In gymnastics and diving, they speak of “degree of difficulty.” The harder the maneuver, the more points a competitor deserves for pulling it off.
There are plenty of difficult dives and gymnastic gems being offered at Children’s Theatre Company. For the second time in four years, it’s opening its season with a new production from Ethiopia’s Circus Abyssinia, a visiting troupe full of acrobats, aerialists, contortionists and jugglers.
So is “Tulu” as exciting as the “Ethiopian Dreams” of three years ago? Judging from the performance I attended on the show’s second weekend, not quite. What was slated to be a 90-minute show was reduced to a little less than an hour, and it’s not as varied in the number of acts and circus styles as the earlier show, nor as slickly produced.
But degree of difficulty should be considered. In 2019, Ethiopia wasn’t embroiled in a civil war. Today, Ethiopians in the Tigray region are trapped in what some international organizations have described as the greatest humanitarian crisis on the globe. While perhaps unrelated to why this production’s cast was reduced to 10 from the 17 listed in the program, it must be a challenge to perform feats that require this kind of concentration.
Ethiopia is clearly a strong source of pride for the cast of “Tulu,” which is named after an athletic legend from that country, Derartu Tulu. In 1992, she became the first Black African woman to win an Olympic gold medal, taking the 10,000 meter run at Barcelona by rallying past a white South African, then inviting her on a hand-in-hand victory lap in what was seen as a major moment in post-Apartheid Africa.
What does this national hero have to do with what’s onstage at Children’s Theatre Company? Well, the ties seem tenuous, mostly reduced to an opening evocation of her landmark victory, the wielding of multi-colored hula hoops that end up forming the Olympic rings, and a strong sense of pride in Ethiopia, complete with flag waving.
Oh, and adrenaline and excitement. You’ll certainly find a fair amount of that in “Tulu” when Betelhem Dejene Tola is twirling like an eggbeater while attached to her spinning, roller-skating companion. Or when tumblers are leaping through hoops of fire, or being thrown toward the ceiling by their muscle-bound compatriots.
Yet the show’s most powerful moments are often its most meditative. Daniel Amera Seid displays exceptional grace and strength, making of himself a human sculpture while performing handstands atop short poles. And he offers one of the show’s most awe-inspiring acts, using straps dangling from the ceiling as his tools for something like a combination of gymnastics’ still rings and floor exercise disciplines. Set to some hypnotic music by Anteneh Minalu, it’s a breathtaking performance.
That’s just one example of the show’s terrific recorded soundtrack, a compendium of widely varied Ethiopian music that soothes, rocks, stirs and explodes forth in funky fashion.
For a production inspired by a woman, it doesn’t allow the cast’s three women to show off their artistry very often, their chief contribution two sets of impressive contortions to wow you and make you wince. But the acrobats end up stealing the show with a final set of soaring, spinning flights off the “Russian Swing,” often sticking their landings in ways that any Olympian would envy.
‘Circus Abyssinia: Tulu’
- When: Through Oct. 23
- Where: Children’s Theatre Company, 2400 Third Ave. S., Mpls.
- Tickets: $69-$15, available at 612-874-0400 or childrenstheatre.org
- Capsule: Not as full a show as 2019’s “Ethiopian Dreams,” but there’s high-flying fun to be had.
Rob Hubbard can be reached at email@example.com.