A 90-minute voyage played out on a giant revolving turntable, Derevo’s 2002 Fringe show featured witches, goblins, repentants and monsters, plus the odd appearance by the likes of Old Father Time, Death and a golden-horned ram. It was manic, surreal, visceral and terrifying; a nightmare played to the sound of Frank Zappa and a piano picking out Chopsticks. Yet despite its Italian heritage, La Divina Commedia was an indisputably Russian affair.
Derevo’s performers all herald from St Petersburg, and for all the heat of Dante’s Hell, it was played with the cruelty of a Siberian winter. If you saw it - and the number of five-star reviews that month really should have persuaded you to - you’ll have witnessed one of the most exciting theatre companies working in the world today. If you didn’t, book now for this summer’s show, Islands in the Stream.
Derevo, Russian for tree, consists of four core performers: artistic director Anton Adassinski, Tatiana Khabarova, Elena Iarovaia and Oleg Zhukovksy. All four have shaved heads and eyebrowless faces and look like taller versions of the aliens in Close Encounters of a Third Kind. All four have the sculptured androgyny of disciplined, joint-defying dancers. Ageless and sexless, they turn their faces from angelic child to sadistic devil in a second.
The troupe came relatively late to Edinburgh. They were already nine years old when they made their Fringe debut in 1997 with Red Zone, a brutal 70-minute show featuring failing clowns haplessly fudging their tricks to relentless canned laughter. The next year they claimed their first Scotsman Fringe First with Once, a fairytale of unrequited desire described by one critic as "a love song to your soul".
As the company became more and more revered, rumours began to circulate about its members’ bizarre lifestyle. Their appearance and the themes of their work made them seem more of a religious cult than a theatre company. They were said to live off a diet of rice and apples, and to spend their time rolling naked in the snow. Derevo, it would seem, was the David Icke of theatre.
There seemed no other way to investigate the rumours than to visit Derevo HQ to watch the group work. Although Adassinski formed the company in 1988 in St Petersburg, they were based in Prague and Florence during the 1990s. These days, the company flourishes in Dresden, the east German city infamously levelled by the Allies during the Second World War, in a location intriguingly known as the Derevo Laboratorium, a crumbling former munitions factory on a derelict industrial estate which, on a dark night, could grace any episode of Crimewatch.
Visitors are ushered into a blacked-out studio to watch performances. Rehearsals too, take place here, but in fact the building is an L-shaped labyrinth of secret rooms and damp mysterious spaces are regularly used for impromptu workshops. Dispelling myth number one, Adassinski politely informs me that no, they don’t all live together here in monk-like dormitories. "There is no running water or electricity," he smiles. "How do you think we would heat this in the middle of a Dresden winter?" Rather, the four performers live in nearby flats, although he is ambiguous as to whether any of them share accommodation. "We don’t show much of our personal life to our audience," he explains. "We don’t discuss anything private." Today, privacy includes Adassinski’s age, although according to last year’s cuts he’s a twentysomething-looking 44.
Adassinski was already a well-known artist in St Petersburg before he formed Derevo, having performed with the world-famous clown Slava Polunin. After six years with Polunin he began to feel frustrated and set about creating his own school with the aim of forming a professional company within a year. Fifty students subjected themselves to his revolutionary and unorthodox methods. They were instructed to dance like clouds, but very slow moving ones, remaining static for up to six hours.
This wasn’t the baggy-trousered, red-nosed clowning around as we know it. This was clowning Russian style; wringing out all the joy, loss, despair and vomit of human existence, then expressing it through dazzling acrobatics, ballet and physical contortions. For good measure, Adassinski mixed in a dose of Butah, a modern Japanese form of dance. At the end of the year, he picked his four best students. Derevo was born.
It’s clear from talking to Adassinski that the first rule of Derevo is that theatre isn’t a hobby, or a career, but a life. For example, another of his infamous exercises is to make his students sleep, eat and talk to the sound of a metronome in one ear. It’s designed to combat what Adassinski calls the curse of the "ping pong" effect; or the rhythm of daily conversation. "Whether you speak in English, Italian, German or Russian, all conversations follow the same convention - hello, how are you, I’m fine, etc. But when you’re dancing or making music or telling a fairytale, you don’t want sentence, sentence, sentence, you want smooth beautiful lines.
"People think its easy to talk to someone without stopping for five minutes, but they dry up after 20 seconds. They don’t have the ability to fly from one idea to the next. But after a few days with the metronome, you lose ping pong, everything you do in real life becomes a piece of music. Take the metronome away and you can beat perfect time for hours afterwards."
"I don’t have much time for reality," he says. "It’s funny; people think, oh, you work in theatre, you must have a lot of free time, relaxing, drinking wine. But we don’t. Our lives are like the peasants who get up and go straight to the field, clean the earth and plant their seeds. Like them, we work ten, 12 or 14-hour days."
Adassinski appears surprisingly laid back, displaying none of the sadism that some of his students could perhaps accuse him of. He smiles often, his bright blue eyes dancing like sunrays on sea.
In rehearsals he is quite a different creature ...
The group rehearses everyday, no matter how far they are into a run. "For us every performance is the first and last one, because it will never be the same again. Our productions are always changing."
Today is a tough day for practice. Outside it is a scorchio 37 degrees, the women’s white sports bras drying to a crust in the fierce heat. Inside, the group dynamics quickly reveal themselves. As expected, the language of the rehearsal room is Russian, so they could be swearing like troopers for all I know. But it’s amusing to see how Derevo works, and from where I’m sitting it’s like this: Oleg has an idea, and explains it, giggling manically like a hyperactive schoolboy. The girls, Tatiana and Elena, giggle back, then look worried when they see Adassinski frowning and chewing on his fingernails. Adassinski then gives an order and the group scurries to him, picking him up and carrying him like a corpse, or dancing zigzags up and down the stage.
It’s a wonder the foursome can stand the sight of each other. This year’s tour schedule encompasses Russia, Poland, Edinburgh and Chile, next year they may play Australia and New Zealand. Besides the joys of jet-lag and chemical toilets on coaches, the nature of their work requires complete emotional and physical dependence. Adassinski cites one of his most arduous workshop exercises. "I ask them to dedicate a dance to all the people they have known, but now they are all dead. They have to make a dance with a cart, a cart full of their dead bodies. They dance their way up a mountain to bury them. At the top of the mountain, I ask them to lose balance and fall, the dead bodies covering them. Now they are lying under the rotting dead bodies of their friends and their parents. The smell and juices of the dead people are running into the pores of their skin, so they collect all the dead bodies into themselves, and transform themselves into a flower."
How have they stayed together after all this time? Adassinski’s answer is simple: keep your secrets. "We try to meet only on stage. If we travel, we try to travel separately. From the very first moment that we started to work together, I understood that we were all geniuses. So in order to keep the relationship going for as long as possible, we have to speak less. We’re like the Rolling Stones. It would be all too easy to break up after a couple of years, but we keep our secrets to save our relationship."
Adassinski has a strong commitment to passing the vision of Derevo on to new generations. The company runs workshops regularly, but there is frustration at their brevity. What Adassinski wants is a Derevo school, which would train performers for a minimum of three years. Ideally, the director would open his school in St Petersburg.
"If you want to learn to play rock’n’roll, you go to London. If you want to learn theatre, you go to Russia - it’s obvious." Realistically, however, the Dresden Laboratorium would be a perfect location, but as the company is already self-funded, it is a long way to recognising their dream. Adassinski himself would never say it, but the company manager, Chester Mueller, concedes they would be interested in corporate sponsors.
That night, I watch Islands in the Stream again. If Divina Commedia was fire, Islands is water. Opening with a ribbon of playful clichés of life aboard the waves - all hammocks, sprouting whales, drunken sailors and eye-patched pirates - it soon becomes a meditation on life, death, loss and memory. A lonely old sailor recreates the sound of the sea by sweeping a broom. A line of smoke instantly evokes the world beneath the waves and an array of brilliantly coloured fishes flood onto the stage. With breathtaking movements, the group imitate a school of dolphins. Strange rockpool creatures clad in wellington boots and Puffa jackets dart a giant net; later they meet a terrifying brutal death. Two silent ethereal beings meet to give birth to an egg. Maybe it sounds silly, but it makes me think of television’s The Blue Planet. Derevo gives you a sense of wonder of the world.
"If I’m not on stage for more than three months, I get sick," says Adassinski. "Because there’s something inside of me that must always be showing, always be exploring. Every time I go on stage I have to ask myself, why are you charging people money to watch you? Why are you taking up an hour and a half of their time? Our task is to heal ourselves and our audiences. We may show killing and brutality, but it’s a positive force, because our shows transform lives."
As the hurricane of applause hits the Laboratorium, it is clear that no matter how eccentric or bonkers their methods are, Derevo has more than accomplished its mission.
•Islands in the Stream is at St Stephens, today until 25 August