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The high-flying circus firm for pop and rock stars

Muse performing in front of Cirque Bijou's Charles the RobotImage copyright
Hans Peter Van Velthoven

Image caption

Cirque Bijou made a giant robot for rock band Muse

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.

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Farrows Creative

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Julian (left) and Billy have been running the business for 21 years

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 the University of Staffordshire, 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.

Image copyright
Kevin Mazur

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Cirque Bijou dancers performed with Taylor Swift at the 2012 MTV Awards

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.”

Image copyright
Cirque Bijou

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The business uses a team of 200 performers

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

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