Balancing Act

In 1974, French aerialist Philippe Petit snuck onto the roof of the World Trade Center, rigged a tightrope between the Twin Towers, and spent three-quarters of an hour dancing across the 1,350-foot-deep urban abyss. The caper was all but forgotten until last summer, when James Marsh's documentary Man on Wire premiered in American theaters. With the DVD hitting stores in December, AIMEE BERG rang Petit, now 59, at a hotel in Australia and discovered that he, too, is a sucker for a surprising midair display.

OUTSIDE: You've seen Man on Wire 25 times. What's your favorite part?
PETIT: When Marsh, the director, makes fun of me for running my mouth by slowly closing the sound down to zero while I'm talking. People who know me probably want to do that in real life… . Wait, can you hold on one second, please? It's amazing …

Uh, what's amazing?
Outside my hotel window, from the sky came a giant cage carrying three people washing windows. It's an invasion of privacy, but it's also amazing to look at them, 40 stories high. The cage is banging in the wind.

Did the window washers recognize you, now that your movie is out in Australia?
I don't think so. [laughs]

Are you familiar with slacklining, the climbers' sport that mimics wire walking?
It's a great pastime for people who want to play with the idea of balance. But that's not what I do. When I do the high wire, it's alive. It's a profession.

You've said that you consider your wire walks art, not stunts or attempts to break records.
I present a theater in the sky… . What interests me is the poetry, the expression of man with soul.

What's the latest on your idea to walk over the Grand Canyon?
That plan collapsed, after 11 years of planning. Now I desire a project on Easter Island. I could put my rope around the belly of 40 or 50 moai [stone statues] that are lined up by the sea and tie the other end to a nearby mountain. Everybody on the island is waiting for me. They have heard of my dream.

So what's holding you back?
What I need now is an angel of the arts to sign a check. That's how it works.

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