ANNABEL McGILVRAY meets SOSINA WOGAYEHU Contortionist, juggler and acrobat
‘ 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.