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Review: Circus Abyssinia Returns to New York With Fresh, Fiery Performances in Tulu

The Ethiopian troupe's brand-new show pays tribute to long-distance runner Derartu Tulu and her achievements.

Daniel Amera Seid performs incredible feats of strength and control in Circus Abyssinia: Tulu.
(© Alexis Buatti Ramos)

It's been four years since Mehari Tesfamariam and Binyam Shimellis, who go by the nicknames Bibi and Bichu, first brought their Circus Abyssinia to the New Victory Theater. The brothers hail from Addis Abiba, Ethiopia, where they gathered a phenomenal group of talented athletes and gymnasts for their first show, Ethiopian Dreams.

Their new show continues that theme of achieving your goals by paying tribute to one Ethiopian athlete whose dreams came true at the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games. It was there that Derartu Tulu became the first woman from the continent of Africa to win a Gold Medal, after winning the 10,000-meter event.

I had nothing but praise for Ethiopian Dreams, but I have to say that I was even more blown away by Tulu. Bibi and Bichu have created a whole new family-friendly show that gets your heart racing faster than before with a new high-flying jumps and real onstage fire acts.

Contortionist Semeret Getachew Bekana
(© Alexis Buatti Ramos)

After an opening scene depicting Tulu's victory at the Olympics, contortionist Semeret Getachew Bekana, who has been with the company since 2017, performs a body-bending routine that makes you doubt your own eyes as she twists her torso in ways that don't seem humanly possible. Then there's the muscular Daniel Amera Seid, as outstanding a gymnast as your likely to see at any Olympics. He does graceful hand-balancing that pushes the limits of body control before ascending into the air for an aerial-strap routine that makes you believe that people can fly.

One of the new acts I was especially impressed by was the roller-skating duet performed by Betelhem "Betty" Djene Tola and Befekadu Esmael Awol. On a small circular platform, these two seem to test the laws of physics as Befekadu and Betty spin at incredible speeds. It's definitely an edge-your-seat performance as you sit wondering how it is that Betty can hold on while the centrifugal force suspends her in the air.

Betelhem "Betty" Djene Tola and Befekadu Esmael Awol perform the roller skating duet.
(© Alexis Buatti Ramos)

Bibi and Bichu, both master jugglers, are of course also a big part of the show. Last time around they impressed us with some complex dual juggling. This time, however, they really light up the stage by juggling fire sticks in a routine that looks like a Fourth of July display as flames get tossed from one man to the other. Flames also play a part in another act when performers Alemayehu Mulugeta Degenet, Cherenet Dereje Negash, Dagmawi Fekeru Yimer, and Behaylu Tesfaye Zena dive through blazing hoops without getting so much as a singe (at least we hope not).

But literally the biggest act of the show, and one that's a favorite of many in the troupe, involves a contraption called a Russian Swing. In this case the word Russian seems to mean "enormous." Once it's situated on the stage, the hoop-divers join Betty in getting that big swing to rise to a frightening height before one of them leaps off it and into the air almost as high as the flies and then lands safely on a large mat below. Your heart leaps into your throat right along with them.

Brothers Bibi and Bichu perform their fire juggling act in Circus Abyssia: Tulu at the New Victory Theater.
(© Alexis Buatti Ramos)

The whole show is highlighted by selections of Ethiopian pop music that members of the troupe get the audience clapping to. Feven Alem's colorful costumes and Mark Whatmough's lighting also liven the stage, especially when the company comes forward to perform Tamrat Ejet and Bichu's choreography.

The beauty of this show, something that makes it so terrific for young people, is its focus on pushing the limits of what seems possible by not letting anything or anyone stand in the way of achieving your dreams. At only about one hour, it's just the right length for fidgety kids and teens, but in that short time these performers will get their imaginations fired up and maybe get them dreaming.

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