Circus acts and performances have been a huge part of Ally Pally ever since it opened in 1875, and over the years there’s been some incredible spectacles on its grounds (tight-roper Charles Blondin famously walked across the length of the Great Hall in the 1880s). This year, Cirque Bijou are performing at Ally Pally Fireworks Festival, bringing a troupe of dancers, colour and light to north London. We chatted to Geraldine Giddings, Senior Producer at Cirque Bijou about why the circus is still as popular as ever, and how the art form has evolved over time:

Your act must be pretty far removed from the displays that Ally Pally used to host back in 1875. How has circus changed as an art form for contemporary audiences?

This year in the circus community its been all about celebrating 250 years of circus, and our show at Ally Pally Fireworks Festival is in honour of that. What is interesting about circus is actually how much has stayed the same. At the heart of our show is an unbelievably skilled, completely unique showman walking a tightwire high above the audience’s heads. I imagine audiences at Ally Pally in the past could have seen something similar.

Having said that, we love to make the most of progress. Technological advances have afforded us huge opportunities to develop the art form – from recorded, amplified music and dramatic lighting effects to time-coded pyrotechnics, colour-changing LEDs and precision tools for manufacture and installation of rigging equipment. I think the ‘dangerous’ side of circus is much safer these days, whilst often being far more ambitious that we ever could have been in the past.

With large scale outdoor spectacle, we find a key to success is involving communities and audiences so that they have a sense of ownership of the show. This certainly isn’t a modern concept but easy communications allows us to orchestrate something quite complicated and make it look easy. In 1875 performances would have seemed far more improvised and with less layers and details.

Are there any elements that have stayed the same? Any aspects of traditional circus that still stand up today?

Absolutely. At its heart, circus is about pushing physical boundaries and confounding audience expectations. This was the case 250 years ago just as it is now. When an audience collectively witness an incredible performance, live and in real time, their reaction will be the same now as it ever was. Although technology, the internet and globalisation give us all so much more access to the incredible, the unusual and the unexpected, we will still gasp if we see someone balance high above our heads on a wire. We still wonder ‘how do they do that?’ and feel a sense of suspense, wondering if they will fall.

Circus skills like aerial, wirewalking, acrobatics and juggling endure. They take a huge amount of skill and training, and we naturally respect that.

Photo Credit: Andrew Billington

Cirque Bijou has been going for almost 20 years now. Have you noticed any ways in which circus has changed in that time? How has your act company evolved?

Our shows have become larger and more ambitious as we have grown as a company. Technology has been our biggest help through this, enabling us to achieve so much more by working across our shows and projects in a joined up way and somehow allowing us to be in many different places at once!

The weekend of Ally Pally Fireworks Festival, for example, we are also able to put on a huge aerial crane and video mapping show at Dumfries House in Scotland, to present fire breathers and props for the MTV awards in Bilbao, a programme of entertainment at Newham Guy Fawkes Night, an international specialist circus artist for CBeebies Christmas show in Stoke-on-Trent, and also create bespoke themed performance for two very high end private parties.

Being able to communicate across our teams of artists, creatives, crew, riggers, choreographers, and to allow them to work on more than one show at a time, really makes a huge difference to our artistic output.

Photo Credit: Gravity Fields

You sometimes play to audiences in the tens of thousands. What makes circus such an enduring art form? Why has it remained so popular?

Humans are curious animals and we’re all fascinated by feats of human endeavour. We want to know how the magic is created – and we all feel the same thrill when we see someone doing something that we know – or believe – to be dangerous. The difference with circus and outdoor spectacle in particular to other artforms like film, or visual art, for example, is the element of collective experience. Our shows allow communities, families, friends and complete strangers to join together in witnessing unusual, thrilling, often beautiful and inspiring moments of human endeavour, to celebrate together. The impact on the audience of experiencing circus live is enduring, and that is why the art form has remained so popular.

How do you see the art form changing in the future?

An important development in circus recently is an increase in its accessibility and inclusivity – something we have championed through our circus project Extraordinary Bodies, our professional circus company made up equally of disabled and non-disabled artists and creatives from diverse backgrounds. The message is that circus is for everybody – onstage, backstage and in the audience. This movement is growing exponentially and we believe circus in the future will truly represent the diverse makeup of society.

Finally, what can we expect from your show at Ally Pally Fireworks Festival?

Our show at the fireworks festival will be beautiful, fun and colourful. At the heart of the show is a traditional circus wirewalker, Chris Bullzini, who performs an awe-inspiring walk high above audience’s heads. To bring the show back to the ground we are creating a show choir, working with inclusive theatre company Haringey Shed’s Big Noise Choir, and lighting up the night with our technicolour umbrellas, props that will be held by the awesome dancers from Tottenham’s Steppaz Performing Arts Academy. Above all it will be a celebration of circus, community power and of light, with a few surprises thrown in.

For more information on Cirque Bijou, see their website here

To buy tickets to Ally Pally Firework Festival, visit here