The BBC’s weekly The Boss series profiles different business leaders from around the world. This week we speak to Billy Alwen and Julian Bracey, founders of UK circus performance business Cirque Bijou.
Many of us dream of quitting our nine-to-five jobs, to, as the saying goes, “run away and join the circus”.
Billy Alwen did just that – literally – when he quit a fledgling career in politics in 1992, aged 25, to become a full-time circus performer.
A few years later, in 1999, he set up Bristol-based Cirque Bijou with his friend Julian Bracey.
Over the past two decades their business has designed and performed large open-air spectacles at cultural events around the world, from Glastonbury Festival, to Olympic Games, to New Year celebrations in the Far East.
At the same time, its staff go on tour with singers and bands such as Taylor Swift, Katy Perry and Muse, to bring their performances alive with fire performers, tight-rope walkers, and even giant robots.
Londoner Billy had been all set for a life in politics. After getting a degree in international relations from Staffordshire University, he spent three years working as a political researcher in the House of Commons.
But in his spare time he had started training as a trapeze artist, and in 1992 he walked away from the day job to become a full-time professional circus performer.
“I knew my heart lay in performing,” says Billy, now 53.
He started to get work with circuses, and performed at private parties and festivals.
Meanwhile, Julian Bracey, who is from Bristol, studied design at university in the 1990s. He had won a scholarship to enrol on a prestigious course at the University of Montreal.
On the streets of the Canadian city he says he was exposed to a lot of circus and street performance.
“I would see people busking in a market, and think, ‘I can do that,'” says Julian, 50. So he ditched his plans for a career in design.
“I ended up street performing all around the world, as a fire performer, acrobat, unicyclist and juggler.
“Then I joined a French circus, working as a compere. I wasn’t fluent in any other languages, but I learnt the whole show in French, and even Spanish.”
Returning to the UK, Julian joined a Bristol-based circus group, where Billy was by then working.
When they decided to go into business together they had no money to invest other than what they were continuing to earn from ad-hoc performance work.
To keep costs down they made do with a couple of computers, and based themselves in Julian’s father’s basement.
Billy says they decided to stay in Bristol because “it has a thriving arts scene, and is a renowned centre for circus in the UK”.
But why the French name, which translates as “Elegant Circus”? Julian explains: “At the time, being an English circus wasn’t that cool, so we thought we should give ourselves a French name, hence Cirque Bijou.”
The business then grew steadily over the years, thanks to word of mouth, and Julian’s excellent contacts. “I had a little black book, and I knew lots of people, as I had travelled a lot,” he says.
“I was quite protective of our contacts. That’s changed now because of social media, it’s now more inclusive. You can now see someone on TV, Google their name, and say, ‘Hey, do you want to be in our show?'”
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As the company grew, Billy and Julian both quickly gave up performing themselves, to instead focus on the production work.
Over the years they have produced spectacles such as the annual Taiwan Lantern Festival, an international exhibition in Kazakhstan, and the opening ceremonies for the sailing events at the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics in the UK.
The show for the Paralympics involved 64 disabled and non-disabled performers. Billy was so inspired by the experience that he formed a side company called Extraordinary Bodies, where disabled and non-disabled artists can work equally together.
“It’s something I’m incredibly proud of.” he says. “Also, if you change who you see on stage it changes who the audience are.”
When you add Cirque Bijou’s work with music artists, and the company is typically involved in more than 100 shows around the world each year. To meet all its commitments, the business relies on a pool of about 200 freelance performers.
Given that these men and women are often playing with fire, or walking tightropes, health and safety is a big factor.
One year they worked with Katy Perry at an awards show, where she wanted Catherine wheels attached to the backpacks of all her dancers.
“We strapped the fireworks to their backs, and we’d accounted for all the health and safety hazards,” says Julian. “But then this guy from Sony came up to us, and said, ‘You realise that there’s this invisible video screen behind you? It’s worth £300,000, and if you burn it you are in trouble!’
“That was slightly scary, but in over 20 years we have never had any accidents, which is amazing.”
Typically, Billy and Julian spend lots of time travelling around the world for work, which both admit can take a toll on their personal lives.
Julian says it was particularly tough when he spent five months on tour with Muse when his daughter was born. Presently though, all is on hold due to the coronavirus lockdown.
“We have had around 20 events cancelled or postponed,” says Julian. “The summer season for live events is effectively cancelled.”
The company is using the downtime to develop new shows instead.
Ade Berry, artistic director at London arts and cultural venue Jacksons Lane, says Cirque Bijou has “paved the way” for circus performance in the UK.
“It’s redefining circus, and pushing organisations like us to try to achieve more, and rethink everything we know,” says Mr Berry. He adds that Cirque Bijou’s continuing work with disabled people via Extraordinary Bodies is particularly inspiring.
As to the future of Cirque Bijou, Billy and Julian see it carrying on for at least another 20 years. It does sound more fun than a typical nine-to-five job.