Friday, 23 June 2017

Ethiopian Dramaturgy: Circus Abyssinia @ Edfringe 2017

Venue: The Lafayette, The Underbelly Circus Hub, Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2017 Dates: Sat 5th August – Sat 26 August, (not 14th or 21st), 3pm Prices: Aug 5, £10 Aug 6, 9, 10, 15, 16, 17, 22, 23, 24, £13.50 (£12.50) Aug 7, 8, 11, 12, 13, 18, 19, 20, 25, 26, £15.50 (£14.50)

Circus Abyssinia: Ethiopian Dreams is an
unashamedly joyful mix of astonishing stunts, astounding circus skills and enchanting adventure. The 14 strong cast will bring their exuberant message of the power of imagination and dreams with a celebration of transformative circus to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe for the first time.

The realisation of the dreams of its cast, the show dramatises (in surreal, often comic and mostly wordless ways) a tale of a magical journey told by two Ethiopian brothers whose dream of joining the circus is made real by the Man in the Moon. Performed from the perspective of a young Bibi and Bichu, through the language of circus, the show mixes autobiographical and fictional narratives to tell how the two brothers became world-class jugglers.

What was the inspiration for this performance? 

The dreams and stories of its all-Ethiopian cast.  We all grew up dreaming of joining the circus, but there is no circus tradition in Ethiopia - no circuses rolled into town, and there was no chance of running away with one!  

So we learned our skills in the city streets, performing for the sheer love of performing. The show is a surreal retelling of how in following our dreams, we found each other, and in each other, found the means to make our dreams a reality.

Is performance still a good space for the public discussion of ideas? 

Absolutely.  As we see it, performance can raise and provoke ideas in ways that go beyond what is possible in other settings.  Particularly with more and more communication and discussion taking place online, the power of theatre and circus to connect people with each other and the world in an immediate way - to shake up attitudes and challenge assumptions, and create a dialogue between opened minds - is more important than ever.  

For us, circus is a creative response, an art-form defined by a sense of participation and empowerment. We created our show to speak to the power and importance of dreams in a world too often marked by cynicism and doubt, and too often forgetful of the extraordinary diversity and possibilities that lie outside or are hidden from sight in mainstream popular culture.   

How did you go about gathering the team for it? 

For years, we’ve been sponsoring a circus school in Ethiopia, Circus Wingate, doing what we can to help other Ethiopian circus artists who started out just like we did - performing improvised street circus, with little hope of ever making a living by their skills. 

It was at Circus Wingate that we discovered the cast of Ethiopian Dreams - the incredible Konjowoch Troupe. The rest of the creative team we were lucky enough to meet over the course of many years performing in the UK, all incredibly talented people whose collaboration on this show has been its own dream come true.

How did you become interested in making performance?
Since we were little it’s all we’ve ever wanted to do. As young boys we remember carving our first juggling clubs out of wood because we had nothing else to juggle. They were ridiculously too heavy of course, and we got splinters (so many!), but it's always been a matter of when and how, not if, we would perform.

Is there any particular approach to the making of the show?
Although the show opens with a wonderful scene of dialogue - written by amazingly funny Cal McCrystal - we made the decision early on to focus on wordless ways of telling stories, of making meaning. 

Ours isn’t a nostalgic view of circus, a celebration
of its vintage appeal - we've worked very hard to make a show about what circus can and could be, so our approach has been one necessarily marked by elements of exploration and play. Bichu (the director) is very interested in ways of blending the surreal, the lyrical and the physical, and the show does its storytelling through the musical and physical media of circus itself.

Does the show fit with your usual productions?
We’ve worked on various small-scale projects over the years, including an early version of an Ethiopian circus, and we’ve been lucky enough to perform in a huge range of productions over the course of our careers - from CBeebies to opera! - but Ethiopian Dreams is the first large-scale, story-telling piece we’ve created.

What do you hope that the audience will experience?
Hilarity, thrills, empathy for those seeking a better life, and the desire to wholeheartedly pursue their dreams.

What strategies did you consider towards shaping this audience experience?
We’ve worked hard to harness the tremendous, contagious energy of the cast to create an immersive and highly interactive experience for the audience - the audience is a vital part of the show, which literally requires their participation at times! 

For instance, there's a hilarious silent clowning act – not quite in a slapstick vein, but a subtler form of comedy – that establishes a dialogue with the audience that is visual, physical and wordless, inviting spectators to engage with the circus on its own terms.

The show also dreams a little bigger as Bibi and Bichu team up with the Konjowoch Troupe to celebrate the birth of a new Ethiopian tradition. Fusing theatrical storytelling with astonishing stunts, the show combines the arts and innovations of contemporary circus with Ethiopia's artistic heritage to create one of the world's first full-blown Ethiopian circuses.
From humble beginnings Bibi and Bichu learnt their skills at a young age busking and tumbling for crowds in the city streets of Jimma, working tirelessly to master their craft and realise their dreams of joining the circus. Now world-renowned jugglers they have performed in thousands of shows in countries all over the world ranging from Japan to Germany. Their performance credits range from the family friendly to the radical to the
prestigious including; CBeebies, Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway, The Paul O’Grady Show and English National Opera’s production of Akhnetan. They later attended the National Centre for Circus Arts, where they trained under Sean Gandini, director of Gandini Juggling and this summer, they start the filming for Big Ears, Tim Burton's live action remake of Dumbo.

The brothers who now reside in the UK were also resident jugglers at the acclaimed Giffords Circus from 2002 - 2016, touring for 11 seasons throughout the south of England. It was during their time with Giffords, performing as part of Moon Songs in 2015 alongside renowned stage and screen director Cal McCrystal, that the brothers found their inspiration for Circus Abyssinia. The new show unfolds with a dreamlike sense inspired by the 2015 production but the driving force behind the performance is the transformative magic of circus itself, and all its acts play with the possibility that such magic and energy are forces that can be mastered.

Edinburgh Festival Fringe audiences will be plunged into a world of daredevil wonders as they encounter a host of other circus dreamers: dancing, contorting, gravity-defying figures, all weaving tales of their own. Featuring the inimitable Konjowoch Troupe, a team of dazzling and prodigiously talented acrobats from Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, whose reputation for bold and vertiginous acrobatic displays are both awe-inspiring and heart- stopping to watch.

Bibi and Bichu discovered the 12 incredible acrobats at Circus Wingate, a circus school they have sponsored since 2010 as part of their ongoing commitment to support the development of Ethiopian circus in an effort to repay the kindness they received from other artists in their own careers. The troupe's burgeoning circus careers have changed their lives and the lives of their families for the better in very real, significant ways: most were living in poverty until 2015.
Bibi and Bichu’s future plans as a company
include scaling up the show and working with more acrobats from Circus Wingate. They conceive of circus as nothing less than a means of social change, and not just in Ethiopia: further down the line, they're looking to set up a circus school in the UK for immigrants and refugees.

Circus Abyssinia: Ethiopian Dreams is a surreal retelling of how the cast dreamed of the circus in a country without one and created a phenomenal new Ethiopian tradition. The show is an unmissable event for children and adults who will love the extraordinary physical feats of strength, dexterity and fluid grace, and the reminder that, when we work together and fight for them, dreams are for there for the taking.
The Cast
Bibi and Bichu The Konjowoch Troupe: Betty Dejene, Etsegenet Ashenafi, Helen Shimelse Semeret Getachew, Abraham Menbere, Alemayehu Mulugeta, Befekadu Esmael, Ezra Nigusse, Daniel Gezahegn, Hailu Amare, Seid Jemal, Zena Shmelse
The Creative Team
Writer – Cal McCrystal Director – Bichu Tesfamariam Costume Designer - Lara Skowronska

Bibi and Bichu
Ethiopian brothers Bibi and Bichu picked up their first juggling clubs at 13 and 14 years old, inspired by a shared childhood dream of joining an English circus. After working tirelessly to master their craft, they took to the road with Circus Jimma, embarking on a European tour which brought them to the UK in 1999. They quickly discovered the London Circus Space where they met the brilliant Sean Gandini, whose generous and ingenious guidance over the years has helped transform their youthful vision of a circus life into an adult reality.

Since making their home permanently in the UK, Bibi and Bichu have worked with a cavalcade of artists, companies and theatrical circus groups, from the wonderfully funny and endlessly inventive Giffords Circus to the deliciously freakish Circus of Horrors.

They have juggled in thousands of events and festivals in dozens of countries, at venues including the O2 Arena and the Fuji rock festival in Japan, and in shows ranging from the most family friendly to the radical to the prestigious: from CBeebies to Gandini Juggling, to the English National Opera Jubilee. With world records to their names, and numerous television appearances to their credit, Bibi and Bichu rank among the finest jugglers in the world.
Currently in their eleventh season with Giffords, Bibi and Bichu are touring the South of England with Old West love story, 'The Painted Wagon'. They are also thrilled to announce the launch of their own show this year. 'Circus Abyssinia', featuring the amazing Konjowoch Troupe, is an exuberant mix of autobiography and dream.

Konjowoch Troupe
It is with immense pride and delight that Bibi and Bichu welcome to the cast of Circus Abyssinia a team of dazzling and prodigiously talented acrobats, also from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: the inimitable Konjowoch Troupe, whose flying feats and daredevil stunts are equal parts strength and liquid grace. The troupe joined us for the first time in the UK in 2015, for their debut in Giffords Circus' Moon Songs, and have since been taking the Cotswolds by storm with a repertoire comprising contortion, foot juggling, hand vaulting, riveting ensemble dance numbers and an eight-strong Chinese Pole act that has had audiences gasping with amazement.

Founded in 2005, their attitudes of wonder and delight, which exude their sheer love of performing, are just as compelling as the high level of technical virtuosity with which they tackle the terrifying risks involved in their trade today.

That most of the members joined as children has shaped the dynamic of the troupe into that of an oversized, acrobatic family. And in the ring their extraordinary rapport proves infectious, manifesting as an open connection with the audience, which they maintain with every lithe trick, joyful somersault, flip, spin and daredevil leap.

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