For most people, walking a tightrope a quarter mile above Manhattan without a safety net is the stuff of nightmares. For Philippe Petit, it was the dream of a lifetime. This Saturday, Petit will appear at UCSB’s Campbell Hall to share his unusual passion and the extraordinary deeds it has led him to pursue.
Petit is the subject of Man on Wire, the 2008 Academy Award-winning doc that chronicles his obsession with New York’s World Trade Center, stretching from the moment when, as a teenager in France, he saw the design for the yet-to-be-built structures to the day in 1974 when he performed his thrilling and illegal high-wire walk between them. The film plays up the human emotions involved: the drama of the heist, the extreme danger of the walk itself, the intensity of the relationships between Petit and the friends who helped him pull it off. But in conversation, the 60-year-old Petit gives it a different spin. “My story is not at all about people’s feelings,” he explained on the phone from his home in Woodstock, New York. “It is about putting a cable between two towers.”
Maybe it’s his ability to tune out human drama and focus on the task at hand that has allowed Petit to do what he does for more than 40 years: to plan and perform high-wire walks sans safety nets in places like Notre Dame de Paris and the Sydney Harbor Bridge. Despite the apparent risks, Petit emphasizes that these acts are less circus stunts than poetic, theatrical statements. “I don’t do anything death-defying,” he insisted. “It is very normal for people on the ground to look at somebody apparently walking in midair and thinking first that person is crazy and thinking secondly that person risks his or her life. But if you see how carefully I prepare for any kind of walk, legal or illegal, small or big, you will see that actually I narrow the unknown to virtually nothing. And that’s when I am ready to walk on the wire.”
He may be extreme, but Petit is not crazy; when pressed, he did concede that there would be consequences to a fall. “Of course the slightest little mistake on the wire will deprive me of my life,” he said, “so in that sense, yes, it is a dangerous profession. You have to pay attention; if not, you will lose your life.”
When he’s not balancing on a steel cable, you can find Petit miming, juggling, picking pockets, writing books (he’s working on his eighth one now), and giving lecture demonstrations. That he crafts each of his pursuits with the aesthetic sensitivity of an artist still doesn’t mean the world always accepts his work. “My parents wanted me to have an honorable profession and not to be a jester,” he explained. “I felt that I never had any support. From four or five years old, I saw that the whole entire world was against me. Whenever I wanted to do something, I had to go home for dinner, behave like my parents and teachers and society were telling me to. So from a very early age, I started rebelling against that.” That rebellion took the form of self-taught magic, then juggling, and eventually tightrope walking. And despite the recognition he has gained as an artist, Petit still sees himself as a rebel.
“I still feel that the whole world is against me,” he admitted. “People who say I am successful don’t understand and don’t know me. I am not successful; I am struggling, I am trying, I am fighting. All the acclaim means nothing, other than the sincere beauty of people appreciating your art, and telling you that you inspire them.”
It all sounds a little heavy, but Petit generally is about as buoyant in conversation as he is on the wire. He spends three hours practicing tightrope six days a week, and he continues to perform high-wire walks all over the world. “Of course I would not, today, at 60 years old, be able to do the somersaults I did at age 18,” he explained. “But I don’t need to. I don’t need to prove anything, and also, it’s more beautiful to edit the grammar of your movements and your art. I feel I am in the best moment of my life, physically and mentally, to present the most beautiful high-wire walks.”
As for the future, Petit still has big dreams. “I have all kinds of things I want to do,” he said. “One dream is to go to Easter Island and to put my wire around the belly of the statues there, and have the Rapanui people who inhabit the island be my guests in the show and perform their dance and celebrations and music.” In the meantime, he’ll be sharing his inimitable creativity with Santa Barbara. His advice to those attending to his presentation? “To be curious, to be inspired, and to rejoice,” he said. “I think these are just the right words to throw to the wind.”
Philippe Petit will appear at UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Saturday, November 7, at 8 p.m. For tickets, call 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.