Milan Sládek, World-Famous Slovak Director, Actor and Mime

Milan Sládek is one of the most eminent personalities of Slovak theatre and the founder of Slovak mime. His mime masterpieces have significantly influenced mime on a global scale

By The Theatre Institute

Portrait, Milan Sládek (1990/1995) by Mária BaloghováThe Theatre Institute

Milan Sládek

Already his early work drew on the art of French mimes: Jean-Gaspard Deburau, Jean-Louis Barrault, and Marcel Marceau. However, Sládek quickly developed his own theatrical language. Sládek does not understand mime as a solo act, but rather as collaboration with other actors and actresses. He carefully selects the relevant means of expression for each production according to the character of the work in question.

Production photograph, Milan Sládek – Eduard Žlábek: Observations (1962) by Mime TheatreThe Theatre Institute

Slovak mime is so strongly tied to the personality of Milan Sládek that an overview of its brief history can be presented using just the example of his life and work.

Production photograph, Milan Sládek – Eduard Žlábek: Abduction into Silence (1963) by Mime TheatreThe Theatre Institute

As a young artist, Sládek was more interesting in visual art than theatre. He presented his first mime performance when he was a high school student and later in a university student theatre. He studied theatre at the Theatre Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts in Bratislava.

Production photograph, Milan Sládek – Eduard Žlábek: Observations (1962) by Mime TheatreThe Theatre Institute

Then he further developed his mime art in Prague, where he studied with the Czech avant-garde director E. F. Burian. 
In 1959, together with Czech director Eduard Žlábek, Sládek founded his first mime ensemble that worked on the stage of the D 34 theatre in Prague. 

Production photograph 1, Milan Sládek – Eduard Žlábek: The Bump (1962) by Alexander NagyThe Theatre Institute

Milan Sládek – Eduard Žlábek: The Bump

On 10 March 1960, he performed his first work in Prague – a jazz mime comedy titled The Bump. In it, Milan Sládek performed the character of a young waiter apprentice called Kefka (Little Brush) who would become Sládek’s alter ego. 

Production photograph 3, Milan Sládek – Eduard Žlábek: The Bump (1962) by Alexander NagyThe Theatre Institute

 The dreamy waiter Kefka lives in his fantasy world only to wake up from his dream one day and start perceiving the world around him with a new pair of eyes. 

Production photograph 2, Milan Sládek – Eduard Žlábek: The Bump (1962) by Alexander NagyThe Theatre Institute

 After the departure from Prague in the 1960s, the Mime Theatre resided in several spaces in Bratislava, for example, in the Horizont Theatre, or in the Small Stage of the Slovak National Theatre.

Audiovisual sample from the production Solo Mimes

Milan Sládek – Eduard Žlábek: Solo Mimes, Mime Theatre, Bratislava, 1965, directed by Eduard Žlábek 

Sládek’s subtle movement style and use of acting means of expression allow him to depict things that are essentially intangible and fragile. In a compressed movement, he could portray an incredible number of minute details that helped him capture the characters in all their inner breadth, while still keeping to the dramatic outline of the performed work.

Costume, Kefka (1962) by Ursula PetersThe Theatre Institute

Costume, Kefka

The character Kefka, and many others, accompanied Milan Sládek all his life and became a magnet for audiences worldwide, from Japan through New Zealand, India, Kenya, and France, all the way to the United States, Chile or Argentina.

Production photograph, Pavel Kyrmezer: The Czech Comedy About the Rich Man and Lazarus (1964) by Elena BobekováThe Theatre Institute

Kyrmezer: The Czech Comedy About the Rich Man and Lazarus

Milan Sládek and Eduard Žlábek taught at the Theatre Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts in Bratislava. Sládek taught mime, while Žlábek focused on dance. In 1965, they won the prestigious Grand Prix award at the International festival of student theatres in Nancy for their original staging of The Czech Comedy About the Rich Man and Lazarus by Slovak Renaissance playwright Pavel Kyrmezer.

Production photograph 1, Rag-and-bone Man (1967) by Alexander NagyThe Theatre Institute

After Milan Sládek left the Small Stage of the Slovak National Theatre, he and his company did a brief stint at the legendary Bratislava The Theatre Studio – Theatre on the Promenade (1967–1971). During its existence, the Theatre on the Promenade took patronage over the Lasica and Satinský Theatre, the big-beat band Prúdy, the Poetic Ensemble, and Milan Sládek’s Mime Theatre.

Production photograph 2, Rag-and-bone Man (1967) by Alexander NagyThe Theatre Institute

Sládek was set to become the first director of the Theatre Studio, but his emigration meant an end to this plan. Political interventions intensified until the Theatre on the Promenade was finally closed down in 1971, officially for hygienic reasons.

Production photograph, Solo Mimes (1977) by Michael FehlauerThe Theatre Institute

After the events in August 1968, when armies of the Warsaw Pact occupied the territory of Czechoslovakia, Sládek, as well as a few other members of his Mime Theatre company, stayed in Sweden at the end of a tour.  In 1970, he emigrated to West Germany, where he sought political asylum. He settled down in Cologne. It was there he found new opportunities to continue his artistic work.

Production photograph, Carmen (1983) by Michael FehlauerThe Theatre Institute

The first production Sládek presented in front of a German audience was the slapstick mime called The Gift. It premiered in 1972 at the Cologne Kammerspiele.  In 1974, he opened his own Kefka Theatre in Cologne – at the time, it was the only mime theatre in Western Europe. In 1976, Sládek established an international mime festival called Gaukler.

Poster, Milan Sládek: The Gift (1993) by V & V DesignThe Theatre Institute

The fall of the Iron Curtain in November 1989 offered him new opportunities once again. He was one of the first artists who came to greet the demonstrating crowd at the SNP Square in Bratislava – thousands of people who desired freedom.  When he returned to Slovakia, Sládek became the director of the Aréna Theatre. He opened the house with a renewed premiere of The Gift. In 1994, he founded the International Institute of Movement Theatre.

Mime Milan Sládek (1991) by © Vladimír HákThe Theatre Institute

In 1995, as the director of the Aréna Theatre, Sládek initiated its renovation. The building of the former summer theatre situated on the right bank of the Danube is a place enjoying a unique history. Its connected with the theatre beginnings of Max Reinhardt (1873–1943), theatre director and reformer who worked there as a young actor for several seasons.   

Photograph of actors and actresses, Grand Pierrot (1997) by © Ctibor BachratýThe Theatre Institute

Photograph of actors and actresses, Grand Pierrot

Several of his world-famous works were staged again in Bratislava with the new generation of aspiring mime artists. In this period, he created wholly new productions as well. In the Aréna Theatre, Sládek organized the international mime festival known as Kaukliar. 

Pierrot's costume, Milan Sládek – Ľubomír Feldek – Václav Patejdl: Grand Pierrot (1997) by Ján KocmanThe Theatre Institute

Pierrot's costume, Grand Pierrot

Production photograph, Milan Sládek – Alfred Jarry: Ubu (1999) by © Ctibor BachratýThe Theatre Institute

Sládek found inspiration not only in devised theatre, but also in literature, for example in Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi.

Production photograph, Milan Sládek: Labyrinth MM – Beginning and End (2000) by © Ctibor BachratýThe Theatre Institute

His mime was also inspired by opera (The Marriage of Figaro), musical (Grand Pierrot – a mime musical about the life and work of Jean-Gaspard Deburau), and puppet theatre (The Love For Three Oranges).

Costume design 7, Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev: The Love for Three Oranges, Ján Kocman, 2009, From the collection of: The Theatre Institute
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Costume design 5, Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev: The Love for Three Oranges, Ján Kocman, 2009, From the collection of: The Theatre Institute
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Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev: The Love for Three Oranges, Puppet Theatre Žilina, 7 February 2009,  Directed by Milan Sládek

Costume design 12, Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev: The Love for Three Oranges, Ján Kocman, 2009, From the collection of: The Theatre Institute
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Costume design 3, Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev: The Love for Three Oranges, Ján Kocman, 2009, From the collection of: The Theatre Institute
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Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev: The Love for Three Oranges, Puppet Theatre Žilina, 7 February 2009,  Directed by Milan Sládek

Production photograph, Dubček's Spring (2018) by Jozef LomnickýThe Theatre Institute

In his creative life, Milan Sládek became more than just the character of Kefka – he also performed the roles of Pierrot, Dubček, Cain and Abel, Salome, King Ubu, Carmen, Herodes, Christ, King Lear, Andy Warhol, and many others.

His movement and acting performances have captured not just the magic and imagination of mime, but also helped him develop mime as an art that can creatively react to social and political issues and changes.

Portrait of Milan Sládek (1990/1995) by Mária BaloghováThe Theatre Institute

After 2002, when he returned to Germany, Sládek contributed to the production of new mime performances, such as The Threepenny Opera, which premiered in Tokyo. World-famous mime Milan Sládek is still active and creative and continues to stage his original mime art all over the world.

Portrait of Milan Sládek (1990/1995) by Mária BaloghováThe Theatre Institute

 In 2000, Rudolf Schuster, the President of Slovakia, awarded him with the Third Order of Ľudovít Štúr. In 2019, Milan Sládek was awarded a doctor honoris causa diploma for lifetime achievement and significant contribution to the development of the institution by the Academy of Performing Arts in Bratislava.

Portrait, Milan Sládek (1990/1995) by Mária BaloghováThe Theatre Institute

Milan Sládek

world-famous Slovak director, actor, and mime

Credits: Story

Author: Marek Godovič 
Slovak proofreading: Mária Kvaššayová 
English translation: Ivan Lacko 
Editors: Vladislava Fekete, Dominika Zaťková 
Production: Marko Popović 
In cooperation with: Milan Sládek Archive, LITA - Society of Authors

The Theatre Institute has made all possible efforts to identify the authors of the graphic or photographic works used in this publication, as well as to obtain legal permission for their use. If you are the holder of the rights to any of the works used herein, please contact the Theatre Institute: du@theatre.sk. 

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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