Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
A scheduled return in fall of 2021 was cancelled due to COVID-19 as well as visa difficulties travelling from their Ethiopian homeland. Those barriers have been surmounted, and Circus Abyssinia is back in Minneapolis, with the American premiere of their newest program, Tulu. The troupe has new routines and some changes in cast members, but remains every bit as thrilling and inspiring as on their previous visit to our shores.
Tulu is named in honor of Derartu Tulu, an Ethiopian track star who, at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, became the first African woman to win an Olympic gold medal, which was for the 10,000-meter race. Not only did she win by a wide margin, but rather than taking the traditional solo victory lap, Tulu waited for Elana Meyer, running behind her for the silver medal, and the two took a victory lap hand in hand. This was momentous because Meyer, who is white, was running for South Africa. The 1992 games were the first Olympics in which she was able to complete, having qualified since 1984 but denied because of the Olympic boycott of South Africa while its notorious policies of apartheid remained in place. Those policies were abolished in 1991, allowing Meyer to finally compete. Tulu's gracious gesture toward her white South African competitor was seen as a symbol of new hope for all of Africa. Since 2018, Tulu has been president of the Ethiopian Athletics Federation.
Without doubt, the display of discipline, concentration, and perseverance needed to perform the acts in Circus Abyssinia: Tulu would give anyone hope for what the human race can achieve. Those qualities are embellished with imagination and artistry, to provide entertainment that prompts the audience to gasp at its daring while being uplifted by its beauty.
Tulu opens with a re-creation of the track star's first Olympic win–she was to win two more, another gold in 2000 and the bronze medal in 2004. This homage to an extraordinary woman seamlessly transitions into the first circus act, a solo woman contortionist, whose poise, agility, and self-confidence may well be an extension of Tulu's presence. An array of acts follows, with displays of hand vaulting, a contortionist duet, hand balancing, roller skating (at breakneck speed on a disk that looked no more than six feet in diameter), ensemble roller skating, and hoop diving, followed by flaming hoop diving, followed by flaming juggling–whew!
There is also hoop twirling (try spinning sixteen hoops up and down your body at the same time), aerial acrobatics that are both daring and graceful, and Icarian games, which basically is human juggling. The latter must require extraordinary strength, balance, and trust in your fellow performers. Last is an act called Russian Swing. A large apparatus swings back and forth, carrying gymnasts who leap from it at its apex, and do summersaults, twists, and other stunts before landing. Every one of these acts is incredible, completely capturing the attention of audience members of all ages.
Throughout each act and during scene transitions, recorded Ethiopian pop music–said to be some of Tulu's personal favorites–are played by performers including Betty G, Abbush Zallaquaa, Jana Band, Gigi, Dawit Tsige, Mahmoud Ahmed, Gash Abera Molla, Anteneh Minalu, Esubalew Yetayew, Mitku Bekele and Endegna–names that will mean little to most of the audience, but nonetheless engage us with pulsating rhythms and intoxicating instrumentations.
While the acts are developed by those who perform them, the entire program is constantly in motion, with sensuous choreography by Tamrat Ejeta and Binyam "Bichu" Shimellis, culminating in a splendid finale scene. The movement is set ablaze by the colors and patterns in Feven Alem's costume designs. Mark Whatmough's lighting design builds upon the intensity of the acts, often bathing the stage in darkness while cones of yellow light home in tightly on a performer, other times use multi-colored footlights to create a carnival feeling. The entire spectacle is written and directed by Binyam "Bichu" Shimellis, who gives a sparkling, gyrating gem of a production.
Some of my friends, when told I would be going to a circus, scoffed that they do not care much for circuses. Most were allayed when I told them there are no animal acts and no clowns, though there is a wee bit of light clowning around to lighten the almost continuous tension that comes from watching people do the impossible. While Circus Abyssinia: Tulu does not provide a narrative, other than celebrating the life of a national hero, it steadily builds a positive, even inspiring, atmosphere. For a nation where circus arts were unknown forty years ago to produce this marvelous display of those arts, performed at the highest caliber of athleticism and artistry, is itself a narrative, a story of belief, endurance and achievement that cannot be told too often. Aside from that, it is just plain awesome.
Circus Abyssinia: Tulu through October 23, 2022, at the Children's Theatre Company, 2400 Third Avenue South, Minneapolis MN. Tickets are $34.00 - $79.00. Wheelchair seats available for $25.00 for adults, $15.00 for children 17 and under, seniors 62 and over, and military personnel. Ten percent discount for purchase of six or more tickets. For tickets and information, call 612-874-0400 or visit childrenstheatre.org. Best enjoyed by all ages.
Written and Directed by: Binyam "Bichu" Shimellis; Choreographers: Tamrat Ejeta and Binyam "Bichu" Shimellis; Costume Design: Feven Alem; Lighting Design: Mark Whatmough; Company Manager and Stage Manager: Gabriella Cooke. Producers: Mehari "Bibi" Tesfamariam and Binyam "Bichu" Shimellis.
Cast: Daniel Amera, Bezawit Ashagre, Etsegenet Ashenafi, Betelhem (Betty) Dejene, Cherenet Dereje, Befekadu Esmael, Zenebe Fantu, Fitsum Fekadu, Dagmawi Fekeru, Semeret Getachew, Zenebech Kassa, Alemayehu Mulugeta, Ezera Nigusse, Bichu Shimellis, Bibi Tesfamariam, Behaylu Tesfaye, and Kdus Yohanes.