Circus performance stands at the intersection of artistic craft and difficult athletic performance. Often, performers spend years perfecting their craft through athletic training and calisthenics. While it’s garnered much acclaim abroad, circus performance is a growing trend in Ethiopia – and one that numerous performance groups in the country hope will continue to grow. In connection with the African Circus Festival held recently in Addis Ababa, EBR’s Ashenafi Endale spoke with performers and organisers of the event to learn more about the craft and its nascent journey in Ethiopia.
Hundreds of people who attended the first African Circus Arts Festival were shouting and clapping nonstop when various circus groups from different African countries performed at the newly inaugurated Oromo Cultural Centre located near Addis Ababa Stadium.
Organised by the Fekat Circus of Ethiopia, the Festival, which was held from November 27 – 29, 2015, shed new light and on the level and rigor of circus performance in Ethiopia.
Eight circus groups in total – two from Kenya and Ethiopia as well one from South Africa, Madagascar, Senegal and Zambia – showcased their craft and years of practice to the spectators. Cultural music bands accompanied each group’s performance, which were greatly influenced by each country’s distinct culture.
“Although I’ve never seen circus performance before, [these groups were] excellent,” says Nani Wondimu, who attended the Festival for two days. “Such festivals are important in Addis Ababa, where there are few entertainment options.” Members of the diplomatic community, foreigners in Addis Ababa, and residents of the capital of all ages attended the Festival.
“Circus is a multidisciplinary art that is based on physique [and acrobatics],” says Dereje Dagne, founder and president of Fekat Circus, which was established in 2004, and organiser of the Festival. “It includes all types of sport but it is more artistic, since it involves music, dance, singing, fashion and design.” Dereje has performed in circuses for the last 12 years and has been working as a choreographer for the past six years.
The idea of hosting the Festival was initiated by Dereje in 2009 – and he has been actively organising it for the last two years. The idea emerged after he performed in a circus festival held in Germany six years ago. However, because of financial constraints, he wasn’t been able to make his plans come to fruition for several years.
He began planning the Festival in earnest after securing USD99,000 from UNESCO, which was mostly spent on air travel for the 85 performers that came from other African countries. All the performers performed for free, according to Dereje.
Those performers that came from abroad also testified to the success of the Festival. “I liked the festival very much. I liked the Fekat performance; they are very good but slow compared to us,” said Bilal Hassen, 25, an acrobat with Kenya’s Sarakasi Trust. Hassan has been a circus performer for six years.
Despite the success of the Festival, Dereje says that there is more to be done to develop circus performance in Ethiopia. “Circus groups in Ethiopia face problems to get rehearsal places, circus supplies and financing. We practice by renting a house, although circus training needs its own place [with a high ceiling] and a conducive environment,” Dereje told EBR. “We also make the materials we use by hand because importing them is very expensive.”
Still, Dereje says things are getting better in terms of circus performance getting formalised recognition. The government decided to support, regulate and monitor circuses under the Ministry of Culture and Tourism two months ago. “It was even difficult to get licenses before because of lack of a due attention from the government,” he says.
After Circus Ethiopia, the earliest circus group in the country, was founded in Addis Ababa in 1991 with 10 students, others followed: Circus Jima in 1993, Circus Tigray and Nazareth (Adama) in 1994. Currently there are over 20 major circus groups in the country. Under the name Circus Ethiopia, eight regional circus groups used to organise annual festivals in Ethiopia. However, after performing three years beginning in 1994, it stopped because of financial issues.
“Funders at the time have left and everything became costly thereafter. Therefore, each of the circus groups started to perform on their own,” says Hellen Yesuf, director of Circus Tigray. “We did not talk about coming together again.” With its base in Mekelle, currently Circus Tigray has 150 trainees and 47 performers.
Still, many refer to Circus Debre Birhan as Ethiopia’s first professional circus group. Established in 1998 in Debre Birhan City in the Amhara Region, the group has performed in 187 Ethiopian towns and in various countries, including in the African Circus Arts Festival, and has won awards.
In addition to its own training centre in Debre Birhan, the group also has two music bands, traditional and modern, that generate income for the group, according to its executive and artistic director, Tekilu Ashagre . Currently, Circus Debre Birhan has 168 students and 42 performers. Teklu says the group has received land and it is preparing to build a cultural centre in the city.
Most of the circus groups in Ethiopia show their performances at rare public events, while some of them come out in towns to educate the society about traffic accidents, HIV and women’s rights. However, few get chances to tour and perform in foreign countries, especially in Europe.
“I spend at least half of the year outside Ethiopia,” says Dereje, who will lead his team to France before the end of 2015. “We Africans have nothing compared to the 127 circus festivals that are held a year in countries like Spain.” His team, together with a team from Kenya, recently returned from Spain two months ago, after four months on tour. “More than 15 tourists came with us from Spain after our show there,” Dereje reveals.
Hellen also says that circus is mostly surviving on the shoulders of private promoters because the value of the art is not known in Ethiopia. Teklu agrees: “We have financial challenges. Government is not supporting us as much as our contribution for the society.”
Beyond their entertainment value, circus activities can serve as a recreational hobby with athletic benefits. In many countries, particularly those in the West, the activity has become a popular exercise for young people to participate in and others to watch. This is because many circus acts rely on calisthenics training – gymnastic activities that promote overall fitness and agility. In some countries, there are even school programmes and institutions that promote the craft, especially for young children.
Creating a culture of circus appreciation and participation may prove financially beneficial. According to The Wall Street Journal, in 2013, the popular Canadian circus performance group Cirque du Soleil was worth more than USD2 billion – earnings that were obtained from the dozens of performances they put on each year. In order for Ethiopia to reach the upper echelons of the circus world, insiders stress that the government needs to work with the community to help expand their opportunities and public perception. EBR
4th Year • December 16 2015 – January 15 2016 • No. 34