He worked with Professor Stephen Hawking on the 2012 Paralympic Opening Ceremony – “we joked about socks” – and he’s been awarded an MBE by the Queen in 2016 for services to culture and disability arts – “an exciting moment and great recognition”.
But perhaps Bradley Hemmings’ greatest success is as artistic director and chief executive of the Greenwich + Docklands International Festival.
Founded by the Waterloo resident in 1996 out of the Greenwich Festival, the aim was to create a cross-river celebration of outdoor arts.
This year, its 21st, offers nine days of spectacular dance, theatre and arts performances across Greenwich and Tower Hamlets, all completely free.
We caught up with the 55-year-old, who will also direct the Paralympic Heritage Flame Ceremony at Stoke Mandeville and the National Paralympic Day and Liberty Festival 2016 at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park this September.
How have things changed since the first festival in 1996?
In those days you couldn’t travel by DLR so to do the cross river festival was a big leap of faith. We had to navigate back and forth using the foot tunnel.
London, and in particular east London, has been completely transformed in those 21 years. We have the fantastic Olympic Park and the extraordinary public spaces at Canary Wharf and, in Greenwich, a lot of performances are in the grounds of the Old Royal Naval College which back then was a military site run by the Navy. You had to walk in a straight line from one end to the other and we weren’t allowed to deviate from that route.
It’s very different world now and one in which outdoor performances can really shine.
How has the festival changed?
It has grown a lot. When we started out we weren’t entirely free but over the early years we made the decision to go that way. It is our unique feature that we do these spectacular and surprising outdoor performances that you can see for free.
Is it hard to keep it free?
It’s an amazingly difficult thing but we have been lucky with our partners over the years. We have support from the Arts Council and the two boroughs of Greenwich and Tower Hamlets and now the Olympic Park and, of course, Canary Wharf Group has been a key supporter.
We always want to do new things and discover new sites, we are a very ambitious festival and would like to make it longer and have more shows but we are realistic in terms of what we do. We know these are difficult times and resources are more thinly spread.
What are the challenges of putting it on?
The fundraising is a hard challenge but also we have to build all of the infrastructure for the performances, the lighting and sound. We have artists coming from all over the world to perform and we have to arrange their travel and get the permissions. Every artist gets paid a fee and we pay for their travel as well.
How are we doing in terms of disability in the arts?
In 2012 there was a big change in perception and I was a part of that directing the Opening Ceremony of the Paralympics. But in many ways things have become increasingly difficult for disabled artists over the last four years so I have always felt it important to maintain the principle that the festival should represent everyone in our audiences.
We need to ensure we are commissioning and working with a diverse selection of artists so when you come to the festival it feels you are looking at an image of our city.
What should people look out for in Canary Wharf?
The Dancing City event has been very popular in Canary Wharf since 2002 when we started it. It is over two days – July 1 and 2 – and is a real highlight for us. I’m very excited about a piece You And I Know that has been choreographed by Arlene Phillips working with Candoco Dance Company.
Then there is Up And Over it, who people may have seen on Britain’s Got Talent doing a version of Irish dancing on a table with their hands. They have got a new piece called Stuck.
There is In Mijn Hoofd, a performance from Holland in a giant sculptural head and Phone Box, a performance in a telephone box and a wonderful bungee aerial performance Slice.
How do you choose the performances?
I like to put on things that surprise people and have an unusual staging element but are also complementary to the spaces in which they take place.
Canary Wharf is a beautiful place for outdoor dance because there is such a variety of space. You have the harder, gleaming spaces next to One Canada Square and Cabot Square but then you get the softer more intimate environments like Westferry Circus which give a very different feel.
What should Canary Wharf workers travel further afield for?
The opening night event The House will mark the 400th anniversary of The Queen’s House in the grounds of the National Maritime Museum on June 24.
You will see the Queen’s House transformed by digital projections by Tal Rosner and fantastic dance from Avant Garde Dance, a hip hop company and Olivier Award winning actress Sharon D Clarke will be narrating it. That will be an exciting night with lots of pyrotechnics.
On the opening weekend we are also doing an event up at the Olympic Park, The People Build, which is all about mass participation. We will create this massive architectural structure out of boxes over two days. It will emerge and enshrine and look forward to the future plans for Olympicopolis.
And Greenwich Fair is like a festival within a festival on the June 25-26 with a massive number of national and international outdoor theatre companies performing.
GIDF, June 24 -July 2, various venues