Higher Calling: A Talk with Philippe Petit | General Arts & Culture | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine

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Higher Calling: A Talk with Philippe Petit

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Last Updated: 05/01/2021 12:24 pm
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RAIMI FASULA-MOORE
  • Raimi Fasula-Moore
There’s only one person in the world who can answer the following question: What’s it like to walk on a 3/4-inch-thick wire stretched between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center—1,368 feet above the surface of the Earth—with no safety lines and no net to catch you, should you happen to slip? “It’s very personal, very intimate,” says Philippe Petit, the French-born high-wire artist who amazed the world by doing exactly that in 1974. “It’s a dialogue between the wire and myself. It is as if I am a prisoner in my relationship with the wire, in a way. But at the same time, I give myself to the joy of being on the wire, of dancing in the sky. It’s poetic. I am in another universe, in a trance.”

While in that trance Petit walked the line between the towers an astounding eight times. By “dancing” he’s being metaphorical; during his 45 minutes on the wire, Petit didn’t do the monkey or the mashed potato. But within the guerilla-staged feat there were moments when the then-24-year-old aerialist actually hopped in place, kneeled, bowed, and laid on his back on the wire while astonished crowds gawked from the sidewalks more than a quarter of a mile below.

In “Open Practice,” the one-man performance special he recently filmed on the stage of UPAC in Kingston, Petit reprises some of the moves he did on his World Trade Center walk, adding in juggling, somersaults, and other dazzling acts while on a wire rigged up especially for the production. The special will be available for streaming for free locally via the Bardavon Presents website from May 1 through May 31, with a choice of two formats: a 60-minute virtual main stage performance or a 35-minute school time/family matinee.


“This is something very new for me: sharing what I do by inviting the rest of the world into my world, to see exactly how I practice and to explain what it is I do,” says Petit, a Woodstock-area resident for nearly 25 years. “It’s very beautifully filmed, using several cameras.”



Born in the rural Seine-et-Marne town of Nemours, Petit began his performing life at age six by learning magic tricks. By the time he was 16 he was an expert juggler and unicyclist and had begun his romance with the high wire. Although he was mentored by “an old circus guy,” Czech tightrope master Rudolf “Papa Rudy” Omanovsky, Sr., the budding young daredevil has preferred being his own circus rather than joining one. Petit’s only fall, a 45-foot drop that resulted in several broken ribs, occurred in the 1980s while he was briefly a member of Ringling Brother Circus for one season. “That happened in rehearsal and not during a performance, so it doesn’t really count,” he says, with a laugh.

Petit worked as a street juggler in Paris before staging his first major performance on the high wire, a 1971 walk between the steeples of Notre-Dame cathedral, which was followed that year by a similar triumph at Australia’s Sydney Harbour Bridge. He began planning his World Trade Center walk in 1968 when he happened upon a newspaper article about the plans to build the dual edifices. On the morning of August 7, 1974, with the help of a ragtag handful of undercover assistants, he stepped onto the precariously rigged wire—and, from there, into history. The achievement is chronicled in the 2008 documentary Man on Wire, the 2015 biopic The Walk, and his 2002 book To Reach the Clouds (the author of several books, Petit is currently writing his autobiography).


For those who are afraid of heights, the oft-repeated bit of advice given to them to is to not look down. Obviously, Petit isn’t afraid, but did he ever look down when he was on that wire, between what at that time were the world’s two tallest structures?

“Oh, yes, sure, yes, I did,” says Petit, who has been an artist-in-residence at New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine and, at 71, has no plans to stop performing. “I remember thinking, as I made my first step on the wire, ‘I have to look. I have to imprint in my mind a photograph of something which I will never, ever see again.’”

“Open Practice” will be available for viewing at the Bardavon Presents website May 1-31. The streaming video is free; registrations are required.

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