Wallenda Over Niagara Falls
& Petit to Cross Grand Central
A city so vertical as this, one would think that many New Yorkers would have the daring habit of walking on wires, high above its noisy streets. And yet, they are few and far between. That may not change even after next week, when Nik Wallenda, a member of royalty if you follow this sort of daring-do stunt, crosses the Niagara Falls, over 400 miles away from Manhattan.
It’s certainly not because skywalking has become an almost relic of the past: many touring circuses and performing acts still routinely feature it. Neither it may be because of some perceived intimidating shadow cast by Philippe Petit, the Frenchman who walked between the Twin Towers in the 1970s. He too may be awing us in the autumn at Grand Central Terminal.
For a megalopolis that grew used to witnessing thousands of skyscrapers rise, built mostly by an elite of Mohawks and their descendants, such a quasi-lost brand of thrilling entertainment is curiously absent of most busker performances throughout the year.
It doesn’t help things the fact that troupes such as the Flying Karamazov Brothers, who visit us often, are mainly comedic acts despite their name, rarely venturing above its members’ heads, and that these days, a circus performer is rarely confined to a single routine, incorporating trapeze jumps, clowning, pantomime, a little bit of singing, and a little bit of dancing to their acts.
But as artists become ever more competent at wearing different hats to keep us amused, we long for a bygone era when a dangerous walk on a skinny wire would run in families and through generations. And also when people were not so damned busy with their smart phones to appreciate such a risky, sweaty, physical effort as such.
NEVER FALL TO THE FALLS
That’s why Nik is such a throwback to a more sanguine past, and the sort of rarity as the real thing, when it comes to being an aerialist: besides already possessing an extensive and successful career as an acrobat, he comes from an old family of performers, the Flying Wallendas, with roots in Europe.
As such, he has impeccable credentials: the Wallendas trace back to the late 1700s, as a traveling circus from the Old Bohemia, during the Austro-Hungarian Empire times. Nik’s grandfather Karl, born in Germany, performed since he was six until his spectacular fall and death at 73, from a high wire stretched over a street of San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 1978.
Tragedy was never too far from the family. The all-related troupe of acrobats, jugglers, clowns, aerialists and animal trainers, was already performing their ever more demanding acts of funambulism as headliners with Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus during much of the 1930s and 1940s.
In different groups, types of performance and configurations, members of the former Flying Wallendas continue to perform to this day. Arguably their signature contribution to the art of tight rope is the Pyramid group act, which they’ve been performing, in multi-level formation with groups of seven to 10-people, since the 1920s.
MISTY RAGING WATERS
As a seventh-generation member of the Wallendas, Nik had to exercise considerable wiggling to win permission to walk over the falls that separate the U.S. from Canada, which initially wouldn’t even hear about his proposal. See, in this age of high-premium life insurance and the threat of costly court liabilities, such a mortal act as performance art is usually discouraged by officials.
Now that the towns on both sides of the falls finally agreed with his proposal, he’s been holding open, twice-daily practices non-stop walking a wire over a parking lot a few blocks from the water, in Niagara Falls, N.Y.
Conspiring against his training and psychological determination, are the misty air and powerful winds that sweep the geological gap famously featured in the 1953 thriller Niagara, with Marilyn Monroe and Joseph Cotten.
Also stacked against him is some people’s blase attitude and obliviousness, to whom such a courageous example of sang froid and daredevilry can’t come close to the thrills of coach-potato video games or the challenges of text-messaging while crossing a busy road. Nik seems undaunted though.
After all, on June 15, he’ll be carrying 200-plus years of family tradition and tragedy, along with a 30-foot pole, on the 2-inch steel 170 feet over the gorge at the Horseshoe Falls. It will also be the first attempt of the kind to happen since the practice was discontinued in 1896.
Before that, nine men and a woman had crossed over the Niagara Gorge, beginning with a Frenchman who carried his own terrified manager on his arms, in 1859, and others who brought washers or rode velocipedes to utter amusement of the crowds. A single daredevil fell to his death, after several crossings, while attempting to walk over the wire at night on street shoes.
The Niagara has also become famous, in the early 20th century, for the people who rode over the falls inside wood barrels to mixed results; some survived but the majority died while hitting the raging waters or by drowning.
THE POET ON THE WIRE
A completely different type of aerialist is Philippe Petit, who at 62 may repeat in the Fall his 1987 walk over the great vault of Grand Central Terminal, 150 feet above ground. The current Artist-In-Residence at the Saint John the Divine Cathedral is, of course, better known worldwide as the man who walked a tight rope his own underground team once stretched between the Twin Towers in 1974.
The account of his preparation and unbeatable feat has been thrillingly memorialized on the Oscar-winning 2008 documentary Man on Wire. Until he hung his own wire, so to speak, he also walked over the Notre Dame in Paris and the Sydney Harbor Bridge. His walk would be to celebrate the New York landmark’s centennial, but it hasn’t yet been confirmed.
Petit, unlike Nik Wallenda, has been a loner funambulist who created his own tight rope mystique. It may seem too hyperbolic to say that what he does, beyond daredevilry, is something akin to poetry. But he does have a penchant for performing more as an artist than as an athlete, helped by his diminutive frame and boyish looks.
During the walk over between the doomed towers, there’s a moment of exquisite expression that unfortunately was not recorded on film, but was reported by eyewitnesses to his act: while resting his full body for electrifying several minutes, right in the middle of the cable, a bird came flying over and suspend itself right above him, as if intrigued by his demeanor in such non-human environment.
When it happened, in the turbulent 1970s in New York, his feat seemed to be just another sign of the extravagance and devil-may-care attitude of the times. But once the terrible Sept. 11 dawned, it became singed on the imagination of every resident of the city as an indelible memento to the pulverized towers and the future that would be no longer possible for them.
So here’s to Nik Wallenda and Philippe Petit, these two birdmen who sky walk the roof of our dreams, as if we all belong on that thin wire. As they gracefully cross over troubled waters, and brave hurricane-strength winds, we’ll be rooting for them and holding our breath, until they make it to the other side unscathed.
Then their joy will be ours to partake.