From zero to fever pitch
Donald Hutera looks at one of the darker stars of the London Mime Festival, which opens on Saturday
Anton Adassinsky knows his red noses. "Laughter is the last rope which is connecting people on this planet, " declares this former pupil and colleague of the great Russian clown, Slava Polunin. "If it breaks — if you stop the laughing — this will be the apocalypse. That is why clowning, for me, is one of the big missions in the world. "
Good news for Adassinsky: the current London theatre season is crawling with clowns. Polunin's buoyant Snowshow has just finished a third run. This week Cirque du Soleil swings its latest extravaganza into the Albert Hall. And on Saturday the 1998 London International Mime Festival launches two weeks of physical/visual theatre in venues across the capital.
Some of the festival roster is pure foolery, from the parody-acrobatics of France's Les Acrostiches to the Anglo-Spanish absurdities of Peepplykus. But as the festival co-directors Helen Lannaghan and Joseph Seelig annually remind us, there are deeper, more disturbing forces lurking in the art of clowning. And the members of Adassinsky's Dresden-based collective, Derevo, are among the bravest fools ready to unleash them.
The best clowns, Adassinsky is aware, usually possess a tragic wisdom that transcends white-faced, baggy-trousered, big-shoed big top traditions. Red Zone, Derevo's brute, non-narrative vision of the human comedy, takes this notion several anarchic, fin de siecle leaps further.
This short, stinging show was a late-night sell-out on last year's Edinburgh Fringe, where it won the first Total Theatre Award for Most Innovative International Production. It coughs up a handful of shaven-haired, androgynous mutants whose wiry, often semi-nude bodies are caked in white. (This is more a stylistic homage to Japan's radical, post-Hiroshima performance art form butoh than it is a slap in the face to standard clown slap and garb. ) Against a pulsating soundtrack, these
violent-souled jesters negotiate daring, drastic turns in mood and tone. Whether caught on the floor in a frantic, foetal writhe, or statuesquely hitting a ball back and forth in clockwork slow-motion, they seem simultaneously to court and fend off chaos.
Audiences may find Red Zone intellectually opaque yet viscerally piercing. For the company, Adassinsky says, "it's a very sad show. Sometimes it's so sad it comes to a point — a kind of universal sadness — that doesn't make you sad any more.
"Red Zone is hard for us, " he continues in rapid, articulate broken English. "It's not theatre at all. It hurts. Two hours before we cannot speak, cannot joke. How to live these days, this month, that's what we do onstage. We are not actors there; we don't play anything. We just open our hearts, our souls, and what was inside one week, maybe one year ago, comes out as a kind of waterfall. "
Sharp-featured and fit, Adassinsky was born 38 years ago in Siberia. He studied music and movement before becoming frontman and choreographer for the Russian rock group Avia. He was also a member of Polunin's troupe, Licedei. In the late 1980s he became creatively restless and decided to start his own theatre school. Inundated with applicants, he selected 50 and began a year's intensive training based on instinct and a daily regimen of specially invented exercises designed to strengthen mind, body and soul.
"We'll found a school based on zero, " Adassinsky recalls telling his students. "How to be zero, how to do nothing. It's so funny how people try to be zero. They're full of emotions, characters, ideas, opinions, feelings. It takes time to reach the place of immobility, transparency — the zero. But after you find it, probably then you can do something. "
The original student body dwindled to 12, then five. In 1988 this core group formed Derevo (Russian for "tree").
Derevo's The Red Zone takes the human comedy several anarchic leaps into the future
Their first show — Red Zone in its earliest incarnations — was a collage drawn from each graduate's final solo "exam". The company's repertoire now includes a handful of ensemble and solo shows. Adassinsky continues to teach his School on Wheels, named in part from the fact that both it and Derevo have had so many temporary homes: St
Petersburg, Amsterdam, Prague, Florence and, since 1995, Dresden.
In a sense, all of Derevo's creative roads lead back to Red Zone. "It is now a kind of prayer for us, " Adassinsky says. "To keep the conditions of our first rehearsal, to remember how we start, that's important. We still, have this feeling of an underground
company. We have to kee| this, even if we go up top a in play Broadway. "

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