Interview: Circus Abyssinia's Bibi and Bichu Tesfamariam

The brothers from Circus Abyssinia talk about launching their own touring company and being asked to perform in Tim Burton's Dumbo

feature (adelaide) | Read in About 3 minutes
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Circus Abyssinia
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Published 07 Mar 2019

Brothers Bibi and Bichu Tesfamariam quite literally ran away to join the circus. For 11 years, they were part of Circus Jimma – one of the first travelling circus troupes out of Ethiopia.

While touring the UK with Circus Jimma, they met and performed for director Tim Burton. "We were travelling the countryside and Tim Burton and his family were in the same area," says Bibi. "He’d see the show every year, and he used to hang out after the show. He loved that we were a travelling group and he’d bring the kids every year."

After noticing their performance with Circus Jimma, Burton sparked a conversation about a film. "[Burton] didn’t even mention it was Dumbo to begin with," says Bichu. "He just said he was going to direct something with circus, and we said, yeah, definitely. A year after we started creating Circus Abyssinia we got this phone call from the casting director asking if we were still interested.

"Just before the phone call we were trying to apply for funding," says Bibi. "It was so difficult, we were running around asking people for money, and we couldn’t afford to [launch the company] at that time, but then we got this call." From a serendipitous meeting in the countryside, a hope formed. "We started thinking, maybe we can create a self-funded, self-producing company with no hassle," Bibi says. "This made it possible and it worked for us. I really believe that everything happens for a reason."

What followed was seven months of long filming days in London. "We would get make-up done and sit around all day and sometimes not even get filmed," says Bibi. "But that’s part of the game. It was definitely an experience, but a good one and I would do it again." And in August they performed over weekends at the Edinburgh Fringe between filming. "We worked on the film from Monday to Friday in London," says Bichu, "then flew to Edinburgh on Friday to work the weekend at the Edinburgh Fringe, before heading back to London ready to film on Monday."

This year the whole Circus Abyssinia troupe is back in Australia. "If you remember last time, we had a lot of trouble with visas," Bibi laughs. "It was so easy this time." The brothers are excited to perform their full works in Adelaide. "The show has changed," says Bibi. "Last year we were missing a lot of guys so we couldn’t do the whole show, and we have some new acts that the audience hasn’t seen."

The support was overwhelming. "After we had all the visa issues, honestly, the Adelaide audiences came out to support us, and we’re happy to be back to thank everyone – we really appreciate it."