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Which circus played to 1.3 million people in 19 countries last year? Was it Cirque du Soleil? Ringling? The answer is Cirque Bijou, a British company with a permanent staff of just six, which specialises in staging big stunts for rock concerts, corporate events and festivals. In this article, which first appeared in The Stage, co-founder Billy Alwen tells me how they do it.
According to mayor George Ferguson, “Bristol is the UK city of circus - and I want it to be the European capital for circus.” Central to the city’s claim to cirque supremacy is circus school Circomedia, many its alumni having stayed in the area to start their own companies. The town has its own circus festival in October, and circus has long played a major role in the annual Bristol Harbour Festival, which took place last weekend, July 18 - 20.
Local company Cirque Bijou has produced the festival’s circus stage for the past 11 years and this year took over the whole of College Green with a space-themed programme for ‘kids and big kids.’
“Circus is really big here,” says Bijou’s marketing and development manager Geraldine Giddings. “There are good places to train and audiences who are up for it.”
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“We’ve always done a mixture of commercial and publicly funded work,” says joint artistic director Billy Alwen. “The commercial side has allowed us to learn about the high production values that you get on the commercial side of any business, and we’ve brought that into our community work.”
Alwen came from a background in street theatre and got into circus when he stood in for an injured aerialist in a show at the Glastonbury festival. After performing on flying, swinging and static trapeze for a number of years, he formed Cirque Bijou with Julian Bracey in 1999.
“There was a big demand for commercial circus work around the Millennium,” he explains. “Then we started to get funding to do our own style of work.”
Alwen and Bracey together and separately devise all of Bijou’s shows, supported by a permanent staff of four. But by partnering with other companies and recruiting production crews and casts for individual projects - in the past year they employed 280 people - the pair produce a staggering volume and diversity of work in locations from Jamaica to Azerbaijan.
Playing with fire
“Julian and I each have our own projects that we develop ourselves,” says Alwen. Bracey’s current baby is Project 3Sixty, an urban circus mixing extreme sports with video mapping, while Alwen’s pet project is Kitchen Circus. “It’s the antithesis of doing shows for Muse with 50,000 people. I wanted to do something small but really important to communities, so we’re performing for 10 or 12 people in their living rooms.”
With such a diverse portfolio, Bijou struggles to define its signature style.
“Lots of our shows have live music, fire, pyrotechnics, dance, special effects, props and a storyline,” says Giddings. “Sometimes circus is just one of ten different elements. In the end, we came down to the slogan, ‘We make shows.’”
Small name, big stunts
The secret to running a successful circus company is networking, says Giddings. “The world of circus and theatre isn’t as big as people who are starting out might believe it to be. My advice to a new company would be to find out as much as possible about the venues and festivals where you want to perform and who programmes those events. We always appreciate people getting in touch about the Bristol Harbour Festival, talking us through their show and how it will work for our festival.”
Alwen, meanwhile, stresses the importance of being hands on.
“When people ask how we do this, I say you have to learn from experience. Occasionally I have the luxury of a big crew around me, but sometimes I end up sweeping the stage and gaffering as much as I do directing. I can rig, I can stage manage. I can operate a sound and lighting board. In circus, even contemporary circus, everyone has to muck in.”
As Cirque Bijou celebrates its 15th anniversary as a self-supporting company with one foot in the commercial world and the other in the public sector, Alwen says the future looks bright in both areas.
“The commercial market for circus has definitely increased, and the quality of circus shows has gone up, so there’s more demand from local authorities. When people think of celebrating a live event, they think of circus first.”
For more on the changing world of circus, from the traditional to the contemporary, read Circus Mania - The Ultimate Book For Anyone Who Dreamed of Running Away With the Circus.
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