When they were little, Ethiopian brothers Bibi and Bichu dreamed of joining the circus. But despite the extraordinary talent that abounds in their country, the absence of circus in Ethiopia means that most acrobats never get to perform for a living, let alone see the inside of a circus ring.
Bibi and Bichu learned their skills busking and tumbling for crowds in the city streets of Jimma. At 13 and 14 years old, they discovered their extraordinary talent for juggling, and came to England in 1998 as part of one of the first Ethiopian troupes to tour Europe, performing to rave reviews and critical acclaim at Brighton Fringe. They returned in 1999 to make their home here, and to pursue their shared childhood dream of joining the circus by participating in the UK’s thriving circus scene. They trained at the National Centre for Circus Arts, where they met Sean Gandini, director of Gandini Juggling, who cast them in the Millennium Dome celebrations, Big (2000), and later, in Smashed (2012 and 2016) and Mozart’s Glow (2017). Sean has been a friend and mentor to them ever since.
Over the years, Bibi and Bichu have met with more success than they ever dared hope for. Since making their home permanently in the UK, they have worked with some truly amazing artists and companies, and participated in some of the most vibrant and challenging tours and festivals in the world, including the Millennium Dome celebrations in London, and the Fuji Rock festival in Japan.
They’ve performed in thousands of events in dozens of countries, in shows that span the spectrum of the circus arts, from CBeebies to opera. Their performance credits range from the most family friendly to the radical to the prestigious: from the gleeful abandon of CBeebies’ Justin’s House to the avant-garde experiments of Gandini Juggling, to the stunning English National Opera production of Akhnetan, which won an Olivier Award in 2017.
Interspersing live gigs with numerous TV appearances, Bibi and Bichu have juggled on the BBC, ITV and Channel 4, including The Paul O’Grady Show and Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway, and have broken world records along the way. They were also resident jugglers at the acclaimed Giffords Circus from 2002–2016, touring for 11 seasons throughout the south of England with shows that told and retold stories through the medium of circus. And during the summer they start the filming for Big Ears, Tim Burton’s live action remake of Dumbo, in which they’ll feature in the circus scenes.
Given how they started, and how much they owe to the help and the kindness of fellow artists, it is very important to Bibi and Bichu to provide the same kind of support to other circus ‘dreamers’. They’ve worked very hard to help other Ethiopian acrobats in particular; since 2010, they’ve been sponsoring a circus school back in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, called Circus Wingate. Though it has always been explosive with talent, with extraordinarily high standards (the troupe trained there under Ethiopian gymnastics coach Solomon Tadese), the school was so sorely lacking in funds it was about to close down. Due to their help it’s now a thriving and steadily growing institution, with 150 students and counting.
It was at Circus Wingate that Bibi and Bichu discovered the Konjowoch Troupe, 12 incredible acrobats who started out like they did, as buskers and street performers, honing their skills with no expectation of pay on city streets. They joined Bibi and Bichu in the UK for the first time in 2015, and for two summers they toured together with Giffords Circus in Moon Songs (2015), and Wild West love story, The Painted Wagon (2016).
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. For instance, Betty raised her brother and two sisters single-handedly, with all four living in just one room, and Abiye’s mum was homeless. The troupe’s circus success has meant they have been able to support their families back home, buying them houses to live in, and helping them become self- sufficient – Hailu and Abraham’s families have been able to establish farms and are growing crops to support themselves.
As the astonishing abilities of the Konjowoch Troupe attest, the lack of a circus tradition in Ethiopia is not for want of driven, passionate, or prodigiously talented circus artists. Bibi and Bichu are lucky to be performing at a time of growth and change in the global circus community, and it doesn’t seem too much to say that the time has come for a new vision of circus in Ethiopia. This is a possibility they explore in Circus Abyssinia: Ethiopian Dreams. A celebration of dreams, of the people who make them possible, and the strength in all of us to fight for them, this is a show that uses the wonderful, surrealist language of circus to tell their story – how they dreamed it as children, how they lived it, and live it today.
Running time: 60 mins
Age Recommendation: all
Photo Credit: Andrew Rees