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Wake up and dance

BMJ 2011; 342 doi: (Published 05 January 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;342:c6709
  1. Michael Willoughby, freelance journalist, London
  1. mnwilloughby{at}

Oliver Sacks’s book Awakenings, about patients with encephalitis lethargica and the effects of the drug levodopa after decades of “sleep,” is retold in dance. But Michael Willoughby misses the emotions that Sacks’s original text conveyed

Oliver Sacks is professor of neurology and psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center and author of Awakenings, published in 1973. This non-fiction book tells of patients with encephalitis lethargica and their temporary return to the world from decades of catatonia with his discovery of the promising effects of the drug levodopa in 1969. Sacks’s flowery footnotes, appendices, and epilogues delight or infuriate readers in equal measure, and the story has inspired two films, a documentary, and a play—and is now being told in dance.

After seeing the Rambert Dance Company’s performance of the piece in London I recognised in the audience a friend of Sacks, the director and doctor Jonathan Miller. “Wonderful ballet but nothing at all to do with the disease,” he said, referring to the absence of the extreme parkinsonian symptoms shown by those (barely) living with the effects of the disease, also known as sleepy sickness, as portrayed in Sacks’s book. He then mimicked parkinsonian movement, …

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