Circus review: Circus Ethiopia Brighton Festival: An African street party underneath the big top

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Indy Lifestyle Online
To someone for whom a gentle forward somersault would be a dangerous undertaking the sight of supple bodies bending double and effortlessly flying through the air was a humbling experience. But in spite of that, Circus Ethiopia, currently on show as part of the Brighton Festival, is fun and uplifting. The 30-strong troupe dances constantly. Hips wiggle and shoulders shuffle with a relaxed carnival energy - until the back flips begin. Suddenly the stage is filled with no-hands cartwheels, a stream of backward flips and double somersaults casually tucked in mid- flight. The performers, aged between eight and 18, are clearly enjoying themselves. The beaming smiles seem genuine and the on-stage laughter and informal interaction between them give the impression that the audience has just stumbled across a spontaneous street party.

The colour of the show is spectacular, thanks to a rich wardrobe of traditional costumes and the choreography, which uses the colour to create endless kaleidoscopic patterns. Human pyramids make up a large part of the show; columns of bodies come together, with the smallest team members thrown on top almost as an afterthought. In one, the intertwining bodies became disconcertingly disjointed. Acrobat number one lay down on the ground, chin resting behind folded hands, then bent her waist backwards to bring her legs over her head with feet resting on the ground either side of her head. Acrobat number two did the same, but used her accomplice to balance on instead of the floor. And so the pyramid grew with heads growing out of legs to produce what resembled a human centipede.

Circus Ethiopia was set up in 1991 by French-Canadian Marc Lachance as an attempt to give street children a sense of purpose and a means of earning a living. Since then it has become a national movement heavily involved with the Red Cross and used not only to entertain but also to educate the public. "Circus is not just entertainment," explains Lachance, "but a tool for survival."

These may not be the most skilled jugglers and acrobats you've ever seen, but the energy and humour that pours off the stage more than makes up for it. The flashing smiles were so infectious and the feel-good factor so great that even the presence of all those enviably flat stomachs and frighteningly toned limbs were not enough to wipe the smile off my face.

Circus Ethiopia: Circus of Horrors Big Top, Preston Park, Brighton (01273 507111) until tomorrow, and Royal Festival Hall, London (0171 960 4242) 28-29 May