A Child is horribly distressed by the wild characters in her book of fairytales. Her dysfunctional family is no help: Dad seeks solace in the bottle; mom is a distant, frigid cipher. After medical evaluation, she seeks refuge from the misunderstanding adults and completely withdraws into her fantasy world, where she becomes directly involved when her favorite storybook princess is raped and left for dead by the evil Carabosse. This is not your mother’s “Sleeping Beauty.”
The alternately light and dark, psychosexual reinterpretation of the classic ballet is the vision of Darrel Toulon, one of the most exciting presences in contempo European dance theater. Hired to shake up the complacent dance scene in Styria in southern Austria, his newly christened Tanz, Graz has done just that: a “Cinderella” in which the charming prince never dances with the girl of the ashes; an underwater “Firebird” in which a sorcerer generates clones in a humongous tank; “The Rite of Spring” in a post-nuclear wasteland; and “Romeo and Juliet” re-envisioned as the story of four deaths.
Toulon jettisoned a successful career as a dancer to become an actor. Only after significant stage experience did he find his calling: the reinvention of the story ballet, utilizing his own highly theatrical, deeply psychological vocabulary of movement.
The basis is classical ballet, but Toulon takes it to the next level, incorporating modern dance, martial arts and hip-hop. One can have a gratifying evening seeing Toulon’s “Beauty,” but there’s almost more than a brain can absorb in one sitting: Repeated viewings are rewarded with a plethora of details.
Toulon gives the occasional nod to the original 19th-century choreography of Marius Petipa, but also to Busby Berkeley in the manic “Garland Dance” in which the stage spins with concentric circles of mothers-to-be (of both sexes, the men donning drag to fill out the ensemble) in frothy white pinafores and bonnets, pushing wicker prams.
The basics of the traditional fairy tale serve as a story within the framework of the Child’s escape fantasies. A Queen bears a daughter, Princess Aurora, who is kept hidden from the evils of the outside world. As the young woman’s curiosity grows, she encounters four men (in a stroke-of-genius role reversal, the “Rose Adagio” has Aurora supporting three Princes as they balance in arabesque), one of whom is Carabosse, a trusted servant and not the usual evil fairy.
After Aurora’s rape, the Child protects her with a thicket of thorns, portrayed by the corps clad in black sheathes with yards-long sickle-curved spikes extending from their arms.
Prince Desire awakens Aurora and whisks her to the fairy tale kingdom for their wedding. Instead of the usual divertissements (Puss-in-Boots, Little Red Ridinghood), Toulon substitutes the German tale of the musicians from Bremen, and underscores the inherent violence of fairy tales with black humor. In the end, the Child realizes she must return to reality and embraces her parents with newfound understanding.
The thorn scene is simply breathtaking: gravity-defying, lyrical, yet foreboding. The dance of the King and Queen over Aurora’s lifeless body is a gut-wrenchingly eloquent expression of grief.
The company is tremendously gifted and dedicated, and magically makes 18 dancers look like 80. As the Child (onstage for virtually the entire ballet), Young na Hyun actually looks 9 years old but dances with uncommon power and conviction, tossing off a dozen lighting-fast fouettes, the last of which dispatches Carabosse.
Toulon’s “Romeo and Juliet,” which just completed a highly successful tour, should lead the way for his works to be seen in a wider geographic area. They are as substantial, entertaining, original and rewarding as anything in today’s dance world.