Circus Oz, the celebrated circus from Australia, has a way of sneaking up on the viewer with quirkily unassuming yet spectacular and insightful productions featuring creative comedy, zany acrobatic formations, wild aerial stunts, and audience interaction. Given Oz’s habit of turning expectations upsidedown, would you be surprised to see a brilliant seven-ball juggler added to the mix? Would you be surprised to hear that she comes from Ethiopia?
Sosina Wogayehu performs with Circus Oz as “a contortionist and a juggler,” but you may as well put “juggler” first. This is someone with great control, talent and daring, and for the most part, she has been her own best influence from the start. Not many people in Addis Ababa, where Sosina was born, become professional jugglers. But Circus Ethiopia, founded in 1991 by Marc La Chance, has given training and performance opportunities to many local talents. Sosina herself became one of their early protégés.
Sosina, who has since made Australia her home, recently completed a run with Circus Oz at the New Victory Theater in New York. The New Victory is a renovated burlesque theater on 42nd Street that specializes in performances for young audiences, though many adults also attend. On the last night of Oz’s New York run, performing for a sold-out house, Sosina shone with a perfect, no-drop performance. Watching her, one gets the feeling that this great routine is a matter of routine.
It’s hard to find a costume that competes with a 7-ball pattern, but a lavender hair extension whose strands rise with static electricity, combined with a dark Archaos-style outfit and shiny black boots, could do it if anything could. Even Sosina’s hair could not upstage her sequence of 3-to-7 ball-bouncing variations, each artistically executed with white silicone balls. Sosina’s flamboyant contortions led straight into her juggling act as she performed on a platform that was gradually rotated by other performers. Somehow, she always knew which way to face for maximum effect. The platform is amplified so that the balls create different sounds upon impact.
The only act this recalled for me was that of Viktor Kee, because it was performed on a circular platform with balls falling from the ceiling, and because Sosina has such great body control and flexibility, enabling her to perform many original variations. In one of my favorite moves, she does a backbend and bounces three balls off the floor as if juggling them overhead.
One of the best things about Sosina’s act was that it was contained within a show that was so hot, and it was still a huge hit with the audience. This has been Circus Oz’s best year for jugglers: in addition to Wogayehu, the cast includes juggler and comedic improviser Joel Salom, who tickled audiences with his undressing-and-dressing-while-juggling routine and later wowed them by flying overhead while juggling three clubs. Salom’s work has been seen at the Edinburough Festival, the Sidney Olympic ceremonies, and on ABC-TV. Coldwell, now the show’s veteran and artistic director, takes pride in the 50/50 male-female ratio Oz maintains.
Wogayehu and Salom also joined other versatile cast members for some five-person passing patters. It takes a lot of focus and choreography to get an audience to appreciate juggling the way they appreciate, say, a bunch of “cockatoos” in a huge flying trapeze act, or Erik the Dog, Salom’s robotic creation, or Coldwell’s upsidedown saunter across the ceiling. The response Wogayehu got for her solo work was at least as good, thanks to her sophistication as a performer as well as to her technique.
Obviously, this did not come about by accident. Sosina began training in gymnastics as a child and rose to Ethiopian Gymnastics Champion at age 9, repeating at 11. In 1993, she joined Circus Ethiopia as a performer, touring with the troupe in Austrailia, England, and Holland. Some of the more memorable gigs included the Adelaide Festival, the Womad Festival in England, and a command performance for the Queen of the Netherlands.
As the daughter of one Ethiopian parent and one Australian one, Sosina has roots in both countries. She decided to attend university in Australia, and completed the Diploma in Small Companies and Community Theatre at Swinburne University. Her degree included skills and experience in the technical and backstage aspects of live performance. As a student, she had a one-month internship with Circus Oz, and became determined to forge a career as a performer. She helped support her studies by becoming a ‘busking hairdresser’ on the bohemian streets of St. Kilda in Melbourne. Thus her experience with hair extensions like the “do” she concocts for her Circus Oz act.
Sosina then enrolled at the newly-formed National Institute of Circus Arts (NICA) and, in 2001, became one of its first graduating students. In addition to ball bouncing, she developed a ladder-balancing act. While at NICA, she spent three weeks as a coach/performer in Far North Queensland, developing circus skills with a group of indigenous children. She has also conducted performance workshops for the Footscray-based East African Women’s Project, and theater workshops for migrants and refugees.
Aside from a recent trip to the Circus Princess competition in Scandinavia, where she met and performed with Shirley Dean and Francoise Rochais, Sosina has known very few jugglers. “I just started on my own,” she said backstage, as Circus Oz was packing up to return to Australia for more shows. “I don’t know too many other jugglers, but I would love to perform at an IJA festival in the future. It would be exciting just to be there.”
Cindy Marvell, May 2004