As boys in Ethiopia in the 1990s, brothers Mehari “Bibi” Tesfamariam and Binyam “Bichu” Tesfamariam became transfixed on a teacher who began juggling items. The teacher handed them a tape of Cirque du Soleil, which sparked a lifelong dream to join the circus.
Bibi and Bichu put on shows at their local farmers market, inventing acrobatic routines and juggling with fruit. They began getting some work in Addis Abbas at a circus that used old material donated by Cirque du Soleil. As staff from the famed circus dropped off old gear, they noticed Bibi and Bichu practicing juggling and became transfixed themselves. The boys, all of 14, had to learn how to juggle on their own, using unorthodox items or juggling clubs they made that were uneven and nowhere near passing regulation standards.
Without teachers or traditional tools, Bibi and Bichu created a new rhythm to juggling, interpreting the form through the Ethiopian eye and creating a new juggle.
Soon, Bibi and Bichu were in England, working as featured jugglers in different circuses. All along their way, even after succeeding at working under the big-top, the brothers held the dream of making their own circus. In that ambition bore a noble, new goal — start a circus school back home for other Ethiopian kids with the same dream.
The boys built the school, which now has over 100 participants. Bibi and Bichu now are the ones who arrive with old gear to donate. And the school became a talent pool for their Ethiopian circus. Bibi and Bichu didn’t just teach later generations of Ethiopians the ways of the circus but brought them along when it was time to make their own.
“Circus Abyssinia: Ethiopian Dreams” at the Children’s Theatre is that dream of the Ethiopian big-top come true. Not only is the cast entirely Ethiopian, but every mesmerizing aerial stunt, contortionism, and juggling is scored by traditional and contemporary East African music. Each member is dressed in Ethiopian clothing, dancing Ethiopian dances.
“Everything you see is Ethiopian,” said Bibi.
The narrative of the show borrows that of the Bibi and Bichu — the ever romantic tale of running away to join the circus with the added drama of the seemingly insurmountable geographical and cultural odds of that desire burning in the hearts of two Ethiopians.
The two have taken the show all over the world and bring it to Minneapolis for the first time. Shortly after arriving, the Ethiopian jugglers with accents bouncing from East African to East Londoner enjoyed seeing so many East Africans in the Twin Cities. Bibi and Bichu both live in the very diverse city of London but admitted they had never seen such a strong presence of East Africans out of East Africa.
In a Twin Cities Ethiopian store, Bichu said he saw a spice that would be hard to find on the main strip in Addis Ababa.
Now, in the East African immigrant haven that is the Twin Cities, that shop owner can see the Ethiopian circus.
“Circus Abyssinia: Ethiopian Dreams” at Children’s Theatre Company started in Sept. and runs until Oct. 20. Ticket start at $15. The Children’s Theatre Company is located at 2400 3rd Ave. S in Minneapolis. For more information, call 612-874-0400 or visit my.childrenstheatre.org.