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Art, music, and brain health intersect in new drama ‘UnRavelled’

REMARKABLE… erudite, emotional and often genuinely funny… easily one of the best and most thought-provoking plays of the past year.

— Terry Morgan, Arts Beat L.A.

The Global Brain Health Institute (GBHI) is delighted to present UnRavelled, a new drama by award-winning playwright Jake Broder, which explores the relationship between art, music and brain health.

Based on true events, UnRavelled explores the fascinating connection between the work of Canadian painter Anne Adams (1940–2007) and French composer Maurice Ravel (1875–1937), both of whom lived with the same rare brain disease.

The drama tells the story of Anne Adams, a renowned scientist, who, in her fifties and at the height of her career, suddenly lost her passion for science and began painting. Starting out with simple works such as houses and strawberries — Adams became inexplicably obsessed by Ravel's famous symphonic masterpiece, Boléro, and began to paint in a dramatically different style. The result was Adams’ most famous work, “Unravelling Boléro,” a virtuosic painting of brilliant design and color, in which she transcribed Ravel's music bar by bar.

In his attempt to understand and navigate her radically changing sense of self, Adams’ husband brought her to see Bruce Miller, GBHI Co-Director and Director of the UCSF Memory and Aging Center, and so the origins of the UnRavelled story emerged. 

“Ravel and Adams were in the early stages of primary progressive aphasia, a form of frontotemporal dementia, when they were working,” said Miller. “The disease apparently altered circuits in their brains, changing the connections between the front and back parts and resulting in a torrent of creativity.”

After hearing the story of Adams and Ravel on an episode of Radiolab, a popular podcast, Broder was hooked. As a Hellman Visiting Artist at UCSF, he had the opportunity to learn about neurodegenerative disorders, like Alzheimer’s disease and frontotemporal dementia, and to carry out research and interviews which inspired his creation of the play UnRavelled. 

“I was intrigued by the mystery of trying to understand the connection between Adams and Ravel’s disease and the art they made,” said Broder. “The idea there could be something beautiful inside something tragic."

Anne Adams reads a book about Ravel

Two special screenings of UnRavelled followed by live events, featuring GBHI faculty and Atlantic Fellows for Equity in Brain Health, were held on February 25 and March 3, 2021:

UnRavelled:

  • Written by Jake Broder

  • Directed by Nike Doukas

  • Starring Lucy Davenport, Conor Duffy, Melissa Greenspan, Leo Marks, Rob Nagle with narrations by Michael Lanahan

Q&A featuring:

Moderated by:

  • Adit Friedberg, Behavioral Neurologist, Atlantic Fellow for Equity in Brain Health (Feb 25)

  • Francesca Farina, Neuroscientist, Atlantic Fellow for Equity in Brain Health (Mar 3)

Followed by presentations on brain health by:

  • Magda Kaczmarska, Teaching Artist, Atlantic Fellow for Equity in Brain Health, with intergenerational professional dancers and guests (Feb 25)

  • Nicky Taylor, Theater and Dementia Specialist, Atlantic Fellow for Equity in Brain Health, with contributions from people living with dementia (Mar 3)

Camellia Latta, Alumni Relations Manager, GBHI was the master of ceremonies for both events. 

The GBHI community is engaged in a wide range of artist-led initiatives exploring brain health and dementia. Many of them combine artistic work and evidence-based research to improve understanding of the experience of people with dementia and their carers, as well as providing opportunities to share personal stories, change perceptions and stigma, and generate possibilities for community engagement.

Unravelled and recordings of the live events have been extended to view on demand at www.UnRavelledPlay.com through April 30, 2021.

Learn more about UnRavelled:

Anne and Robert Adams appear behind see-through “Unravelling Boléro” painting