Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Happy International Philippe Petit Danced Between the Towers Day!

"Magic Triangle"
© 2012 Jean-Louis Blondeau
All rights reserved.  
Used with permission.
See Jean-Louis Blondeau Photography
When I finally saw him in person he was dressed all in black, from his top hat to his shoes, and was riding his unicycle like a mad-man, zig-zagging through pedestrian traffic in Washington Square Park in New York City.  He stopped by a lamp post and, with a piece of chalk, drew a circle on the sidewalk.  Then he started to work.

What amazed me was that he didn't call attention to himself.  Aside, that is, from careening through the crowds perched on a unicycle and carrying a bag of juggling props -- that kind of got people's attention.

I mean he didn't make a big deal about who he was.  What he'd done.

He simply began to juggle -- and even that wasn't especially flashy.  Three balls -- simple, white lacrosse balls -- and his pattern was small and tight.  Like he was.  An extremely slender man, he was not particularly physically impressive.  Except for his face.  He had the smile of a mischievous elf and the sparkle in his eye is rarely seen outside the world of faerie.

It was clear to me that a lot of the people in the crowd that gathered didn't know who he was -- just another street performer out on a summer afternoon.

But this was Philippe Petite -- the man who, shortly after 7:15 am on August 7, 1974, stepped off the top of one of the World Trade Center towers and onto the 3/4" cable he and his co-conspirators had spent the better part of the night rigging.  The wire stretched the 200' between the twin towers.  It was about a quarter of a mile above the street below.

And it was here, amidst the clouds and the soaring seagulls, that Philippe Petit danced for approximately forty-five minutes.  And changed the world.

At least for me.

I was twelve years old at the time of Monsieur Petit's "artistic crime of the century," as it's been called.  I was already a magician, a bit of a clown, and I wanted . . . to be him.  I wanted his skills, of course, but I also wanted his audacity.  I wanted his whimsy, his magic.  I wanted his insanely poetic vision.  I wanted his courageous commitment to his art.

When asked why he would do something that was at once both illegal and so incredibly foolhardy -- he did this cross with no net and no safety cables! -- Petit answered, "There is no why."  He said that to demand a "why" was such an American thing to do.  Finally, when he could no longer resist the pressure for an answer he said this, "When I see three balls, I juggle; when I see two towers, I walk."

He did this thing for no other reason than that it cried out to be done and that the doing of it would be so very, very beautiful.  I have read that Albert Einstein said that he realized the equations of his General Theory of Relativity were correct because they were . . . beautiful.  I fear that the dominant culture within which I live is almost entirely bereft of this understanding of beauty -- that it proves the "rightness" of things and that it is, in and of itself, all the reason one needs for doing something incredible.

Several years ago I began to intentionally celebrate what I came to call International Philippe Petit Danced Between the Towers Day.  I talk about Petit's walk with whoever I can get to listen.  (Most likely . . . again!)  I look at photographs of it.  (And here is an incredible collection, taken by his friend and collaborator Jean-Louis Blondeau.)  And I watch the awesome film Man on Wire.  I immerse myself in this legendary event. 

This year, as part of my celebration, I'm going to take out my own white lacrosse balls and do a little juggling.  Because ultimately the story of Philippe Petit's dance between the towers is not simply the story of an incredible individual doing an inconceivable thing.  That's the myth, and the myth has a certain magic to it.  Yet the truth is no doubt far more complex.  It'd be the story of a group of ordinary people who created together an extraordinary experience -- for themselves and for the world.  I hope that that story is eventually told.

One of the most incredible things of all, for me, about my encounter with Philippe Petit in Washington Square Park all those many years later is that I have heard him say that his dance between the towers was, for him, like the dance I saw him do between the lamp posts in Washington Square and that both, in fact, are just expressions of the dance he does every day of his life.

So . . . I still want to be Philippe Petit . . . living my life, like his, dancing on the tight rope.  And I also want to be like Jean-Louis Blondeau, Jean François Heckel, Annie Allix, Jim Moore, Jean-Pierre Dousseau, Barry Greenhouse, and all of the others who were equally invested and equally involved in purusing their own dreams.  Most of all, I suppose, I am inspired to be myself.

May you be as well.

Happy International Philippe Petit Danced Between the Towers Day!

In Gassho,


PS -- This is the best International Philippe Petit Danced Between the Towers Day in the history of its celebration! In order to use the photograph of Petit as a juggler, I reached out to ask permission of Jean-Louis Blondeau, the photographer and Petit's collaborator on the World Trade Center walk. And he responded! One of his requests in response for his permission was that he have the opportunity to read this post before it was published, so that he could see in what context his work would be used. This means I have now had several e-mail exchanges with the man I personally consider to be as integrally involved in Petit's feat as the cable itself or, for that matter, Petit's feet! No one can accomplish something like what happened 38 years ago today entirely on her or his own. That is another lesson I take from that dance. Thank you, Monsieur Blondeau. Print this post

1 comment:

Jules. said...

Brill! Thank you for your lovely writing