Monday, September 27, 2010


Much of the arts and health movement is concerned with the instrumental impact of the arts, with organisations like Arts for Health striving to engage marginalised communities in creative and cultural activity that might impact on well-being. There is ample evidence that illustrates engaging in the arts not only improves physical and mental health, but the very act of bringing people together provides something of the civic glue to healthy communities.

The implicit impact of the arts in relation to health and well-being however, is harder to define. Many interesting studies illustrate that the theatre and gallery-going public are more likely to be the educated middle-classes, and that people marginalised by issues such as mental ill-health are far less likely to participate in cultural opportunities because of broad ranging social and economic barriers.

For someone with limited experience of contemporary dance, an invitation to the Lowry to watch a new piece of dance being premiered could have made for a challenging evening.  The Lowry was full to capacity for this premiere of Rambert Dance Company’s interpretation of the work of Dr Oliver Sacks, Awakenings, already made famous by the Hollywood film of the same name,

As its stimulus, Awakenings, uses the true story of a group of patients affected by sleeping sickness following the 1918 flu pandemic. Through the prescription of the drug L-Dopa, the patients who had been in a catatonic state for decades become suddenly animated, but the drug’s effects are short lived and this brief period of lucidity is marred by seizures and delirium, with patients ultimately slipping back into a twilight world.

This performance visually and physically captures the passage of treatment, from the liberation of symptoms to the subsequent relapse of the patients. For the audience and dancers, the music replaces the drug L-Dopa and offers us the opportunity to connect viscerally to the isolated and disjointed worlds of the individuals affected by this strange sleeping sickness.

The unpredictability of the tics and twitches of this condition were made manifest by the dancers as they entered, walking backwards onto the stage, as if wary and watchful of their condition. Suddenly, we would see their bodies contract in spasm, accompanied by spikes of music. In contrast were the darker moments, when a percussive thrum reflected the depressive slump of the patients; the dancer’s bodies heavy with the burden of this illness.

There was a real sense of tension in the audience, watching people dressed as if for work on a summer’s day on Madison Avenue, literally frozen in their tracks, as they made their way to or from their destination. We had the impression that they were locked into a world entirely within them-selves and that all they could do was to observe the effects of the condition as it took over them.

On the empty stage, the elegantly dressed and beautifully lithe performers made visible something of the internal landscape of the patients they inhabited. But what relevance to this arts and health agenda is there?

Having worked with a wide range of communities who believe that the ‘high-arts’ have nothing to do with them, I’m aware that dance or ballet is often dismissed as inaccessible to people who haven’t experienced it. I am often looking for ways to describe disease, illness or concepts of well-being and frequently words are insufficient. What I crave are universal metaphors that reach out beyond the confines of language or cultural experience and beyond the common assumptions that status is a barrier to appreciating subtle or complex ideas. 

It would be easy to argue that Awakenings was very unambiguous and without a need for tricky interpretation or you may share my view, that this visceral manifestation of what it is to be human and to have free will, only for that free will be taken away, makes both fluid and solid the potential and frustration that our fleeting experience of life offers.