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Portrait of the artist as a returned mime

Milan Sládek was in his early thirties, but his future seemed sound. As Czechoslovakia's first professional mime, he had practically introduced a new art form to his country. He had established his own theatre and was making a name for himself abroad. Then the rug was pulled out from under his life.
Sitting in his office overlooking the Danube in the Aréna Theatre in Bratislava, he still remembers the shock. "A person finds a certain path, thinks he has it all figured out, and then comes August 21, 1968." Although it has been more than 30 years since Russian troops occupied Czechoslovakia, there is indignation in his voice when he discusses the events that led to his leaving Czechoslovakia in 1970.


Milan Sládek in full flow in his theatre's performance of the well-known tale "Kráľ Ubu".
photo: Courtesy Milan Sládek


In a new feature series profiling Slovaks who left behind success in various fields abroad and returned to their homeland - Those Who Came Back - Matthew J. Reynolds this week meets Milan Sládek, the world-renowned mime artist whose life and career was rocked twice by political upheavals.

Milan Sládek was in his early thirties, but his future seemed sound. As Czechoslovakia's first professional mime, he had practically introduced a new art form to his country. He had established his own theatre and was making a name for himself abroad. Then the rug was pulled out from under his life.

Sitting in his office overlooking the Danube in the Aréna Theatre in Bratislava, he still remembers the shock. "A person finds a certain path, thinks he has it all figured out, and then comes August 21, 1968." Although it has been more than 30 years since Russian troops occupied Czechoslovakia, there is indignation in his voice when he discusses the events that led to his leaving Czechoslovakia in 1970.

"I always tell people that I didn't emigrate," says Sládek. "I was emigrated."

But while forces beyond his control compelled him to leave in 1970, Sládek more recently made a life-altering move on his own accord - he came back to Slovakia to live and work after more than 20 years abroad. Recognised as one of the world's greatest mimes - feature-length pantomime performance is his innovation - Sládek, who is a spry 63, may be Slovakia's most successful artist to have returned since 1989.

"I was born here. My roots are here," says Sládek of his decision to come back. "I would never want to give up the experiences I had abroad - I learned so much from them. Sometimes you have to go back to keep moving forward."

In 1992 Sládek established the International Institute of Mime Art in Bratislava, although it had no permanent home until 1998 when Sládek reopened Aréna Theatre, one of Bratislava's oldest theatre houses, which had been left derelict for decades. Sládek performs three times a week now and since returning to Slovakia has premiered ten original works and led his group on numerous tours abroad. "My work here is still only just starting. But I am looking forward to finding our audience, to bringing new people to our theatre," he says.


Milan Sládek relaxing away from the stage.
photo: Courtesy Milan Sládek

As a boy, Sládek taught himself mime in his spare time - there were no professionals in the country and the art form was discouraged as bourgeois by the communist government. An acting stint in Prague after his studies at performing art school preceded his return in the early 60s to Bratislava. He founded a pantomime group in an era of loosened restrictions and found success in Czechoslovakia and abroad.

But after the Soviet occupation in 1968, the results of his hard work disappeared overnight. "I was on holiday in Bulgaria when I heard we had been invaded," remembers Sládek. "A few weeks later I got a letter saying that they [the government] were cancelling my theatre group."

Sládek managed to work legally in Sweden for a year following the occupation, where he became accustomed to life in the West. "There was a different spirit there. I was learning from friends that the situation was getting more and more difficult at home while at the same time experiencing how nice it felt not to be terrorised [by the government]," he said.

In 1970, faced with a deadline to return to Czechoslovakia, he fled to Germany where he was granted asylum. There he began his career again. He founded a mime theatre in Cologne in 1974, and a successful annual art festival two years later. Eventually he began working with the German Goethe art institute. But in 1989, by the time he had become known as one of the world's greatest mimes, politics again shook his life.

"I never imagined that communism would fall," says Sládek, who had been forbidden to visit Czechoslovakia after 1970. "I can't describe to you how it felt to see my family and to be back home. I would have to use a string of clichés."

Emotions were one of the things that drew Sládek back to Slovakia. Rescuing a cultural landmark (Aréna Theatre) from ruin was one of the factors that kept him here. But Sládek says there have been many pleasant surprises as well. "There are an enormous number of talented people in this country and I have been delighted to work with them," says Sládek.

The feeling is reciprocated by his peers and proteges. "It has meant a lot for me to have Milan Sládek in Slovakia," said Dušan Musil, a 22 year-old member of Sládek's group.

"He is one of the best mimes in the world. He brings so much experience, knowledge and prestige to Slovakia."

Sládek's return has not been without rough spots, however. After a deal to get the Aréna Theatre from the government fell through in 1992, Sládek left Slovakia for a short period of time in disgust. "I was used to a different way of doing business. If you make an agreement, you keep your word. That didn't happen at first."

That situation was remedied, but in 1995 after organising a festival funded partially by the Ministry of Culture, Sládek drew criticism from an outspoken Bratislava theatre director, who said that Sládek had left Czechoslovakia in 1968 for political reasons only to come back and cooperate with an undemocratic government. "I applied for money before [former Premier Vladimír] Mečiar came into power. But in general, I am not interested in politics. I wasn't interested in cancelling the festival to protest [against the Mečiar regime]," explained Sládek.

But perhaps his greatest disappointment in Slovakia has been that Aréna has yet to draw an audience comparable in size to the one he had in Germany, shows being sold out weeks in advance compared to a usually half full Aréna.

Sládek, though, remains positive. "It took several years in Germany too before people started coming in large numbers. It takes time to develop a relationship with the audience, for them to get used to our performances."

Sládek says he has no plans to leave Slovakia again. "Sometimes running away is easiest. But I have no intention of doing that. I enjoy what I am doing, and I look forward to continuing here in Slovakia."

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