The official theme of the Soviet arts festival events may have been glasnost , but the tie that binds most of the events together is the suffering of the Soviet people.
From San Diego museums to theaters, pain runs like a long red thread through the gilded Faberge eggs of the czars which symbolize the excess that caused a bloody revolution to the Maly Theatre's agonizing depiction of starvation on Stalinist farms in "Brothers and Sisters" to the bloody hands of the czars in San Diego Opera's "Boris Godunov" to the mounting pressure of emotional repression in the play "Slingshot" to the fantasies that end in death in the deceptively sweet programs of the Tblisi State Puppet Theatre.
In "Five Characters" (formerly "Red Zone"), an hourlong flow of movement presented by the 3-year-old Leningrad-based troupe, Derevo, at Sushi Performance Gallery through Sunday, the suffering rises in a silent scream from the body itself.
Derevo, a performance art company co-produced by the Soviet-American Performing Arts Exchange with Sushi as Sushi's unofficial contribution to the Soviet arts festival, works with silent images, punctuated by live, tinkling music, some taped sounds and some sweet, crooning singing by the performers.
The show seems more dance than performance art, but the company refuses to subscribe to either, or in fact to any label on its work.
In an expansive white boxed space, slender Elena Yanovaia--robed only in a yellow tube dress from the waist down and black pumps-- appears first, her back to the audience, crouched and hunched over so that she seems headless. To her right is a clear glass with water and a yellow flower in it. Slowly, painfully, she arches her back, then her shoulders up, one at a time. The back of her head visible at last, she shakes long, black, curly hair (a wig--the entire group has shaved heads or crew-cut hair) into an old, metal wash basin in front her as if her hair held her roots and she, too, were a flower, hungry for nourishment.
At last, when she begins to move toward the audience, it is awkwardly, painfully, stumbling on high heels with toes turning inwards, almost like a flower cut off from its water that is dying before our eyes.
The vignettes flow like sequences in a dream that are suggestive of the old Russia and the new. Anton Adasinsky, the artistic director who composed the piece, enters in long hair (another wig), in a suit and barefoot, crooning to Yanovaia like a romantic Dr. Zhivago-like lover of pre-Soviet days. Yanovaia eludes him slipping away, and three other performers enter sequentially: Dmitri Tiulpanov, barefoot and bald in a tan suit, seems blank, like a clean slate on which the government will draw its desired image of the new Soviet man; Tatiana Khabarova, a stern-looking bald woman in a suit with heavy black shoes, moves menacingly like the ultimate, humorless party bureaucrat; and Aleksei Merkushev brings with him a chair he tries and fails to sit on, slipping, falling, rolling over with the chair as if the object were fighting him to the death.
The chair routine would provide a touch of vaudevillian comedy if Merkushev did not seem so desperately anxious to master the seat, like a man trying and failing to find his place in society. Merkushev's only comfort comes from Adasinsky, whose loving embrace calms Merkushev's frantic efforts for isolated moments.
Adasinsky later goes behind a white wall to bring out the fallen Yanovaia, her arms trapped in a yellow tube dress, her eyelids drooped and her long hair gone, leaving a dark crew-cut. Still later, when Tiulpanov has left and returned, naked except for a G-string, dancing alone in a final spiral that ends in seeming death, Adasinsky returns yet again, to open the shuttered windows at the back of the Sushi space so that the final light in the darkened room comes from the street outside. The distant brightness, as if beckoning Tiulpanov, lifts him up, ever so slightly, beckoning him to reach out his hand as if his fingers could meet the fingers of the light.
There are darkly comic moments in "Five Characters," as when Adasinsky, bald, drapes himself in a king's red robe, with a white dove of peace stuck to his shoulder and winks and prances, teasing and flirting with the audience like a diplomatic leader in an swiftly shifting Orwellian world who may have been yesterday's enemy and now wants to show there is nothing the least bit dangerous about him.
But the overall mood is dark and dangerous, like a midnight swim in a pained nation's collective unconsciousness.
"We want to discover the origin of movement in the human body and explore its relationship to the human psyche," Adasinsky told The Times earlier this week. "In our country, we keep pain bottled up in our bodies for centuries."
"Five Characters" provides a glimpse of that pain.
By Anton Adasinsky. Technical director is Oleg Shatz. Percussions by Roman Dubinnikov. With Anton Adasinsky, Tatiana Khabarova, Aleksei Merkushev, Dmitri Tiulpanov and Elena Yanovaia. At 8 p.m. through Sunday at 852 8th Ave., San Diego. Tickets are $7-10, 235-8466.