Rambert Dance Company: The Making of Awakenings

Rambert founder Marie Rambert was heavily influenced by the time she spent with the Ballets Russes and, in particular, by Diaghilev’s spirit of collaboration between choreographers, composers and artists. Back in the UK she had the idea to form a troupe that would become one of Britain’s leading contemporary dance companies. With the Royal Ballet firmly established as the UK’s main ballet company, Ballet Rambert spent its first decades experimenting and gearing towards innovation to differentiate itself. In the sixties, during the tenure of resident choreographer Norman Morrice (who had studied under Martha Graham), the company began to focus on modern ballets, eventually fully embracing contemporary dance and officially becoming the Rambert Dance Company in 1987. 

True to its roots, Rambert Dance Company continues to foster collaborations, routinely commissioning composers and artists alongside new choreography. This is evident in their new work Awakenings whose world premiere takes place tomorrow at The Lowry. Based on true life stories of catatonic medical patients treated with the drug L-Dopa and inspired by Dr. Oliver Sacks’s book of the same name (made famous by a Hollywood movie with Robert DeNiro), Awakenings presented Rambert with a very interesting challenge. How do you create a dynamic dance work when ‘sleeping sickness’ lies at the heart of the story? We were delighted when members of the company agreed to talk to us about this creative process;  about how such a complex and human story develops from concept to the stage:

Awakenings choreographer Aletta Collins. Photo: Nathan Browning / Rambert Dance Company ©

Where did the idea for a work based on Dr. Oliver Sacks’s book come from?

Mark Baldwin, Rambert Artistic Director: The sponsor for this work, Danny Katz, introduced me to Awakenings composer Tobias Picker, both Danny and Tobias have Tourette’s syndrome and are close friends of Dr. Oliver Sacks. When they told me about Oliver’s book Awakenings and I heard he was keen to make this into a dance work I thought to myself, there really is something special here. I researched the idea, listening to Tobias’ music, watching the film and combing the book for ideas which could lead to an exciting dance work. This piece also follows a line of commissions which have their origins in science: Constant Speed commissioned by the Institute of Physics; The Comedy of Change to commemorate 150 years of Darwin’s publication on The Origin of Species; and now this work, essentially about cognition, which deals in what one could describe as wild emotional states, entrapment and release. Tobias Picker, our composer, played piano for Martha Graham so he had a sense of the appropriateness of music for dance and how the body can be used to describe some of the various states the book touches on.

How do you develop a dance work that has been adapted for the stage and film before?

Mark Baldwin: It is based on a true story, from 1968, but I did not expect that the choreographer would necessarily go down the route of nurses and doctors in white coats enacting episodes, but rather the physicalisation and movement that Dr. Sacks so vividly and abstractly describes in the book such as when a patient is asked where the pain is coming from, she says “from somewhere in the room”.

I immediately thought of Aletta Collins to choreograph the work, and after making the necessary introductions the creative team seemed to get along well, especially after a few glasses of wine at Aletta’s lovely home. Hurrah! This project has a light – a light which has glowed brighter with every rehearsal as the team and the dancers find interconnecting stories and associations.

Rambert dancers Jonathan Goddard and Malgorzata Dzierzon at the concept shoot for Awakenings. Photo: Eric Richmond / Rambert Dance Company ©

Jonathan Goddard, Rambert Dancer: As well as being given individual case studies to work with, also around the beginning of rehearsals we were lucky enough to watch the original documentary made for Yorkshire television in the 70′s, which has footage of the actual patients talked about in the book.

It was incredibly affecting; for me it was always a concern that this was a dance about real people, but seeing them really affected how I dealt with the subject matter. I felt that there was no clean message to be taken from the film; you could clearly see the strength of these people but also the horror of their condition. The L-Dopa treatment in some cases led to relief and in others temporary freedom from symptoms but it also promised a false hope, in almost all cases the side effects became intolerable and the drug had to be stopped.

What particular challenges does Awakenings present?

Jonathan Goddard: To try to show the sadness of the situation, but also the joy and understanding that the patients experienced from taking L-Dopa is a massive challenge. The movement language – which is specific to each dancer – tends to involve many freezes or moments of complete off-balance and stillness; these require huge amounts of strength and concentration. Every muscle seems to be engaged when trying to stop completely still, the patients in the Beth Abraham Hospital actually describe something quite similar, even whilst in the grip of sleeping sickness their muscles were in a state of constant tension, for them motion. This meant when given L-Dopa some were able to immediately jump up and walk about; the muscles hadn’t atrophied whist in sleeping state.

Rambert Dancer Jonathan Goddard. Photo: Eric Richmond / Rambert Dance Company ©

Stamina-wise, it will be interesting to see how the piece develops over some 70 performances. In trying to tackle something so difficult, I hope that people will respond to the sheer physicality and be intrigued by the logic of these strong characters, a logic that is nothing like our own. I am slightly wondering why I developed quite such an exhausting movement style, so maybe I should be asked this question after the last performance!

How much creative freedom did choreographer Aletta Collins have, was she given any guidelines?

Mark Baldwin: Aletta was given no guidelines to begin with, we just talked in terms of concept; and we watched class so that she could get an idea of the kind of artists that she wanted to work with. She has chosen a wonderful first cast, probably our most experienced artists, which a work like this needs. It is not an ensemble work, essentially, but relies on strong individual delivery, both technically and emotionally. Tobias familiarized himself with the size of our Chamber Orchestra, and the restrictions we might come up against in a touring season.

The piece was originally meant to be much longer, however, Aletta and Tobias felt that the present length of the work (about 25 minutes) is perfect. Considering the subject matter, the darkness of the material and the fact that these patients are caught and trapped, the end result is intriguing, captivating and full of dramatic movement.

Awakenings Rehearsal. Photo: Yaron Abulafia / Rambert Dance Company ©

Rambert is the only UK-based contemporary dance company to always tour with an orchestra. What challenges do you face when touring a new score?

Paul Hoskins, Music Director: This is the third consecutive season in which every Rambert performance includes at least one new score, played live. In every case, the composer has been a key figure, together with the choreographer, the designer and sometimes a scientist, in getting the piece from the seed of an idea to the stage. None of the composers would have been interested in writing a piece for tape, because like all good composers since time began, they are performers at heart. As with every touring company, there are challenges when touring with a live orchestra… for instance the architecture and acoustic of theatres where we are due to perform. Proscenium stages can be quite good for dance sight-lines, but are inflexible, and the orchestra usually has to be hidden (visually and aurally) in a pit. This makes it very difficult to have a big impact unless the acoustic is amazing, which is very rare, or the orchestra is huge. We do our best with quite sophisticated sound systems, but I hate conducting and having to relinquish some responsibility to our sound engineer. Maybe I am just a control freak at heart!

Rambert Dancer Malgorzata Dzierzon at the concept shoot for Awakenings. Photo: Eric Richmond / Rambert Dance Company ©

How closely did Aletta cooperate with designer Miriam Buether?

Mark Baldwin: Miriam Buether is an excellent designer, and the piece has evolved over the rehearsal period: the original idea of dark static figures inhabiting the stage space has been replaced with a sweeping clean look. Again, I gave no guidelines except that we could be in danger of having a whole repertoire in black and grey, so could they possibly think of colour, which they have duly done: muted colours, and striking silhouettes. 

How did the period impact on the costumes?

Caroline Hagley, Wardrobe Supervisor: It’s set in 1969 when the patients were given the drug (L-dopa) that brought them out of the catatonic sleep. So the costumes give us a real chance to reflect these different individuals. The original palette was shades of yellow but moved into nude/beige/flesh tones as we thought this was more real, and softer.

Rambert dancer Angela Towler and photographer Eric Richmond. Photo: Eric Richmond / Rambert Dance Company ©

What can you tell us about the costume design process?

Caroline Hagley: The initial concept was to move away from the traditional idea of patients in dressing gowns or white gowns. We wanted to make it more real, so the audience could see the people for what they were. Miriam and I went and sourced original vintage pieces from North/East/Central London to reference and possibly use. Miriam also researched the period heavily, and found several photographic images that were then used to define, cut and shape the final costumes.

The Awakenings costumes being tested on stage. Photo: Rambert Dance Company ©

Caroline Hagley: For example dancer Robin Gladwin’s suit is copied from reference and the shirt that dancer Pieter Symonds wears in the piece is styled on one of the vintage pieces that we found, but made from new fabric. Most of the men are wearing trousers based on one original vintage pair, as well as vintage shirts. For Malgorzata’s dress we had a vintage print digitally copied, new fabric printed, and dress remade. This also meant we could use a stretch fabric and alter the cut to allow for the movement as the original dress was too restrictive to dance in. Angela’s top was vintage and altered to fit; and for her skirt we used the original sixties pattern used from the collection we compiled.

Rambert Dancer Angela Towler at the concept shoot for Awakenings. Photo: Eric Richmond / Rambert Dance Company ©

Can you describe the creative process? Given the source material is well known and people might have preconceived ideas regarding the piece, how did you approach it?

Jonathan Goddard: It has been quite unusual for us to work on something that already exists. We came to the project with some knowledge of the Awakenings story and knowing it had been a successful book, play and film, as dancers I think we were all quite curious to see how Aletta would work to translate this into a dance.

The piece has been made in three separate periods, research, creation and re- creation. To start with, Aletta spent a day with all the dancers at Rambert, from this she then selected dancers she felt might respond well to the subject matter and her creative way of working. Eight of us were chosen, during this first period we worked individually, Aletta gave us each a case study from the Oliver Sacks book and we began to work one on one using the information we had been given to develop ideas.

Awakenings Rehearsal. Photo: Yaron Abulafia / Rambert Dance Company ©

Jonathan Goddard: We were quite experimental, trying out things, focusing on descriptions contained within the case studies of how it felt to be trapped and constrained in physical loops and the converse of this, being given L-Dopa and finding complete freedom. I remember running around the room showing Aletta what it was like to smell flowers in the Bambi forest, which was definitely not subtle! But in working in this was we could identify small germs of movement to be developed (the Bambi forest is actually still in the piece, only a tiny moment but still there).

The second period of working saw us come together as a group of dancers, this was a very intense time, in about two and a half weeks put together a very rough version of the piece. We worked flat out to create something that used the strong characterizations we had found in the early sessions and that also resembled the journey taken by the patients in the Beth Abraham Hospital.

Awakenings Rehearsal. Photo: Rambert Dance Company ©

Jonathan Goddard: After this we all had a few months break to reflect, (as dancers we just start working on other pieces so not a true break, but a good rest from some quite heavy subject matter), reconvening to enter the final period of remaking the work. It was a hard but exciting period; we now had the luxury of a full orchestra recording of the score (previously only on electronic version) and information about the final look of the set and costumes. The structure of the work was kept from the previous creation but the content was given a complete overhaul. We arrived at a point where we were trusted by Aletta to work with her and on our own to continue to develop and refine the specific phrases of movements we had found together.

These started to become less characterization and more an individual movement language for each person to communicate with. It has been an unusual process but very gratifying for all involved. To have time to become intensely involved, but also to have time to reflect, is very rare and has hopefully produced something with the depth this true story deserves.


Watch the trailer for Awakenings:

Rambert Dance Company will premiere Awakenings at The Lowry Salford tomorrow, 22 September, to commemorate the venue’s tenth anniversary year.

Awakenings 2010 UK tour dates:

  • The Lowry Salford 22-24 September
  • Venue Cymru, Llandudno 1 & 2 October
  • Wycombe Swan, High Wycombe 6-8 October
  • Theatre Royal, Norwich 13-15 October
  • Theatre Royal, Bath 21-23 October
  • Regent Theatre, Stoke 3-5 November
  • Sadler’s Wells, London 9-13 November
  • Theatre Royal, Plymouth 1-4 December

For more information visit the Rambert website or follow the company on Twitter

We started The Ballet Bag in April 2009 with the mission to prove that ballet is not stuffy, old fashioned and inaccessible; that it is quite the opposite: relevant, fresh and topical. With the aim to Give Ballet a New Spin we try to show it under a different light. When writing our capsule biographies, ballet fact cards, review roundups and commentary on social media, we cross it over with other art forms and cultural references (pop culture, cinema, rock music – ie. other things we love!).