With most variety acts, you watch the performer. With juggling, you watch the props. In the current edition of the Big Apple Circus, the 24-year-old Girma Tsehai (GEAR-mah tseh-HIGH), from Ethiopia, enters the ring like an entertainer in a sultan's palace: dazzling, discreet, yet totally at home. Then, for several minutes, he holds the tent spellbound, conjuring solar systems of as many as six 140-gram silicon balls that serve as his planets. But his orbits have corners in them. Unlike most jugglers, Girma does not throw his paraphernalia up in the air. He bounces them against a construction of four plates of Plexiglas, which are sometimes configured as a V, sometimes like a mailbox. Between volleys, he tumbles through empty air like a merman through crystal breakers.
Dance is the red thread that runs through this edition of the Big Apple Circus. Peter Pucci, the choreographer in charge of spinning that thread, thinks of Girma's splits and flips as "little sparks in the act." "He's such a delightful performer," Pucci says. "Coming from Europe, he's a little shy about being out there in the ring. He's always worked on a stage, with a proscenium, so he's not used to being so presentational. It's nice to see him become more of a showman. We tried to encourage him, to tell him, 'You have this terrific talent! We want you to use it!'"
Girma came of age as an artist in Berlin, where variety thrives the way ballet did in Monte Carlo in the storied days of Serge Diaghilev. The visionary of Girma's world is Markus Pabst, talent-spotter and Barnum extraordinaire, supplier of acts to royal galas and shows that tour the world. Like just about everyone making a living in his line of work, Girma is a nomad now, and gives little thought to putting down roots. But Berlin is still the city he thinks of most fondly.
After wrapping up its annual season at Lincoln Center, the circus goes dormant pending engagements in Boston (April 2-May 15) and Queens (May 21-June 12). But for Girma, the interim will not all be downtime. In late January, he will jet off for Paris to compete in the prestigious festival Cirque de Demain (Tomorrow's Circus), a circus world counterpart to meets like the Olympic Games.
Home for the season is a trailer, one of a caravan densely packed into Damrosch Park, along with the Big Apple's cozy big top in the shadow of the band shell. Snug quarters, especially with a sewing machine taking up most of the table space. (Girma has a seamstress working on a new costume.) Apart from a Mac Book, countless pairs of athletic footwear, and a couple postcards Scotch-taped to a wall, little personal property is in evidence. The microwave oven comes with the setup.
How does a boy from Addis Ababa wind up juggling in New York City?
I started training as a gymnast when I was seven and continued for ten years. All that time I had a lot of contact with circus performers, and they induced me to become one of them. While I was still doing gymnastics, I tore my Achilles tendon. After an accident like that, and the trauma, you're scared. You can't do the things you did before. That's when I decided to go to the circus. I have a brand-new website, girmatsehai.com, where you'll find my bio and information about my teachers.
Not too much potential for injuries in what you do now…
Well, the balls move pretty fast, and they can hit your teeth. But the kind of injuries that happen to gymnasts, no.
You're bio in the Big Apple Circus program mentions that you moved to German in your late teens. How did that happen?
A long story.
Sprichst Du deutsch? (Do you speak German?)
Ja. Ich habe auch eine deutsche Familie. Alle meine Freunde sind Deutsche. Ich kenne in Berlin eigentlich kein Äthiopier. (Yes. And I have a German family. All my friends are German. I don't really know any Ethiopians in Berlin.)
Was there anything you saw as a boy that made you start thinking of juggling as something you might want to do?
There's a very creative juggler called Michael Moschen. I saw a video of his a long time ago, and it inspired me to some extent. I really liked what he did. He does a wonderful act bouncing balls off the sides of a standing triangle. I like to see all his work. I've never met him, thought I've tried to. I think he lives close to New York.
How much time goes in to learning what you do?
When I was learning, I worked ten hours a day.
Four hours' practice is enough.
Did you ever think of a more conventional profession?
I studied physiotherapy for six months or so and then stopped. I really liked, but it was sort of boring. I love what I do right now.
How did your act develop?
I started with different sorts of acts, with different people. I did some hand-to-hand balancing with a partner. Then three other boys and I did a combination of balancing and tumbling. I did duo juggling with a girl for a while—there are pictures on my site. And four years ago, I became a solo performer.
Have you always worked with the Plexiglas?
In the beginning I used a flat marble surface. After that I started inventing platforms that go in different directions. First I had two, then I added another one, and now there are four.
Can you talk and juggle at the same time?
Yes. Once I gave a whole interview while doing my act three or four times. There was a controversy at a university. People were saying that women are more talented at multitasking than men. So there was a study to see if that was true. They were trying to prove it by observing different people, and they chose me because I'm a juggler. They wanted to see if I could keep my rhythm and make eye contact and make proper answers all at the same time. They kept changing places and lights and microphones and music.
And you succeeded?
Yes. It wasn't hard for me.
Do you have a set routine you follow before each show?
I check all the angles of my props and make sure all the juggling balls are where they're supposed to be. I clean the Plexiglas and practice a little bit. I do the preset, and I do some stretching, because I do some tumbling in the act. And I need at least five minutes just to concentrate.
Like yoga? Like meditation? In a special place?
No place special. Backstage. I don't get disturbed when people are around. When I'm focused, I'm focused. I don't like to show people I'm concentrating and meditating. I look at everybody. Before show, everyone has his own way, little nervousness, everybody's busy, I'm busy. I don't fold my hands and shut my eyes.
Is your act frozen now or does it keep changing?
It changes all the time.
Do you think you could do an act with just one ball?
Yes! I could. Michael Moschen does an act with just one ball. But probably I wouldn't.
If you think ahead, what big dreams do you have?
Someday, I'd like to develop my own shows.
Would they be in the style of shows that already exist out there, or would they be shows that only exist in your head right now?
Everything I want to do exists right here in my mind. I've been all around the world, in New Zealand, Australia, all over Europe, in the Asian countries. But the shows I'm in are from the imagination of other people. Someday I'll do my own.
If you could just walk out that door and have all the talent you wanted for that show—people you've worked with before, people you're working with now, other people you've only seen from far off—do you know who you'd choose and how you'd use them?
That's a tough question! I never thought about that. But someday, when it's ready, I'll be able to answer.
How do you rate your chances in Paris?
To be selected by the selection committee is a great opportunity. Thousands of performers want to participate, but only about two dozen get to compete. I know all the performers who are performing there. I've checked their YouTube videos. I believe they're all good. My great wish is to be the first African guy to reach the highest artistic level. That's what winning would mean to me.