A Children’s Theatre Company American Premiere Production
World-famous Circus Abyssinia returns by popular demand with a fantastical celebration of athleticism and the power of speed inspired by Ethiopian runner Deratu Tulu, the first Black African woman to win Olympic gold.
Watch in awe as a dazzling spectacle of high-flying acrobatics, hand balancing, and juggling (sometimes with fire!) flashes before your eyes, backed by the beat of Ethiopian music. Witness the energy and spectacle of the Olympic games, packed with extraordinary circus acts, and be amazed as the world of triumph and virtuosity come to dynamic life!
Co-created and produced by Mehari “Bibi” Tesfamariam
Co-created and directed by Binyam “Bichu” Tesfamariam
Choreography by Tamerat Ejeta and Binyam “Bichu” Tesfamariam
About the Show
- Circus Abyssinia: Tulu is performed by a large cast of adult and students.
- Featuring gravity-defying stunts and acrobatics, this performance tells the story of the first African woman to win Olympic gold, Ethiopian distance runner and Olympic legend, Derartu
- This production takes place on our UnitedHealth Group Stage which seats up to 745 people per performance.
- We know that teachers are the best judge to determine the right fit for their unique group of students. We recommend Circus Abyssinia: Tulu for students in grades 1–12 due to the length and potential scariness of gravity-defying stunts. Check out the synopsis and content advisories for full information.
“With our new show, Tulu, we’ll be pulling out all the stops to celebrate the story of Ethiopian icon and Olympic legend, Derartu Tulu, the first African woman to win Olympic gold. We can’t wait to perform with the wonderful audiences of Minneapolis again!”
– Creators Bibi and Bichu Tesfamariam
Language: 0 out of 5 stars
Very little English is used. The performance features Ethiopian music and is primarily non-verbal.
Themes and Situations: 0 out of 5 stars
Violence & Scariness: 1 out of 5 stars
Professional acrobats perform death-defying stunts. While it might be nerve-racking, they are trained professionals. Actors portray menacing hyenas.
Sensory Advisories: 2 out of 5 stars
Music can be loud and audience cheering is often encouraged. Lighting moves quickly from dark to bright and lights are flashed. Fire is used onstage and juggled.
Potentially Anxious Moments: 2 out of 5 stars
Professional acrobats perform death-defying stunts. While it might be nerve-racking, they are trained professionals.
This is a complete synopsis of the play, so it is full of spoilers. This play is still in development. Content is subject to change until script is finalized.
A runner’s footsteps are heard in the dark, fast, and approaching. The blackout slowly fades away to a dim morning light; haze blankets the stage. Nothing of spectacle yet, just the steady rhythm of footfall and the measured cadence of breath. The steps are coming closer and closer…
The story begins with Derartu Tulu as a young girl, alone in the high hills of Ethiopia’s Arsi forest. The dawning light reveals her stretching gracefully center stage.
So begins Tulu’s opening act: performed with astounding ease and flexibility, a sinuous solo act of contortion that unfolds from her determination and her dreams.
As the sun rises, the band plays “LamoBora,” a song based on an Amharic herding call. Like many children of poverty in Ethiopia, Derartu’s duty as a child was to tend the cattle of her village, rising before dawn to herd the animals into the Arsi highlands. But when time was her own, she lived to run.
A group of male runners make their dancing entrance, flanked by two drummers (Bibi and Bichu) who beat time on great timpani, driving the rhythm of a dance based on the musical rituals of Ethiopia’s Hamar tribe.
The dance segues into death-defying hand-vaulting stunts, where artists perform feats of human juggling. Derartu runs in and joins them, launching into a lift where she is caught and gleefully thrown high into the air. Derartu creates human towers and is caught in human cradles, performing a series of flips and tumbles that capture the unity and art of teamwork and the shared joys of running together.
But these joys are soon interrupted for Derartu. Offstage, her village is searching for her, shouting her name… duty is calling.
Spinning within a giant wheel called a Roue Cyr, Derartu glides from the shadows, alone again. Her costume evokes a warrior’s attire; through a seamless series of spins and pirouettes, she channels the strength, audacity, and courage of Ethiopia’s female warriors, ferocious throughout history but missing from historical records.
At times spinning like a dropped coin, at others setting her wheel free to roam the stage, the heroine performs her self-discovery with mesmerizing intensity and grace. The Cyr articulates Derartu’s vow of commitment and surrender to her sport. The shape and direction of the wheelpoints to the circular nature of the race and the solitary existence of the runner: a reminder that the start and the finish line are the same; the journey matters, not the destination.
The scene closes upon Derartu as she bows inside the wheel. Just as the lights dim, she glances over her shoulder and sees something that terrifies her!
A hyena’s sinister cackle sounds in the dark. A single spotlight focuses on Derartu’s abandoned wheel, revealing two creatures coiled inside. With unnerving grace, two artists costumed as hyenas begin a disjointed yet beautiful routine, contorting into shapes that express the animal’s menacing nature and its African folkloric power to shape-shift and harbor a witch’s magic.
The scene is a nod to Derartu’s real-life encounter with the hyenas who rule and roam the Arsi plains where she trained and raced alone. It explores the dangers she faced and her courage in outrunning them through her wild beloved country. It also suggests how a runner might adopt the qualities of the wild and free creatures of the earth and asks us to imagine how Ethiopia’s lands invited Derartu to run.
When the creatures take their bows, Derartu enters at high speed, skating and skirting the space around them. Her change of pace scares them, and they slink offstage, crab-crawling a retreat.
Derartu zips back and forth across the stage. Upstage, another figure shadows her trajectories, doubling the illusion of superhuman speed. When both artists appear onstage together, whirling and spinning each other about, we see that the second figure’s costume evokes Ethiopia’s leaders of old: she is an apparition of Derartu’s idol, Empress Taytu Betul, who led armies to victory against Italy’s invading forces.
Taytu skates after the creatures and another artist enters in her stead. He spins Derartu like a dervish. She flies at heart-stopping speeds by her neck then her ankles, turning topsy-turvy and contorting in a whirlwind.
In a dizzying finale, five skaters take to the stage, hula-hooping rings in Olympic colors. The runners circle the stage in formation, pausing upstage to form a tableau of Olympic rings, then dispersing again to fly in a great circle. The rings interlock and divide as the artists repeat their journey, until finally, the Olympic icon is held aloft and five artists in athletic gear burst from upstage to dive through them.
The artists dive to signify they have been selected for the Games. Tulu dives with them: Ethiopia has chosen her. An extraordinary hoop-diving act ensues, bursting with feats of speed and precision, flips and arcs, and leaps of faith.
The hoop-divers leap through hoops from different directions: feet first, backwards, somersaulting, backflipping, or bent in half, offering a soaring celebration of agility and speed.
For the climax of the scene, an artist enters with a flaming cauldron and Derartu lights the Olympic flame. With the torch she sets the final hoop alight, and each artist flings themself through the circle of flames. Torches are then solemnly held aloft, and the Olympic flame is passed around the stage, artist to artist, around the world, in emulation of the iconic torch relay.
Collecting the torches from artists holding them aloft, Bibi and Bichu perform daredevil feats of fire juggling. Progressing from single, double, to triple passes, they circle each other, then juggle back-to-back, upping the ante until nine flaming torches whizz through the air.
A tribute to the flame as a symbol of continuity between the past and present, and between cultures around the world, Bibi and Bichu’s fiery juggling captures the elemental magic at work in the flames and colors of Olympic celebration. Their act recalls the sacred fire ceremonies of Ethiopia’s ancient tribes and churches.
At the act’s conclusion, Derartu enters and begins a delicate solo dance, wielding her nation’s flag as an extension of herself. Other artists join her, brandishing different flags representing different continents; they dance together.
The flag dancers twirl and step in perfect unison, their performance a nod to the Olympic spirit of world unity. Emulating the Olympic Parade of Nations, this dance of flags unfolds in a series of sweeping arcs and turns, each synchronized dip and swirl fusing balletic movement and percussive stomp, with a choreography inspired by the dances of the Gambo tribe in Southern Ethiopia.
The band performs a song called “Abet,” an Amharic response to when one’s name is called. The singer sings in the name of all Ethiopian women “Listen to us; they sing, hear our stories and call upon us, we’re here and we can do what you do.”
A moment of stillness comes as the dancers use their flags to briefly shield the space upstage. Then they let the flags fall to reveal two Icarian tumblers: one standing on the feet of the other and holding Ethiopian flag aloft.
As the flag dancers lead the parade offstage, the Icarian games begin in earnest: two tumblers perform feats of human foot-juggling in a display of precision timing and sheer acrobatic agility.
Tracing back to the Greek island of Icaria, where athletes of Ancient Greece trained for the original Olympic Games, Icarian Games unfolds in the Olympic spirit of teamwork and pays tribute to the core values of the Games: Excellence, Respect, and Friendship.
As the act culminates in a dizzying succession of somersaults, Derartu watches on from the side of the stage. She ties the Ethiopian flag to a rope that unfurls from the roof. As the flag of her country ascends, symbolizing her hope of an Ethiopian victory, Derartu gazes up in pride and wonderment.
When the Ethiopian flag ascends to the roof, a hoop descends to the floor. A breathtaking aerial duet ensues, in which two performers, Derartu and her mirror image, soar and spin, contorting into shapes that articulate the beauty and grace of the athlete at the pinnacle of her abilities.
This act represents the quiet seconds before the race, when an athlete steels herself against all outward pressure and gathers her mind to a single-pointed focus on the run ahead. With each move mirrored and matched by her double, the act is an exploration of Derartu’s ambition and her utmost hopes for herself and her country. Hinting at the image of a medal, the hoop represents a window into the pain and joys she faced in pursuit of her dreams.
Timpani and bugles signal the beginning of an adrenaline-fueled final act designed to capture the mesmerizing thrills of the race at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, when Tulu took Olympic gold in the 10,000-meter race.
To the marching rhythms of live drumming, a troupe enters in soldierly formation, pushing a Russian swing onstage like a cannon. The band sings of the battle of Adwa, celebrating Empress Taytu’s victory over the armies of fascist Italy. The show crosses timelines of Ethiopian history; the battle and the race, and the warrior and the athlete, meet each other.
Derartu leads the way, other women following in her footsteps. The pre-show commentary from the Barcelona Olympics plays as she stretches, the winds of history at her back. She leads the troupe in a tribute to speed and agility as the Russian swing catapults bodies into the air. Artists tirelessly leap and flip, defying gravity and physics as they somersault at great heights, then land on each other’s shoulders or plummet to earth, performing a breathtaking contest in which Derartu outdoes them all.
Tulu’s pride and happiness fill the entire space, and the show descends into the raucous joys of musical and acrobatic celebration.
With ensemble feats of skipping, cloth-spinning, tumbling and dance, the cast performs a miscellany of acts that encapsulates Derartu’s elation and celebrates Ethiopia’s triumph. It is a scene that recalls the cheering and waving of flags and banners by people who lined the streets when Tulu returned to Ethiopia’s capital after her Olympic victory: the first of many extraordinary triumphs to come and the opening of a door for female athletes and artists to follow.