Performance Artists Depict Soviet Times in 'Characters' : Stage: A non-verbal essay by Leningrad group illustrates upheavals that are sweeping the country.

Bald soldiers move about the stage with a ghostly gait. They stumble and offer each other flowers, falling to the floor repeatedly, punctuating stamps with gurgles and gibberish, "A Clockwork Orange"-style.

"The youth in our country is going through a bad time," Anton Adasinsky says of the Soviet society. Adasinsky, artistic director-founder of the seven-member Soviet performance-art group, Derevo, was using his Leningrad group's movement-based "Five Characters" (which had the working title "Red Zone") to illustrate his country's upheavals.

"Loss of ethics, morals. We have new violence. It is a place of transition and beginning, which is scary because the genie in the lamp is no toy. We have gotten a taste of freedom and to many it is an ugly taste.

"Art must reflect this moment by delving into what is deeply personal and mysterious and monstrous."

Derevo's "Five Characters," a nonverbal essay on the potential for violence and rebirth when emotions are trapped within the body politic, will run Friday through Sunday at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions. (Derevo performed last weekend at San Diego's Sushi Gallery as part of the San Diego Arts Festival: Treasures of the Soviet Union.)

With his shaved head, wiry body, punk-arrogant stare and cryptic views on art, Adasinsky, 30, could pass as an alienated rocker.

" Da! " he says, prefering the description of the obsessed artist over what Westerners have dubbed " perestroika spokesperson of the arts." Chain-smoking Marlboros, Adasinsky takes delight in being elusive to describe the brutal tableaux vivants executed by his collective, which was founded in 1986. Derevo is Russian for tree , and Adasinsky said the tree takes on mythic significance in Russian folklore.

"Our work is not political even though we recognize that political changes in our society have allowed artists to wake up and make deeply personal work," Adasinsky says, speaking through translator Tanya Khofin of the Soviet-American Performing Arts Exchange, co-producer of Derevo's West Coast tour.

Yet Adasinsky says that his company's growing ability to explore areas of poetic self-involvement and to speak out about "the individual artist and his emerging sense of himself in Russia"--is proof that perestroika is actually working. To say nothing of their overt defiance of authority with their punk attire and bald heads.

"Our work, which is completely secret and personal, is about recognizing and cultivating your own music inside and seeing things inside of you that go unnoticed," he adds.

"People speak of perestroika in the arts," he says. "I don't know about that because we are really the only experimental dance troupe I know of. The changes are happening slowly in the political world, even slower in the artistic. People want food before they want art.

"But I do know that many of us are rejecting the dryness in our soul, and looking for the poetry. It is frightening, but it is also cleansing and unpredictable."

Derevo's work is noted for its lack of structure and the sudden changes in routine. Performers often scream or throw food. Rehearsals resemble more workshops in self-discovery than exercises in repetition and virtuosity, Adasinsky says.

While Western audiences might compare such rejection of choreographic structure to the early innovations of New York City's Judson Church or Julian Beck's Living Theater, Adasinsky points out that Derevo is peculiarly Russian.

"We want to discover the origin of movement in the human body and explore its relationship to the human psyche," he says. "In our country we keep pain bottled up in our bodies for centuries."

Adasinsky was born in Siberia in 1959 and moved to Leningrad as a child where he studied classical guitar and mime. In 1982, he began working in theater, inspired by the movement of circus clowns.

In 1988, Derevo toured Britain, West Germany, Czechoslovakia and the Netherlands. When Adasinsky returned to Leningrad, he said he saw "liberty in the faces of the people."

"I feel as if I had no life before Derevo," he says. "I realized that man lives in a permanent state of war with the world and that every moment he must learn to crawl anew like an infant. In our work, we are just learning how to crawl."

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