combat. These children, “born in the bush,” are almost the final taboo left over from the LRA War: children born of wartime rape. The majority of their mothers haven’t been given adequate psychosocial or economic support. They exist in a state of societal rejection and discrimination, and the marginalized and stigmatized youths have no chance in life.

Through therapeutic artistry, Darrel Toulon’s project has provided these young people with a method to work through their trauma. To allow these individuals to make any progress, the process must first of all include that the individuals accept their biographies and embrace their complex identities. In this manner the stories of their past are transformed into not only something that can be accessible to other people, but also into a thing of beauty, because the stories are so dark.

Part of this process has included the involvement of a psychologist as a partner in the workshop sessions. Her role is to help create a mental safe space developed in tandem with the body-focused artistic sessions of dance and physical theater. When triggers arose during this equally physically and emotionally demanding work, she knew how to deal with them; and she knew how to encourage the youths to take a chance and to trust in the containment of the program’s facilitators.

In periods of reflection, furthering his understanding, and broadening his knowledge, Darrel has realized that there is no hard line between the psychological work and the artistic work. He describes the educational journey he’s embarked on to try to understand. When given the book “The Body Keeps the Score,” he was profoundly impressed by its relevance to his work. He mentions several times while reading when he wanted to pick up the phone, but where would he place such a call? “So much of what was written in that book had such immediate resonance and was easily recognizable with my observations and experience working with the children born in captivity that I could identify with the author,” Darrel says.

Darrel explains that a pivotal moment was reading that there are “thousands of art, music and dance therapists who do beautiful work with abused children…however we know very little about how they work….” To this Darrel said, “I was wanting so badly to show and tell…I would love to share with him [Bessel van der Kolk] how we got to the point where participants described their discovery of ‘feeling alive, and nothing else matters.’ And how they now talk of their visions for the future, how they see their transformed selves…in other words, trauma makes you feel like some body else, or like no body. In order to overcome trauma you need help to get back in touch with your body, with your self.

“I am still trying to understand how we managed to de-activate certain triggers, and how we managed to transform the safe space into a brave space where the participants were able to overcome fear and find inner strength to re-visit their past experiences in a manner that was not harmful. I am trying to grasp how this process can be reproduced and made useful for others. In particular, how we were able to work within the protective safety zone that each person wears like a protective shield around their vulnerable bodies.”

Darrel also teaches classical ballet at a university. He notes that a lot of things he would have taken for granted with professional dancers have now been influenced by everything he has gotten out of working with the youth. Working with them is a never-ending learning story. This led him to sign up for Bessel van der Kolk’s course. “You cannot imagine how important it was to discover and join the course with Dr. van der Kolk and to be able to spend these valuable hours with him, learning from him, and not just reading the book.”

As Darrel explains regarding the course: “…I’m very happy to share what I have learned with everybody. I feel incredibly lucky to have stumbled on this group. Maybe lucky is not the word. Maybe things happen because they happen, and you just go with the flow. So I’m going with the flow.”

Website: www.the-alpha-group.org

Email: darrel.toulon@bruckneruni.at

For more information:

Trailer from U IME OCA / IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER which was created about and with Bosnian Children Born of War in 2019.
The UGANDA project, which won an award at the Research in Film Awards 2021
(Arts and Humanities Research Council UK) in the category “Inspiration” (Go directly to 00:50:42).
Trailer for The Wound is Where the Light Enters.