March 2018 was a big year for circus in Ethiopia as the second edition of the African Circus Arts Festival came to town. Thousands gathered to attend the spectacle. 11 circus troupes from across the continent joined the festival to showcase their works.
Inside the largest circus tent to ever be erected in the country, the lights dimmed to welcome the South African troupe Zip Zap. As the trapeze artist swung from a hanging horizontal bar, the crowd gasped, held their breath as she flew up into the air and collectively exhaled once she landed safely on the ground. Her dismount was followed by loud applause.
As one of the most democratic art forms in both form and content, circus operates beyond cultural and linguistic barriers and appeals to people of all ages. It includes music, movement and theater. It is storytelling at its most spectacular.
Spectacle has been an integral element of the circus. Music that creates an exciting and increasingly thrilling environment as the artists throw and contort their bodies impossible limits, in flamboyant outfits, is at the crux of the show.
Some scholars date the circus to ancient Rome where a circular structure was constructed as a place of entertainment featuring animal trainers, traveling performers and athletic competitions. But the modern circus format emerged in 18th century England. Philip Astley is largely credited with introducing horse acts, acrobatics and clowns to English public and constructing the very first circus building. Wild animals were gradually included in the show as other people began taking up the trade.
Sideshows and menageries became more popular in the 19th century with performers upping the antics to shock and entice more viewers. Traveling circuses have been entertaining crowds for very long and have changed a great deal in the last century. Animal acts are all but extinct with animal rights activists advocating for the rights of wild animals. Sideshow or “freakshow” attractions are no longer a part of the circus as medicine has come to explain the various afflictions of these people and society has come to deem the whole practice distasteful.
The circus arts have evolved from the traditional gymnastics and acrobatics of the past decades since Circus Ethiopia was established in the mid-80s. More contemporary movements and stories have been added to the traditional songs and outfits and movements mirroring the traditional dances of different cultures that have dominated circus.
“We’re all asking what is art, what is circus, questioning the form. I can see the difference. Artists work differently now. We’re asking what the idea is before doing the act. We consult other people, with choreographers or others.” Says Eyob Ayele, a circus artist. He is also part of Fekat, working in the Smily Circus School and outreach programs of the organization.
Eyob is hesitant to align their work as part of the contemporary circus art movement in case it is conflated with the largely French-influenced evolution of circus art but he recognizes the fresh and progressive approach Ethiopian circus artists are taking. Performers juggle, tumble and act out different narratives through movement and outfits offering social and political commentary to the public.
Commentary has always been a big part of circus, of course. The Cherokee people of North America wore masks of white people invading their land and people, preforming a Booger Dance. The clown, at once cheerful and menacing, was also exemplary of the tightrope clowns had to walk between what was comical and what was scary. Historically, azmaris, poets and other artists offered critical judgment indirectly usingqine and comedy in Ethiopia. Eyob envisions qine circus taking root in the near future. The court jesters were also truthsayers to kings and queens.
With storytelling at the center of their performances, Fekat Circus is fighting to put Ethiopian circus arts to the front. “We work with emotion, we’re telling a story, we are asking what is circus and why peopleare doing this. And the people that come see us once keep returning. But we still struggle to survive,” says Fekat co-founder of DerejeDejene.
State University of Circus and Variety Arts, better known as the Moscow Circus School, was built in Moscow, Russia in 1927 to advance the circus arts. Other circus schools have sprung up throughout Europe and the United States. Although there isn’t a large school established in Ethiopia, circus artists learn from circus companies then go on to be hired by them. Some leave the company to start their own or join international tours. The Ethiopian Ministry of Education and The Ministry of Culture and Tourism along with Fekat Circus are attempting to introduce circus art to the Technical and Vocational Education and Training curriculum of the country.
One artist could train for 3 to 5 years before mastering a specific art. Learning to perform in public and manage an audience are also skills necessary to the art. Mastering one act is not enough of course. One has to be flexible enough to work with other people.
Once seen as an element of gymnastics, circus is increasingly being regarded as an art form that isn’t restricted to sports. When the early circuses in Addis Ababa, Mekelle or Nazareth began, they reflected their region’s cultural elements of dance, music and clothes. The lines are a bit more blurred now.
Circus Ethiopia association started with troupes in Addis Ababa, Tigray, Jimma and Nazareth and grew to include Dire Dawa, Harrar, Dessie, DebreBirhan, Hawassa and Arba Minch. The organization is no longer as active as it used to be and active circus groups are few.
Challenges like lack of space which independent or freelance circus artists face everyday force them to join a company and take classes with other teams. Agents recruit artists to send abroad to circus companies or as entertainment crew on cruise ships or other facilities. The procedure is not very transparent so the details of the deals are unclear but artists that belong to companies generally have to pay back their own companies when returning from overseas tours. A fee of 15% to 25%, depending on the company, is standard.
Fekat Circus along with a few active organizations is attempting to create a socially relevant and self-sustaining circus but the awareness of the public is has become a deterrent.
The circus arts in the country were used to drive social causes through youth engagement and largely funded by NGOs. It was used as an active after-school engagement for children as well as tool to spread awareness on drugs or HIV/AIDS prevention through entertainment in many areas. With many groups having splintered off from their original circuses, social circus is still elemental in spreading the art form.
“People don’t want to pay for the circus. It’s hard to survive like this,” says Dejene, referring to the NGO-funded circus initiatives of the past that offered free shows to the public. People have become used to being entertained for free so it doesn’t make sense to them to pay admission fees. Fekat encounters these difficulties when organizing their monthly show at the Fekat compound and when on national tours.
A joint show from the French circus troupe PPCM and Fekat Circus was part of the African Circus Festival last year. Their performance was subtle and contemplative; a woman was slowly encased in a metal outline of a cube she kept trying to escape, the music was calm, adding to the emotional scene on stage. Two groups of the performers were free falling and bouncing on a trampoline in cohesion, taking turns demonstrating the immense trust that must exist between these performers.
Showmanship and storytelling of the artists create an atmosphere of entertainment and contemplation – dazzling antics and non-linear storyline are attractive to both children and adults. A show that isn’t easily dismissed but lingers in the mind long after leaving the circus is the mainstay of contemporary circus.