Catch Them While You Can!

Growing up without a circus tradition around them, Ethiopian jugglers Bibi and Bichu had to make their own rules. Now the Olivier Award-winning duo are hitting the Fringe for the first time with their very own troupe

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Circus Abyssinia: Ethiopian Dreams
Published 08 Aug 2017

Bichu Tesfamariam’s description of the first time he and his brother Bibi tried juggling sounds like any anecdote about a childhood fascination: the inspirational teacher, the sparked curiosity, the ensuing home-made crafts. After school one day in Jimma, Ethiopia, the brothers caught sight of one of their teachers—Elmar Brunner from Canada—juggling three oranges. Intrigued, they asked him to show them how he did it. The next day he brought them a video of Cirque du Soleil.

“I remember one of the Cirque du Soleil classic shows where there's a guy with seven bouncing balls. We were literally amazed,” says Bichu. Brunner showed them how to make juggling balls: cutting socks and stitching seeds inside. “Then we went back home and we pretty much did exactly as he showed us – and we got into trouble for cutting our socks. But it was all good. Our parents understood once they saw what we were trying to do.”

Most childhood fixations fade. Bichu and Bibi’s grew stronger. Using clubs they made from wood, they began performing on the streets of Jimma, then were cast in a circus bound for the Brighton Fringe. But with little-to-no circus tradition at that time in Ethiopia against which to measure themselves, they had no idea how proficient they had become. The pair, Bichu says without a hint of conceit, were “shocked” at the response they received in the UK. Invitations to circus conventions followed as they completed their tour. At the time, he and Bibi didn’t even have a lexicon for the tricks they had mastered.  

“The triple singles and all the throws – we didn't have names and we would never have thought, ‘Okay, this trick’s called this and this is called this.’” Professional jugglers approached them, tossing out vocabulary in siteswap, the choreographic juggling notation. “We were just like, 'What? What are you talking about? We just do tricks.'"

It was an encounter at Circus Space—now the National Centre for Circus Arts—that formed the turning point in their practice. “We were quite scared. We were very young – I was 16 and my brother was 17. So we were just in the corner, juggling.” The room went quiet. “We actually thought we'd done something wrong, and we stopped juggling. And then everyone started clapping.” Others in the workshop began flinging them more clubs until they had seven, then eight on the go. Afterwards, the same name was mentioned to them repeatedly. “Everyone was coming past and grabbing us. They told us, ‘You have to meet Sean Gandini.’”

If you have come across juggling in the UK, it is likely you will recognise the Gandini name. Outrageously skilful and restlessly imaginative, Gandini Juggling has developed a reputation for pushing juggling beyond its circus boundaries and fusing it with disciplines such as ballet, contemporary dance and avant-garde theatre. Founded in the '90s by husband and wife team Sean Gandini and Kati Ylä-Hokkala, recent Fringe productions have included the Pina Bausch-inspired interrogation of human behaviour, Smashed, and the elegant, playful 4 x 4 Ephemeral Architectures. Perhaps the anecdote that best sums up the route that Gandini has taken juggling down is that he used to perform in the piazza outside the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, then years later helmed the nine-strong Smashed inside on its stage.

Bichu wrote Gandini a letter. Gandini turned up to one of the Circus Space sessions, and by the time the brothers got home that day there was a message on Bichu’s answerphone with the offer of a job at the Barbican.

It’s a relationship that has lasted since the early 2000s, with Gandini describing the brothers as “Gandini family. The first show they did with us, they performed as if they had been performing for all their lives.” He still has Bichu’s letter.

Bichu describes juggling as “much like mathematics” and credits his relationship with his brother as giving the pair an advantage – they don’t count when juggling together, and can adapt to each other’s drops. Similarly Gandini compares the skillset required to that of a classical musician “in its need for incessant practice...I think it appeals to minds which enjoy patterns.” For the viewer these patterns can be mesmerising. Watching YouTube clips of Bibi and Bichu feels similar to watching fractals unfurl, or twisting a kaleidoscope.

This year the Gandinis—sans Bibi and Bichu—have turned to the patterns of bharatanatyam dance, partnering with choreographer and bharatanatyam specialist Seeta Patel to explore juggling and classical Indian geometries, in new piece Sigma. If it seems another unusual direction for the form, that’s part of the point. “I think juggling”, says Gandini, “as a malleable and choreographic tool is very embryonic, so there is much still to do.”

Meanwhile Bibi and Bichu’s career has been as varied as the patterns they create. They have worked on traditional circuses, CBeebies, and with Gandini Juggling on the Philip Glass opera Akhnetan – for which they won an Olivier Award. But perhaps their greatest achievement to date has been starting their own circus, Circus Abyssinia. The project, says Bichu, grew out of the Circus Wingate school they began sponsoring in Addis Ababa in 2010 “to give back what we never had”. On a visit there they were bowled over by the talents of the school’s acrobatic Konjowoch troupe, and decided to form a 14-strong circus with them. Ethiopian Dreams was born, mixing narrative with circus to tell the brothers’ story.

Also at the Circus Hub, flying the flag for postmodern juggling, Belgian troupe Cie Ea Eo have set their sights on deconstructing juggling so that “even the artists won't be able to tell if there is really a statement to it”. And for younger audiences, Australian pirate-ship circus Arr We There Yet? is full of skilful derring-do with flying cutlasses. If juggling is here to stay, there is no predicting the directions in which you may see it flying.

“Juggling is its golden age!” says Gandini. “There is a fantastic new generation of jugglers springing up.”