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As part of his training for his historic tightrope walk over Niagara Falls this Friday, which will be the first in more than 100 years, Nik Wallenda takes a practice trip across a high wire in the rain. (DAVID DUPREY/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
As part of his training for his historic tightrope walk over Niagara Falls this Friday, which will be the first in more than 100 years, Nik Wallenda takes a practice trip across a high wire in the rain. (DAVID DUPREY/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Nik Wallenda: The age of derring-do is far from over Add to ...

“Everybody has tried to balance on the edge of a sidewalk. But then you add height and risk and grace, and it takes it to another level. I wouldn’t walk over Niagara Falls. But I can imagine it. And that’s why I find it so magical.”

What we see as unimaginable uncertainty and constant threat from below, the tightrope walker takes on as practised, manageable risk.

The gap between the two points of view is what creates the spectacle – the larger the gap, the greater the spectacle.

And with Niagara Falls steaming away in the background, the gap looks enormous.

In the end, Mr. Wallenda’s Niagara wire walk is a throwback, a nod to past and even conservative ideas – the skilled expert alone on the wire, daringly self-reliant, besting nature.

“It’s old-fashioned,” says David Schmid, an English professor with a sideline in popular culture at the State University of New York at Buffalo. “Old-school. And I think that’s one of the reasons it stands out in a crowded media landscape.”

Mr. Wallenda’s brawny act of outdoor daring is an intentional challenge to the smaller scale of contemporary circus – the more intimate, artistic, European, idea-centred theatrical shows Cirque du Soleil has developed so profitably over the past 30 years. Next Friday’s march through the mist is his declaration that the old school is back.

The circus world, Ms. Saudek points out, is sharply divided between those born into it (especially aristocrats like the Wallendas) and those who emigrated from the outside world (many of the artist types).

The famous National Circus School in Montreal, a direct spinoff of Cirque du Soleil, doesn’t even teach high-wire skills. This is mainly because it’s hard to find teachers and it’s expensive to insure and rig. But the bias is cultural as well.

“There is a limit to the art form,” an insider at the school told me about the high wire. “Here we are more interested in the art, as opposed to a performance where it’s not artistically very interesting all the time.”

Those are fighting words to a relentlessly competitive high-wire artists such as Mr. Wallenda. Even mentioning Philippe Petit, who carried off his World Trade Center act guerrilla-style, raises a wall of attitude.

“Everything I do is legit,” Mr. Wallenda says. “I don’t do that fly-by-night bit that Petit did. That’s not me, that’s not my style. I like things to be on the up and up.

“You know, in the end, I think I get rewarded for that. People like that Petit rebel, but I also want to be a role model for never give up, for overcome your challenges, for overcome your fears. All of that stuff.”

The defiant hero of the status quo – it’s an interesting stance.

The anarchic Mr. Petit ran back and forth between the Twin Towers, even lying down on the wire so the waiting (but admiring) cops couldn’t arrest him right away.

When they finally did, he refused to say why he had walked the air between the towers. “There is no why,” Mr. Petit declared.

Mr. Wallenda has no such reservations about what his walk means. “I think that the world is definitely paying attention, and I think it definitely has to do with the inspirational part of it,” he says.

“The fact that so many people are going through so many hard times, and the fact that, you know, as my great-grandfather always taught us, we should never give up.”

Maybe. But when he steps onto the damp wire at 10 p.m. on June 15, his heavy pole in its brace around his neck, his elk-suede-soled slippers feeling for that two-inch wire, Mr. Wallenda will be on his own. On microphone, yes; tethered, unavoidably. But still alone.

We respect that, but also resent it, because it makes us feel like cowards. Part of us wants him to make it. But another, darker part, wonders what it would feel like if he fell.

“The nature of this art form,” Ms. Saudek says, by way of explaining why the tether is such a disappointment, “is that you’re free up there. That you could fall is part of it. That’s why someone like Nik is such a great artist: They take on that possibility. They take that risk. For the people who actually do it, it’s no longer a metaphor. And it then becomes an actual place in our cultural consciousness.

“For that reason,” she adds, “I think high-wire walkers are very, very important. At least as important as professional athletes.”

We like to think we can play it safe and still feel vital. But the man on the wire says otherwise.

Ian Brown is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail.

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