THE FACE

ANNABEL McGIL­VRAY meets SOSINA WOGAYEHU Con­tor­tion­ist, jug­gler and ac­ro­bat

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Profile -

‘ ILIKE your style, sis­ter,’’ a tall dread­locked fig­ure shouts at Sosina Wogayehu. Stand­ing in the morn­ing light on the steps of her chic Kings Cross, Syd­ney, ho­tel in knee- high boots, leop­ard- skin print dress and leather jacket, her head wrapped high in a scarf with the Rasta­far­ian red, gold and green of Ethiopia, she is un­ques­tion­ably a strik­ing sis­ter.

Wogayehu, res­i­dent con­tor­tion­ist, ac­ro­bat and gen­eral ball wizard with Aus­tralia’s po­lit­i­cally feisty, ar­tis­ti­cally feral and in­ter­na­tion­ally ac­claimed Cir­cus Oz, is a carnie with a twist.

She has a bounce in her step and an op­ti­mistic out­look, ex­cept be­fore mid­day, I learn when we meet at 10.30am.

‘‘ I’m not re­ally a morn­ing per­son,’’ she says in her sing- song voice, man­ag­ing a smile. In a life that has taken her from ped­dling cig­a­rettes on the streets of Ad­dis Ababa to per­form­ing in pink Ly­cra on Broad­way, she says she has never been a morn­ing per­son.

‘‘ I know I should sleep, but then I like the night,’’ she says.

On the eve of its 30th birth­day, Cir­cus Oz has been per­form­ing for the first time at the Syd­ney Opera House and opens in Melbourne on Wed­nes­day. But over cof­fee Wogayehu is en­thus­ing about the troupe’s re­cent ven­ture to the far reaches of Aus­tralia to per­form in the Kim­ber­ley re­gion.

‘‘ Be­sides what Cir­cus Oz does for me — and I love what I do — to know Aus­tralia bet­ter than any­where else makes me feel like this is my home. I live in Melbourne, of course, I wouldn’t live any­where else, but it just gives me that sense that I can talk about Aus­tralia a lot more than Ethiopia th­ese days be­cause I’ve seen more of Aus­tralia.’’

This sense of home comes nearly 10 years af­ter Wogayehu be­gan liv­ing here, as a 20- year- old Ethiopian refugee half a world away from her fam­ily and a child­hood home she de­scribes af­fec­tion­ately as some­thing akin to a cir­cus.

‘‘ Ev­ery­one lived in my house. We were five kids, mum and dad, my cousins and neph­ews, and ev­ery­one else,’’ she says, laugh­ing. ‘‘ When I go back to Ethiopia now, I don’t recog­nise half of my fam­ily there. I have to be in­tro­duced again.

‘‘ When I think about it, the amount of money that they earned and with all that fam­ily stay­ing and all the chil­dren go­ing to school, I don’t know how they did it.’’

In the years when Bob Geldof was singing up an African Band- Aid and pic­tures of Ethiopian famine were be­ing broad­cast across the world, each Fri­day night Wogayehu was com­mand­ing space in front of the television to learn con­tor­tion from a Euro­pean variety show.

‘‘ I was watch­ing th­ese per­for­mances with all th­ese peo­ple wear­ing glit­ter and th­ese amaz­ing cos­tumes. They could do th­ese amaz­ing things and I started try­ing con­tor­tion af­ter watch­ing that. Bit by bit — I must have been quite sup­ple be­fore­hand — I re­alised that I was pretty flexible.’’

She would en­ter­tain friends with her variety show reper­toire, walk­ing on her hands, per­form­ing flips and twist­ing her body into the shape of a zero or a nine on re­quest.

‘‘ As a kid I liked the show­ing off. I’m show­ing off,’’ she says.

By seven she was sneak­ing across town for a weekly gym­nas­tics les­son and by nine she was the na­tional cham­pion. At the same time, with money for lessons tight at home, she be­gan jostling with the boys to run a suc­cess­ful cig­a­rette- sell­ing op­er­a­tion out­side the lo­cal bar.

Then, at 15, the cir­cus came call­ing. The newly formed Cir­cus Ethiopia, the coun­try’s first, was full of her flexible peers and she leapt at the chance to twist, dance and jug­gle on an in­ter­na­tional scale.

But on a 1998 tour to Aus­tralia, when things

still be­gan to go se­ri­ously awry within the com­pany, per­son­ally and po­lit­i­cally, Wogayehu was one of 15 girls aged be­tween 13 and 24 who mu­tinied, ran away from the cir­cus and found them­selves in Ade­laide.

They were a hemi­sphere away from all their friends and fam­ily, know­ing no one and with­out a cent. It was two years be­fore they were ac­cepted as le­git­i­mate refugees, but long be­fore then they had been adopted by the small but gen­er­ous Ethiopian com­mu­nity in Melbourne. ‘‘ It was def­i­nitely not an easy jour­ney,’’ Wogayehu says.

She had come across Cir­cus Oz at a fes­ti­val in Mu­nich and, af­ter talk­ing her way into a diploma of theatre arts at Melbourne’s Swin­burne TAFE in 2001, she joined the Cir­cus Oz crew for work ex­pe­ri­ence and a brief flir­ta­tion work­ing back­stage. ‘‘ I did my job and I watched the show ev­ery sin­gle day,’’ she says. ‘‘ I could not help it. I didn’t re­alise that I still loved it so much.’’

A lit­tle more than a year later she was back, as a per­former.

‘‘ It’s an ad­dic­tion,’’ she says. ‘‘ I started per­form­ing for my par­ents when I was six and I thought, ‘ This is re­ally good!’ I found that feel­ing again in the mid­dle of the ring.

‘‘ Ev­ery time I stand on the stage I feel like my hands are shak­ing and then I have the big­gest hug from the 1400 peo­ple who are sit­ting in the ring. That’s how I feel.’’

Since 2002 she has per­formed with the cir­cus ev­ery­where from Ku­nunurra, in West­ern Aus­tralia, to New York City. She has con­torted for roy­alty in the exclusive Swedish World Cir­cus Princess com­pe­ti­tion and twisted for the cam­eras in Peter Jack­son’s King Kong .

With a grin and a vague ges­ture over her shoul­der, re­fer­ring to the 20- strong Oz crew, she says, ‘‘ This is my fam­ily here now.’’

In par­tic­u­lar, the so­cial con­science of Cir­cus Oz ( motto: ‘‘ Com­mu­nity, di­ver­sity, hu­man­ity, hi­lar­ity’’) res­onates with Wogayehu, who has been part of the com­pany’s ef­forts to raise more than $ 200,000 to help refugees and asy­lum­seek­ers. Less than a decade af­ter set­ting foot in the coun­try this, along with work with fel­low African im­mi­grants and in­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties, led to recog­ni­tion as a 2004 Young Aus­tralian of the Year fi­nal­ist.

With her cof­fee now sit­ting cold in front of her, she refers to the Kim­ber­ley trip.

‘‘ Out there it’s like, is this Aus­tralia? Or is this Africa? Or what? It’s so sad. The places we went to in the Kim­ber­ley, they’re cul­tur­ally re­ally, re­ally rich. But some of the places that I’ve been to in the past, in Queens­land and in South Aus­tralia, are re­ally de­pressed ar­eas.

‘‘ But then the kids there, they’re out­door kids like in Ethiopia and they don’t think about risk. They’ve got no fear what­so­ever.’’

Some­what like Wogayehu.

Pic­ture: Ser­gio Dion­i­sio

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