Tuesday, June 21, 2011

"Wireless" — Philippe Petit's New One-Man Show

[post 155]

Here I go again with another old-man story (stop rolling your eyes):

In 1973, I had already been living for four years (I stayed 22) in my $68/month crime- and roach-infested apartment on 2nd St., just off the Bowery. In the same building lived Hilly Kristal. Around the corner but on the same block was Hilly's high-decibel new punk rock club, CBGB — so loud I was sometimes driven to make anonymous, menacing phone calls to them just so I could get some sleep ("Close your fuckin' back door or I'll...") Across the street from me lived a bunch of musicians who went by the name of The Ramones.

None of which, I must confess, interested me in the slightest.

Instead, while Patti Smith, Blondie, Television, the Talking Heads, and the Ramones were making music history less than 100 meters away, square that I was/am I was much more excited to hear about an exciting new French street performer who was becoming a regular in nearby Washington Square Park.

He was, as you have no doubt guessed, none other than a very young, pre-World-Trade-Center, Philippe Petit.

And he was good.

Dressed all in black, adorned with a top hat, speaking nary a word, he had a bit of the Marcel Marceau about him and, above all, a strong presence and an excellent sense of the audience. I don't have total recall of the act, but it included:

a perfectly-drawn chalk circle (his "stage"), a perimeter he enforced by circumnavigating it on his unicycle whenever encroachment loomed; pull your toes back or else!
some very nifty three-ball juggling
"teaching" a spectator to juggle, then revealing to the crowd (behind the spectator's back) that he'd pick-pocketed the guy's watch (big laughs)
stringing a "tight" rope from a tree to a pole or, better yet, to the shoulders of half a dozen burly guys who between their ton of mass could still not keep the rope totally tight once the slight Philippe put his weight on it (more big laughs)
juggling clubs and then torches while walking barefoot on the rope, warming his feet with the flames
a grand exit on his unicycle, carrying all his props

But this was 1973, a few years before Betamax and VHS, no one had consumer video cameras, much less smart phones, so it's not surprising that so far I haven't been able to find any street performance video of Philippe from those early days. All I can offer is a snippet from much later, 2005 to be exact, posted to YouTube by Luke Hannafin (thank you very much).  Mostly it just shows the ropewalking, not the comedy, but it's all we've got so far. (Let me know if anyone has more.)

You know what happened next: sneaking into the World Trade Center in 1974 before construction was even finished, using a cross bow to string a wire from tower top to tower top, 1350 ft. high, and then astounding early-morning Manhattan with an extended walk. A father of a friend of mine told me that on his way to work that morning he saw everyone gazing skywards, but just thought to himself, "stupid tourists," and kept walking, never bothering to look up.

And for those too young to remember, the Academy Award-winning documentary, Man on Wire (2008), kept the legend alive.

Fast forward to last week when I was pleasantly surprised to see this article in the NY Times about Wireless, a new Philippe Petit one-man show:

You can read the whole article here.

And here's a short video that accompanied the Times article, with footage of the reporter's visit to Philippe's studio in the Catskills.

Although I'd love to see Philippe street perform again, I must admit I wasn't so sure I'd have the patience for a presentation full of motivational lecturing and his philosophy of life. You know how intellectual the French can get about these things! A little bit of that can go a long way for me.  But of course I wasn't going to miss the show, so I snatched up tickets before the weekend run sold out.

Bottom line, I liked it a lot.  Philippe is 61, not so petit around the middle, but still spry and on top of his game. For me at least the evening was just the right blend of thoughtful reflection, storytelling, and show and tell.  No, he did not walk on a wire, ride a unicycle, or pick anyone's pockets, despite a couple of forays into the audience. But he did talk about body language and demonstrate his findings; perform sleight-of-hand and reveal how it was done; and he did do his three-ball juggling act. He drew illustrations on a board for us, told stories, and acted them out.

"People ask me if I am afraid on the high wire. I tell them I don't have time, I'm too busy up there to be scared."

He clearly sees himself as the self-made man, someone who through hard work and ferocious focus has managed to teach himself not only a wide range of skills at a very high level, but who has also integrated his worlds into a broader vision, what he describes as his "territory." Along the way he touches on such topics as play; overcoming fear; learning from small mistakes so as to avoid larger ones; simplicity through repetition; and the joys of bullfighting and comedy pickpocketing.

He is a dreamer but above all a problem solver. The final symbol of the show is a John Kahn "Easter Island" sculpture, as tall as the proscenium, that descends from above as Philippe tells with relish the story of how they discovered the likely explanation for how they moved these ancient and mammoth statues. What does that have to do with wirewalking? Nothing — and everything.

All of this could be quite ponderous, but it isn't.  He is animated throughout, constantly moving with that puckish energy of his, and very funny. Yes, I laughed a lot. All in all, the show harkened back to the days of the Chautauqua lecture circuit, or the 19th century tours of such great writers as Charles Dickens and Mark Twain. Today most celebrities limit their introspection to canned quips on the Jay Leno Show, so it is refreshing to see an artist choosing to spend 90 minutes explaining what make him tick. Bravo for that.

Philippe's weekend in New York was labeled a work-in-progress, the stated intention being to take it to a larger venue for an extended run and eventually tour the show. So the good news is that it may be coming to a theatre near you one of these days and, in fact, if you're anywhere near Hampton, Virginia you only have to wait until July 9th to see Philippe here.

I haven't found any reviews of the show yet, but here are some interesting links:
• The CBS News report of the WTC walk
• A video montage of photos from the WTC walk
My review of Colum McCann's award-winning novel, Let the Great World Spin, which is centered around the day of the WTC walk
• Some sleight-of-hand with David Blaine
• Another article previewing the current show, this one from New York Magazine.
• Philippe teaching wirewalking
Le Funambule, another movie about Philippe
• A short interview with CNN
• A very funny appearance on The Colbert Report, featuring an unbelievable (take that literally) wire walk by Stephen Colbert.


Jonathan said...

Dear John,

Thanks for posting this "back story" on the extraordinary, very whimsical and extremely talented performer, Philippe Petit. I found his story and his TED TALK presentation shown on YouTube to be fascinating, insightful and highly inspirational --as is your ongoing ALL FALL DOWN blog.

Please keep your meaningful blogs coming for years to come!

With much appreciation.

jt said...

Thanks, Jonathan. Someone told me he's doing the show again sometime soon somewhere in or near NYC, but I'm not sure of the details. —jt (1-27-13)

Jonathan said...

Thanks for the heads up, John. Perhaps he will also be performing in the Montreal area soon. After all, it's only a hop,skip and a jump. And he can certainly do that (and so much more!). ;)

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