Touch of anarchy in the UK
Russian dance company Derevo are
known for their manic, surreal
productions. Mary Brennan wonders
what on earth they'll do with Dante

SOMEWHERE, along the
road to heaven, hell, or
purgatory, the babushkas
He in wait. Arms full of
battered tin mugs, jugs of
wine, bread, they rush among us
dispensing an uplifting communion
of hospitality. Anton Adassinski
chuckles when I mention them. True
there are no babushkas as such in
Dante's La Divina Commedia, but
then Derevo isn't an Italian company.

Founded by Adassinski in
1988, in what was then
Leningrad but is now once more
St Petersburg, Derevo grew to
international prominence speaking
a physical language shaped,
not by Mediterranean methods
of clowning, but by an altogether
harsher regime.

The common thread to
Adassinski's idiosyncratic
amalgam of techniques seems to
be concentrated endurance: ballet
training, mime, and clown
instruction, under the rigorous
tutelage of Slava Polunin, and then
a study of Butoh have all fed into
his personal aesthetic. It's
certainly not a performance style
that you can slip on and off like a
stage costume. It's more akin to
the skin you inhabit morning,
noon, and night. Indeed,
Adassinski refers to being in
Derevo as "a life". It's a mindset,
a discipline, a rhythm of daily
occurrences. "We wake up in the
morning. We have a training class.
We speak about the performance.
We have a rehearsal. We play a
performance. We go to bed at
one o'clock in the morning. We
wake up, we begin again with a
training class. It's a life." If it
sounds grim, then Adassinski's
fleeting smile, his semi-shrug
convey a sense of such dedication
being not just a necessity but a
kind of valued fulfilment.
Tanya Khabarova, Elena
Yarovaya, and Oleg Zhukovsky -
the other members in the company
- clearly share this willingness to

put the art form above all else.
Fourteen years after Adassinski
winnowed them out, from 50
hopefuls, to be founder members
of Derevo, 'they are still in the
ring with him. And still managing
to make each performance seem
new-minted, whether the mood is
brutal or tender, tragic or comedic,
or, as with La Divina Commedia,
utterly manic, surreal, and
extravagantly gothic.

It is also significantly different
in tone from Once, the deliciously
bittersweet romantic fantasy that
captivated Fringe audiences in
1998. "Once was a beautiful
fairy tale," says Adassinski.
"When we decided to make it, it
was because we thought let's build
a show which people need. There
were no fairy tales on stages, we
wanted people to have one. To
know that kind of fantasy. But this
time we decided to do what we
want to do. Do something that we
need. So we decided to realise our
dream: to put on the stage
something that was already
written, Shakespeare, maybe, or
Ostrovsky. We were in Italy
. . . suddenly, we knew. It had to
be La Divina Commedia."

Deciding was one thing.
Encompassing it on stage was
another. A punctilious plod
through each chapter and verse was
out of the question. Instead, there
had to be a vivid distillation of
themes and motifs, preferably
lasting for around 90 minutes. It
sounds almost like a torment
invented in Hades.

Undaunted, determined, everyone
went away and thought about it,
sleeping as well as waking.
Within days, people were coming
up to him with ideas, bits of
business, dream schemes. "They
would bring me pieces, lots of
pieces. In all, about 140 pieces.
From that we can take a key, a
colour, an idea of how we can go
into this Divina Commedia"

He explains, too, why it was so
TAKE A PHYSICAL: Oleg Zhukovsky of dance company Derevo in action at the Edinburgh Assembly Big Top. The company's La Divina Commedia has a distinctly Russian flavour. Picture: Gordon Terris
important for Derevo as a company
to move away from the style and
content of Once. Return, in effect,
to the visceral, anarchic energies
that caught our attention in the
searing Red Zone. "It was a hard
decision. Because, you know, in
Once, we didn't need to sweat so
much on the stage. It was different
from our other work. More about
acting, about characterisation, than

about dancing or physical theatre.
But then people saw us just as some
beautiful actor-clown company. We
don't want to be seen as just that.
So, we have to go back. Back from
just using our personality, back
from using ego. Instead, we have to
use our bodies to play symbols.
Dance, move, not so as to have
names, or characters, but to be
more. It is more difficult, much

more difficult." He laughs and
claims that he became a fat man,
all of 70 kilos, during
Once. Now he's a whipcord 62
kilos, the difference having
evaporated in the heat of forging a
new and intensely physical vision
of Dante's literary epic.

It's a vision which, and this
pleases him, has a distinctive
Russian flavour. Not just in the

shape of the bustling babushkas,
but in the figure of the Holy Man,
who wanders in and out of the
whole performance. "He's a
lunatic. Mad. In rags. He no
longer exists bu in old Russia
everyone looked at him with
reverence. Even kings. He was
between people and God.

This figure is part of Russian
life, Russian religion, belief. If

you look at Once there is nothing
that says strongly 'this is
Russian'. It is, absolutely,
international. But this La Divina
it has still an Italian
name, but it is, like Derevo,
Russian in its art."

La Divina Commedia is at the
Assembly Big Top until August 26
(not 7,
14,21), at 10pm.

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