On the closing night of Brighton Festival, Les SlovaKs present Opening Night, the improvised work that was first performed seven years ago. As opening nights go, theirs has certainly been rather protracted. The work's longevity is deserved though: after only a few minutes in, I became aware that I was watching something really rather special.

Opening Night © Victor Frankowski
Opening Night
© Victor Frankowski
As the audience file in, the six performers are already on stage, chatting to each other and nodding to us as we find our seats. It's a gentle welcome to their world, full of private jokes and shared references that we may not understand but feel included in nonetheless. The all-male collective from Slovakia share a common language and history, as four of them grew up together and five went to the same dance school. The sixth man, Simon Thierée, provides live musical accompaniment with violin and sampled sounds that ground the work in rhythms and infuse the dancers' bodies with the tension and release of a taut violin string.

Les SlovaKs © Victor Frankowski
Les SlovaKs
© Victor Frankowski
Music is the key to this piece in a sense. The work starts in earnest with a Slovakian folk tune, sung in rich harmony. It is a rousing call to action that sets up a joyful yet reflective tone that is perfectly suited to this gang of men that refuse to give up on playing like boys. They nod to their shared past with strange hops and skips and the odd thigh slap that might possibly be folk dancing, but could just as easily be a new form of hip-hop. Whatever it is, it's always interesting and frequently hilarious.

The work, as a piece of improvisation, has a structure that changes both subtly and overtly, preventing the piece from becoming predictable, if that is possible in a work where not even the performers are completely sure what's happening. They melt from solo to duet to quintet and back again, full of lifts and acrobatics they mainly execute with skill and verve, but sometimes fail with style. This is no criticism, it is just part of the uncertainty that makes improvised work so exciting to watch, and Les SlovaKs are the most exciting I've seen in a long time.

Opening Night © Victor Frankowski
Opening Night
© Victor Frankowski

As a group, they are skilled in complex contact work, playing tug-of-war with limbs and twisting around each other with athletic enthusiasm. As solo performers they are possibly even better. Each member has allowed a little of their personality to flow through their movements, giving the work real emotion and humanity. Peter Jasko's performance in particular shines with a mix of droll humour and showmanship, supporting his aptitude for clownish tumbling and diving across the stage. No one is left out though in this collective of camaraderie: even the violinist gets a solo centre stage, with a swooping and soaring soundscape that echoes what has just happened, and in settling the pace, prepares us all for an ending that unfortunately has to arrive soon.

Les SlovaKs © Victor Frankowski
Les SlovaKs
© Victor Frankowski

The dancers don't allow the end to come too easily; with a glorious climactic section full of leaps and slides, the only thing that seems important is to express their utter joy in dancing together. When the lights finally fade, I am completely taken in by their uniquely brilliant world. Les SlovaKs are a testament to how improvisation can reach a place where performance is so real and exciting, even after seven years of the same piece. I look forward to watching after the next seven.

*****