Inspired by Oliver Sacks's Awakenings
In 1918, a mysterious sleeping sickness (a terrifying form of ‘encephalitis lethargica ’) affected five million people worldwide, killing quickly one third of them but thousands lived on, many of them frozen into a kind of human statue. Fifty years later, a young British neurologist in New York called Oliver Sacks encountered a few dozen of these survivors and discovered that doses of an experimental drug (‘L-dopa’) enabled many of them to ‘awaken’ after decades of silent immobility. The patients were catapulted dramatically, if only temporarily, from their long slumber into their own emotionally charged ‘awakenings’ – their story subsequently told in the 1990 film Awakenings starring Robert De Niro and Robin Williams.
The dance piece Awakenings is based on the work of Dr. Oliver Sacks and thematically linked to the 1990 film of the same name. Set to a new score by Tobias Picker (himself a former patient of the doctor), the piece picks up on two key themes of Sacks’ work: his therapeutic use of music, to which some patients were highly responsive, and his pioneering use of the drug L-dopa (commonly used by those with Parkinson’s disease to restore movement) resulting in the patients coming out of their motionless state into an awakened one for a limited time.
How can one create a dynamic dance work when sleeping sickness lies at the heart of the story? Oliver Sacks observed that the book is partly about the delight of free and unfettered movement, contrasted with frozenness, the interrupted or distorted tempos that these patients faced. They often moved, in body and mind, too fast or too slow, losing the musicality of normal movement, speech, or even thought. But music and dance were often ways to restore to them a normal, fluid “kinetic melody”, as he called it.