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Circus Abyssinia: Ethiopian Dreams
The Cockpit
1st August 2017


Bibi and Bichu

Photography © Alex Tilling

When it comes to work, ultimately, most of us end up doing something that pays the bills. The passions we have as children don't usually translate into adult careers, with a shockingly low number of people becoming ballerinas, astronauts and Premier League footballers. Dreams though, no matter how unlikely, can come true. Circus Abyssinia: Ethiopian Dreams is a vaguely autobiographical tale of two young Ethiopian brothers from a non-circus background who grow up to be professional jugglers travelling the world and performing alongside other circus artists.

A pre-recorded digital introduction written by Cal McCrystal shows the two boys, Bibi Tesfamariam (Ezera Nigusse) and Bichu Tesfamariam (Alemayehu Mulugeta) asking the Man in the Moon (Tweedy the Clown) to grant their wish of joining the circus. As the young siblings drift off into slumber, we're introduced to the many different talents of the Konjowoch Troupe - dance, juggling, contortion and acrobatics to name but a few. We even meet the grown up Bibi and Bichu, played by themselves. Other than the initial framing (which is borrowed from a past production rather than written specifically for this show), there is a lack of structure and it's not clear that the two boys from the opening scene have grown up and realised their dreams. The decision to not use any new dialogue adds to the ambiguity. Director Bichu instead focuses on bringing out the sheer delight of performing, which he admittedly does very well.

When the men in the troupe (Abraham Menbere, Befekadu Esmael, Daniel Gezahegn, Hailu Amare, Seid Jemal and Zena Shmelse) swing the young boys in the air, we're acutely aware of the risk of Nigusse and Mulugeta being accidentally hurtled into the audience at high speed and just how implicitly they all trust each other. It's an intimate performance allowing us to observe their expressions of absolute trust and even though we know they're confident it will all go to plan, there are still quite a few heart in mouth moments. We watch, utterly captivated, flinching unconsciously each time the boys are swung in our direction. There are no safety nets and the boys are frequently launched backwards, unable to see where they're going next and relying entirely on someone to catch them.

The female acrobats (Helen Shimelse, Semeret Getachew, Etsegenet Ashenafi and Betelhem Dejene) twist and tumble in impossible ways, including bending in half and somehow stacking themselves together. The first time they reveal their contortionist talents, there's an impressed gasp from the children in the audience, who watch the girls wriggle and twist convincingly like snakes. There are in fact only four girls in the troupe, but due to the multiple costumes designed by Lara Skowronska, you would be forgiven for miscounting. Her outfits are gorgeously vibrant and colourful, reflecting the personalities of the artists and the phenomenal amount of energy in their performances.

With this being their first show (the performers are doing a couple of days in Camden before heading up to Ed Fringe), there are a few more slips and drops than you would normally expect. None of these little mistakes seem to trouble the Konjowoch Troupe though and their happiness at simply being on stage is infectious. You can't help but have a good time. We've seen more technically skilled companies (including Gandini Juggling, with whom Bibi and Bichu have previously worked), however it's hard to recommend a more lively and joyful group of circus artists. An easy way to keep little kids (and big kids) quiet for an hour.

Circus Abyssinia: Ethiopian Dreams opened on 1st August and runs until 2nd August 2017 at The Cockpit, as part of the Camden Fringe.

Nearest tube station: Marylebone (Bakerloo)

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