Rambert, Sadler's Wells, London

Regain the use of your body and it's a moving story
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Encephalitis lethargica: it sounds like that condition you feel coming on after Sunday lunch.

But in the 1920s it was a genuine mystery illness that killed a million people worldwide, and left thousands more in a bizarre, petrified state, unable to speak or move. And so its victims remained until, in 1967, the neurologist Oliver Sacks discovered that a new drug, L-Dopa, could "awaken" them to think and feel and move freely. Tragically, its effects were short-lived. Some retreated back into immobility; others were seized by mania and savage tics.

Dr Sacks's account of the patients in his care, already the basis of two films and a play, has now inspired a dancework for Rambert, Awakenings. It's choreographed by Aletta Collins, and the music is by the composer Tobias Picker, a Tourette's sufferer who has been a patient of Sacks in New York. The result is challenging and absorbing, potent, poignant and even, at moments, funny.

Collins obviously wasn't going to venture into hospital-bed territory. Instead, she has imagined the inner lives of the sufferers. We see them as individuals in everyday clothes, at first trapped in catatonic poses, or released into wild convulsions. One besuited man seems to be incapable of walking down a street. He can only run in rigid lines, taking corners at a right angle.

But as the work progresses, Collins finds ways to articulate the strangeness of the patients' newly liberated world. A solo for Angela Towler finds joy and wonder in the simple freedom of limbs. A duet shows a couple clumsily renegotiating their relationship, one partner clasping an empty space after the other has moved away. When the walls of their living death threaten to close in once more, their anguished spasms are terrible to see.

Picker's score, performed live by Rambert's 15-strong orchestra, follows a similar arc, counterposing jagged, stuttering chords with a discursive, melodic freedom which is very persuasive.

If it was bold of the company to commission a work on such a difficult subject, it was understandable that they'd want to follow it with a piece of fun-filled froth. Henrietta Horn's Cardoon Club certainly fulfils the froth requirement. Its material is as flimsy as anything Rambert has ever danced, with its endless parade of nightclub vamps. Fun, though, is the last thing I'd call this camp, indulgent nonsense. Sequences that might have been witty at eight bars long are tedious stretched to 64, like a bar-room joke that reveals its punchline early. Benjamin Pope's medley of Seventies hits (played live from the pit with sleazy flair) goes some way towards making it bearable.

The triple bill is completed, sweetly, by Christopher Bruce's Hush, which, for all its whimsy, leaves you agape at its craftsmanship. The dancers are impeccable throughout.

This repertory is on tour until April

Comments