High-wire artist will keep his feet on the ground at Krannert

In 1974, Philippe Petit astonished the world by dancing across a cable stretched between the tops of the World Trade Center twin towers.

The then 24-year-old French street performer spent a dazzling, breathtaking 45 minutes on the wire a quarter mile above the streets, entertaining and scaring countless people and even the police, who took him into custody once he finished his feat.

Many called the illegal walk the artistic crime of the century. Petit, who was released from custody shortly afterward as a folk hero, might disagree, though he calls it a "very special thing."

"If I look at my life, I have probably five or six walks I would put in the same artistic level as the World Trade Center," he said.

He has completed 80 or so high-wire acts — some legal, some not — in the past 45 years.

He's also a juggler, magician, barn builder, bullfighter, engineer and writer, with six books to his credit.

He'll talk about all that during "Breaking the Rules: An Evening with Philippe Petit" at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.

People have asked if he'll walk a tightrope in the Tryon Festival Theatre.

He won't.

Instead, "I draw from my entire life as an autodidact, creator, artist," Petit said. "I draw notions and examples. I share with the audience in a very lively, visual way. It's not a lecture; it's like a one-man show.

"To me this performance is an adventure because it's going to be a lot improvised," he continued. "I don't know what I'll share with the audience. There will be surprises for sure. I know I will have a good time sharing bits and pieces of my life."

Asked if a high-wire artist could carry out such a guerrilla feat today, Petit said his answer is yes and no.

"No, because it's impossible to do anything — if the police would see you on top of a building, carrying equipment, they would kill you first and ask questions later," he said. "Yet I'm really the champion of the impossible. I want to believe if I put my mind to another illegal walk that I could do it. But the world has drastically changed and it's very sad."

In the last four or so decades, Petit's street and high-wire acts have led to 500 arrests (mostly for juggling on the street without a permit) and brought him the support and friendship of many people, among them diverse celebrity artists such as Robin Williams, Debra Winger, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Annie Leibovitz, Milos Forman, Paul Auster and Werner Herzog, the German director.

Petit would be a great subject for a Herzog film. In fact, the director made a "tiny movie" 20 years ago of Petit doing a high-wire walk to help open a theater in Vienna.

"It's never been seen anywhere," Petit said. "We've talked about it in the last 20 or 30 years. We often talk about a movie."

Petit, 63, lives in upstate New York and New York City, where since 1982 he's been artist in-residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. There he keeps his project plans, models and archives.

One big project was to walk on a cable stretched between two rims of the Grand Canyon.

"It was a project I worked very hard on for 14 years," he said. "I had some money from some sponsors. The sponsors came to the edge of the canyon. We were passing the cable, and they got very scared to death. They withdrew the money. They said, 'We cannot pay for Philippe to kill himself.'"

Petit, though, sees no risk in what he does. People who would go "backstage" would see all the rehearsal and precautions he takes, he said.

And if his projects, such as the Grand Canyon wire walk, meet obstacles, they don't go dead.

"They are dormant," Petit said.

The Grand Canyon project, he said, would take a lot of money for him to enact, but he said it remains physically possible. Unlike other wire walks, he wouldn't do it to try to break a record, he said.

Petit said his life is not about breaking records or topping his wire walk between the twin towers. He instead plans and carries out projects that he feels are artistic and that he feels passionate about.

One has been building by hand a timber mini-barn, using 18th-century methods and tools, in the Catskills near Woodstock, N.Y.

"It's never finished. I'm so occupied in other projects," he said. "I have three windows to do and a sliding door. I rehearse there. There's a little theater there. I love that."

 

If you go

What: "Breaking the Rules: An Evening with Philippe Petit"

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Tryon Festival Theatre, Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, 500 S. Goodwin Ave., U

Tickets: $32 for adults, $27 for seniors, $15 for students, $10 for University of Illinois students and youths high school age and younger

Information: 333-6280, http://www.krannertcenter.com.

Even more: CultureTalk: A Conversation with Petit and Elizabeth Streb, moderated by Mike Ross and Tim Fox, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Foellinger Great Hall, Krannert (free, no tickets required)

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