To take that first step into a new venture or direction can be exciting even scary. No one knows that better than French high wire artist Philippe Petit. He walked a cable strung between the roofs of the World Trade Center towers in August 1974 and did not just one trip but eight trips across that wire. Petit will talk about his craft at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 3, to open SUNY/Albany’s Creative Life series.
“The first step is a very important thing especially if you’re a high wire walker,” Petit said. “You must be certain in mind and body. With conviction, certitude and victory to see yourself at the arrival, then that first step is only an exclamation point.”
While many would consider this walk one of great daring-do or even a stunt, Petit sees what he does as a theatrical performance to create visual magic or something beautiful. His stage is the wire, his theater is the air, the wind, the clouds, the sun.
“I’m not a daredevil. I’m a poet in the sky,” he said.
His interest in wire walking or rope dancing, also called funambulism, was part of his childhood. Always athletic, he fenced, rode horses, learned magic and how to pick pockets, and “strung ropes between trees and rocks. I was exploring my limits.”
By 16, he became intrigued with walking a wire and taught himself the art of balance.
“I’d never seen it at a circus but when I heard that wire walkers there walked on thin air, I thought that was what I did,” he said.
In his book “To Reach the Clouds” (North Point Press, 2002), he said that after being expelled from five high schools for practicing his art of pickpocketing on his teachers, his direction was set. Petit became a street performer mostly around Paris riding in on a unicycle, juggling, doing card tricks and walking on a wire strung between whatever posts were available.
At 18 in 1971, he made his first illegal public walk between the two towers of the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Two years later, he walked between the towers of the Sydney, Australia Harbor Bridge. But by then, he’d already fixated on his next venture: the World Trade Center, which was still under construction. That venture took him three years of planning every detail from how his team of friends would get his equipment up to the towers’ roofs to wind currents to how heavy and long the balancing pole he would carry on his walk (it was 28 feet and weighed 45 pounds). As to the death-defying nature of the walk — the towers were almost a quarter of a mile high, he said in his 2009 documentary, “Man on Wire,” that should he fall, it was something he accepted because he was living his passion, so death was not something he considered. The documentary won him an Oscar.
Some 600-plus walks later, including the 1989 walk up an inclined wire from the Palais de Chaillot garden to the second story of the Eiffel Tower watched by 250,000 people, numerous workshops, lectures and authoring 11 books, Petit is still in top form and still wire walking. His most recent walk was in June, when he and Philip Johnson’s Glass House (built in the 1940s in Connecticut) celebrated their 70th birthdays.
“I strung a 140 foot-long cable from the lawn to the roof — it’s only one story,” Petit said. “It was an intimate walk and we sang Happy Birthday.”
A few weeks ago, looking as lithe and fit as any 20-year-old, Petit gave a sold-out crowd at Tannersville’s Orpheum Performing Arts Center a look behind the scenes with his “Open Practice” two-hour talk and demonstration. With a wire strung six feet off the stage floor, he showed some of his warm-up exercises and different moves on the wire that he does three hours, six days a week. Always working to music, he rings a small bell on every successful walk and showed off his latest “quest”: to turn 180 degrees while in the middle of the wire.
“Fear is not in my vocabulary,” he told the crowd. “I feel I’m glued to the wire. But I stay humble. I know my craft. I know my limits.”
Petit will be interviewed by WAMC’s Joe Donohue, followed by a Q & A. This is the fourth year for the series, which is a collaboration among the university’s art museum, the NYS Writers’ Institute and the Performing Arts Center. Artists, who represent a wide range of talents, talk about their lives, inspirations and crafts, followed by a reception.
Besides Petit, who will also give a 5 p.m. mini-demonstration and sign his book “On the High Wire,” other speakers will be Rakim, considered the greatest MC within the hip-hop community, on Oct. 28, who will be signing his book “Sweat the Technique: Revelations on Creativity from the Lyrical Genius”; novelist and much-awarded writer Jhumpa Lahiri on Jan. 30; and New York Magazine art critic Jerry Saltz on March 24.
Creative Life: A Conversation Series
WHEN: 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct 3; Oct. 28, Jan. 30, March 24
WHERE: SUNY/Albany Performing Arts Center
HOW MUCH: Free
MORE INFO: 518-442-3997; www.albany.edu