Les SlovaKs at Baryshnikov Arts Center
The bio for Les SlovaKs, who made their NYC debut with a mid-week run of Opening Night at Baryshnikov Arts Center this week, describes them as a “brotherly collective.” Indeed, the five men (Milan Herich, Peter Jasko, Anton Lachky, Milan Tomasik, and Martin Kilvády) exude a familiarity and comfort with one another that verges on the familial, replete with hair pulling and feet-in-face moments. They’ve known one another for decades and while all are now based in Brussels, they began their training in their native Slovakia—well before officially meeting, all five shared a stage at a folk dance festival as youngsters. Opening Night is their first creation as a collective, and they’ve been touring the piece throughout Europe since its premiere in 2007.
The men are all extraordinarily agile, articulate movers—their performance credits encompass Akram Khan, Anne de Keersmaeker’s Rosas, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, and David Zambrano. Each has his own distinct style, and the movement for Opening Night is primarily improvised within a set structure. It’s all very playful, with liquid, reflex-defying level and direction changes, plus a bit of one-upmanship tossed in.
What makes Les SlovaKs more than just a group of interesting movers is the affectionate sense of national identity that pervades Opening Night. This came through in the snippets of folk dance elements that were continually coalescing and dissolving into a post-modern vocabulary, and also in French violinist and composer Simon Thierré’s music, which sampled and looped upon itself while referencing traditional Slovakian melodies. The piece opened with a Slovakian folk song, sung in tight harmony, and on the night I saw it, closed with another one, this one about Slovakian migrant workers in the US.
I saw sly allusions to Slovakian history in the performers’ periodic puffed up, heroic poses and sweeping, declamatory gestures, and couldn’t help but consider that the men grew up in communist Czechoslovakia. They have seen remarkable changes in their country, from the Velvet Revolution that ended the communist regime in 1989 to the peaceful separation of The Czech Republic from Slovakia in the early 1990s, to Slovakia’s entrance into the European Union in 2004. I can only imagine that, despite these social and political upheavals, a strong Slovakian cultural identity has been a constant, and Les SlovaKs have found a way of bringing this heritage—however abstractly—into their movement and the moment.