Despite the chilly weather, spring has (supposedly) sprung - Underbelly Festival, replete with oversized floral paraphernalia and a coterie of wooden stalls, has once more taken up residency on the Thames South Bank, nestled between the London Eye and the Royal Festival Hall. Kicking off proceedings is Circus Abyssinia's Ethiopian Dreams, a boisterous, hour-long, family-friendly display of exuberance from a company at the top of their game and with a message to shout about.
It doesn't take long to see why the troupe, who performed at the Circus Hub at the Edinburgh Fringe last year (and had an appearance at the Royal Variety show at the Palladium), are the headline act at the festival. Humming with brio and many-splendored joy, they burst out on stage, revealing sequence after sequence of contortion, hand vaulting, acrobatics, club juggling and Chinese pole climbing. Based on a loose plot line of two youngsters (proxies for directors Bichu and Bibi Tesfamariam) discovering the world around them, the piece is an out-and-out celebration of Ethiopian culture.
This is definitely one of those occasions where singling out one performer would be unjust - Ethiopian Dream has a uniformly excellent company working in tandem. But more than that – it's also the first Ethiopian circus created by Ethiopian artists (trained through the Tesfamariam's circus school in Addis Ababa), homegrown and projecting their work onto the world stage (the company has visited Singapore and Adelaide since their first Edinburgh run).
There're standout passages – gasps are drawn from the audience every time the set of contortionists take to the stage, appearing thrice over to deliver a series of astounding routines involving bodies coiled, limbs twisted and precarious positioning. Hip bones become hand holds or foot rests. It's marvellously paradoxical – seeing the women performers subtly and skilfully create complex and wonderful images while placing their bodies in unnatural and unimaginable positions. One staggering passage (and not wanting to spoil the surprise) sees the contortionists using their jawbones in a way that seems beyond belief – unforgettable.
Unlike more tech-laden shows appearing at the likes of CircusFest, this is all body, physical, raw and unimpeded. Joy-fuelled talent at its purest. There's a small niggle on structure - some of the earlier acrobatics, especially the hand vaulting, overshadows later sequences, creating a small sense of unevenness.
In his programme notes, Bichu Tesfamariam tells of his hopes that the show will 'create a space in the world for a tradition of Ethiopian circus'. Based on the current production, that's definitely a mission statement worth rooting for.