Backstage with Geraldine Giddings
Circus production has been a major form of spectator entertainment that audiences of all ages have enjoyed through the centuries. Despite its on-going popularity, circus has evolved dramatically since its introduction in 17th century England. Today, the modern UK circus production has become much more accessible and creative, centred around spectacular story-telling and human expression.
Bristol-based Cirque Bijou is a creative powerhouse that “pushes the boundaries of contemporary circus, street theatre and spectacle”. The team of producers, performers, artists, and designers seek out the new, unexpected and extraordinary to create awe-inspiring, unforgettable and exquisitely crafted shows. In recent weeks, the show-makers have been busy preparing for the Queen's Platinum Jubilee Pageant procession float on the Sunday 5 June, using our iconic Brabazon Hangars as rehearsal ahead of the big day. The performance will include trampolinists, acrobatic dancers on crutches, urban athletes and more – with a focus on sustainability, diversity, and inclusion.
We were thrilled to catch up with Cirque Bijou’s Senior Producer, Geraldine Giddings, to find out more about her fascinating career, how the royal preparations are going, plus so much more.
What inspired you to get into the production of live events, and more specifically, circus production?
I’ve been with Cirque Bijou for 15 years, the majority of my career so far, and I feel so lucky to be part of this dynamic and inspiring team. When I was starting out, I knew I wanted to work in the arts making live work happen, but it wasn’t necessarily circus or production that I was specifically pursuing. Happily, the pace and range of projects at Cirque Bijou are so exciting and ever-changing that I haven’t been bored yet! The company has grown and changed over the years, and we now have a far greater combined experience and capacity to deliver exciting work than we’ve ever had, from stadium scale shows to mass participation events, to lavish private parties, to theatre shows. Circus as an artform has a captivating mix of very specific, technical realities, with a DIY, risk-taking culture and a deep sense of camaraderie. I love that.
The Cirque Bijou team must be incredibly busy making preparations for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee Pageant. How did this exciting opportunity come about? Are you able to share any details on what people can expect to see from the show?
We’re so excited about this one – our first rehearsals went off really well at the Brabazon Hangar in April. Thanks so much for accommodating us, it was difficult finding a place big enough for our larger-than-life float and team!
The was a chance to bring some of the lead artists and crew together with the float for the first time to try out the technical elements of the performance. On Sunday 5 June, we are part of a huge parade through central London to celebrate the Queen’s 70-year reign and some of the aspects of her life. We were approached over a year ago by the Pageant Master, Adrian Evans, who tasked us with creating a float that represented the creative, dynamic and diverse energy of the UK, and its youth in particular. We’ve had a ball putting it together. It’s a huge custom-built float with inbuilt trampolines, mini stages and a DJ booth – and we’ll have over 100 performers on and around it on the day. From world class circus artists to urban athletes to street dancers and wheelchair basketball stars, it’s an eclectic and highly energetic mix! It’ll be colourful, loud and joyful. And it’s all led by a huge helium-filled balloon with an aerial artist suspended beneath. It’ll be televised on the day so keep an eye out!
Circus performances have been a popular form of entertainment for decades. What would you say are the key ingredients to creating unforgettable experiences for today’s modern audience?
Circus is about strength, beauty, and the limits of human physicality. It deals in the unexpected, the unusual, the surprising. Modern audiences respond to these elements just as they have always done. Of course, nowadays we have all sorts of technical wizardry and special effects at our fingertips to enhance the worlds we create and the stunts we present so our shows can be all the more magical. The discerning modern audience member expects nothing less! Around 250 years ago, the first circuses in the UK literally were circular spaces with horses, sawdust and acrobats. What was surprising and magical then was the skill of the artists, their strength, grace and poise – and the risks they took. It’s just as important now to include these elements in a circus show. Without risk, the show becomes bland.
A Cirque Bijou show usually combines those elements I’ve mentioned with either some community involvement or engagement. That could be through our Umbrella Project, or joining a choir or dance performance (this summer at Camp Bestival we are trying to break the world record for the world’s largest choreographed disco dance!) or, as with our performance for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, through including community organisations like the amazing young street dancers Steppaz in the cast. There’s nothing like being part of a one-off experience to ensure it’s unforgettable. We want to make sure our shows have something for everyone – that everyone can see themselves represented in the work or can take part in one way or another.
Umbrella Project – Gravity Fields
If you could give just one piece of advice to someone looking to break in live event production, what would it be?
There are many routes in, from formal qualifications to apprenticeships and internships, to moving sideways from different careers, to working your way up from a junior position. I know highly successful event professionals who have taken all these routes, there’s no right answer. My advice is gather experience, work out where your skills lie, and most of all, what you enjoy. It’s hard work so the enjoyment is important – but it’s also extremely rewarding and fast-moving work. No day is ever the same. There are so many opportunities to carve your own niche.
First gig, last gig, favourite gig?
My very first ever gig, if it counts, was a children’s opera called Higglety Pigglety Pop! at Glyndebourne. I was two. I remember being utterly petrified of a lion onstage and not understanding why the place wasn’t being evacuated! It wasn’t a real lion, but that didn’t make it easier to understand. That left a big impression!
Most recently I went to see Tongue Fu/Hot Poets at St George’s in March – a brilliant night of spoken word backgrounded by live-improvised music, where all the poetry was on the theme of climate change. Brilliant venue and very inspiring night.
My favourite gig… there are so many! In my mind recently was a Foo Fighters gig at Brixton Academy where Dave Grohl had a drumkit brought out so that he and Taylor Hawkins could have a drumoff. I’ll never forget that energy. Another that comes to mind was seeing Martha Wainwright at Bristol Beacon, and her sound cut out. She just carried on singing, her remarkable, powerful voice filling the space and carrying all the way to the back where I was sitting.
Whizzy tech makes performance even better but at the end of the day, like with circus, for me it’s the human risk-taking that’s most memorable on these occasions.
Can you name a song that can instantly boost your mood?
We used to play Paul Simon’s Graceland album on car journeys when I was a child, it makes me think of looking out at the stars in the sky and feeling excited about going camping (why did family camping trips always start with putting the tent up in the dark?!). More recently I have played the album to both my children when they were little to help them get off to sleep at naptime. The beats are perfect for rocking a baby! Hard to choose one track…maybe the title track.
Which artist/band/performer/show would you like to see at YTL Arena Bristol and why?
What a coup for the city to be able to host shows on this scale in future. The possibilities are endless! I love a full line up with a cause for the audience to get excited about, like the Live Aid/8/Earth gigs, could you look into that?! And artists with a big stage show. I’d love to see Gorillaz. Black Eyed Peas would be cool too.
And finally, can you share a song that means a lot to you so we can add it to our YTL Arena Backstage Pass playlist?
How about Nina Simone, Feeling Good.