It seemed like a good idea when he was 7. But on this Monday afternoon – a mere 11 days before Nik Wallenda is to walk across Niagara Falls on a two-inch steel tightrope in front of an estimated 100,000 spectators and half a billion television viewers – his lifelong dream feels more like a gigantic pain in the wallenda.
The media are clamouring for interviews. He’s $250,000 over budget. A New York State senator – the one who helped Mr. Wallenda wangle permission to be the first person to walk over the Falls in more than 100 years – wants a confab. The helicopter rigging team has discovered it doesn’t have the licence it needs to work the Falls.
“There’s just goofy issues I’m dealing with,” Mr. Wallenda says. “Two weeks from now, I’ll look back and enjoy it. But right now I’m too busy.”
And then there’s the tether. He’s beside himself about the tether.
Right now, Mr. Wallenda himself is in Branson, Mo., where in an hour – one hour! – he’s going to balance on a tightrope with his mother, Delilah, on his shoulders – she’s still performing, at the age of 58 – as part of a four-person human pyramid on the high wire, one of the acts that made the Wallendas famous.
Mr. Wallenda, 33, holder of six Guinness world records, is a seventh-generation member of the most famous circus family in history. The Flying Wallendas do not use tethers.
A tether – the safety harness Mr. Wallenda will wear while balancing nearly 200 feet over the roiling depths of one of the Seven Natural Wonders of North America – lowers the stakes of his spectacle.
Since ancient Greece, the aim of the tightrope walker has been to raise the stakes higher and higher, to make the audience feel its mortality more keenly. If you can’t die, you can’t really fly.
But ABC (and CTV in Canada) is broadcasting the walk live on Friday, June 15, in a three-hour special. And ABC doesn’t want to televise a man falling to his hideous death in the seething roil of Niagara Falls.
And so Mr. Wallenda’s team is still designing the tether. They’re trying to figure out a way for him to shed the harness if it becomes a danger during the walk.
Wouldn’t that be a spectacle? Nik Wallenda, defying ABC, tossing his lifeline away mid-tightrope – daring the gods!
Eleven days. Forty-five minutes on 1,800 feet of tightrope through Niagara’s towering plume of mist. Directly over the lip of the Falls. As never attempted before.
If he pulls it off, Mr. Wallenda’s daring promenade over Niagara’s torrent will be the high point of his career so far (he has the Grand Canyon booked next), a multimillion-dollar boon to the sad-sack local economy, a piece of history, a jolt to the venerable art of wire walking and a gleeful opportunity to witness a genuine spectacle, even by the high cheesy-spectacle standards of Niagara Falls.
But that leaves one big question: Will the stunt be better remembered if he lives, or if he dies?
Of course, people have tried this before. Between 1850 and 1900, as the new art of photography promised ever-more-precise documentary proof of anything it witnessed, 13 rabid publicity hounds crossed the Niagara River on tightropes, albeit – as Mr. Wallenda is quick to point out – not the way he’s going to do it, out over the actual Falls.
Canadian Stephen Peer was the only one to die. He crossed successfully several times, then fell when he tried it drunk, at night, in his street shoes.
Maria Spelterini, a rosy Italian, is the only woman to have tiptoed across the chasm. She did it four times in 1876, once with peach baskets strapped to her feet.
But no one did it with greater success than the man who did it first, walking 1,100 feet on a 3¼-inch rope, 160 feet above the water of the Niagara Gorge, on June 30, 1859: Frenchman Jean-François Gravelet, better known as Charles Blondin, the greatest tightropist of his day. He repeated the feat with greater and greater aplomb every time – blindfolded, on stilts, carrying his terrified manager on his back, standing on a chair with one leg on the rope, and – most famously – stopping in the middle to cook an omelette. (How French.)
His rival, Signor (The Great) Farini (alias Willie Hunt), did everything Blondin did at Niagara and then some, including carrying an Empire hand-cranked wringer-washing machine on his back to the middle of the tightrope, where he then balanced it and rinsed some smalls, to the swooning delight of his many female fans.
But public adoration is quixotic, and Farini’s fame never caught up to Blondin’s.
In fact, until Mr. Wallenda turned up, Blondin’s only rival as an outdoor tightrope showman in the ensuing century-plus has been Philippe Petit, the funambulist who trapped the world’s imagination by illegally but ever so joyfully walking a tightrope between the twin towers of the World Trade Center one Tuesday morning in August, 1974, an exploit immortalized in the thrilling 2008 documentary Man on Wire.
(Mr. Petit also repeated Blondin’s feat across the Niagara, but the towers were his lifelong dream.)
The last person allowed across the Niagara on a tightrope (and also, at 21, the youngest) was James Hardy in 1896. By then, the commercial action around Niagara Falls was getting out of hand, and the Niagara Parks Commission was formed to protect the parkland on the Canadian side.
The Commission put an end to “stunting” specifically in order “to preserve the Falls as a place of respite for hard-working people through the week, at no charge,” as Janice Thomson, the commission’s current chair, puts it. The entire impulse was anti-commercial, she says, “part of a back-to-the land movement.”
So when Mr. Wallenda waltzed up with his proposal last fall, the commission turned him down, just as it turned down everyone else for 100 years.
“We didn’t even take into account his – if you want to call it that – circus pedigree,” Ms. Thomson admits.
Mr. Wallenda then bounced over to Michael Chan, Ontario’s Minister of Tourism, Culture and Sport, this time armed with a study predicting that his waltz over the falls would produce immediate economic benefits of $20-million, as well as $122-million over five years, 243 new jobs, 125,000 visitors and half a billion TV viewers.
There’s no hard evidence in the report: As a piece of promotional hoo-ha, it ranks with the finest Niagara Falls snow globes.
Still, Ms. Thomson admits, “That’s a lot of exposure for the area and the natural beauty of the park.”
The result was a compromise: Once a generation (every 20 years), the commission will now allow a professional stunter (“so it will be professionally done, and not a game of chance”) to take on Niagara Falls – as a way of “paying homage to the origins of the Parks Commission” with its roots in stunting.
In the months since Mr. Wallenda got the nod in February, the commission has received at least three new applications to go over the Falls – two from people who want to go over in barrels and one from a guy who wants to span them on a rocket-propelled bike.
People are idiots. The Falls, on the other hand, as Ms. Thomson likes to point out, are sublime and unchanging.
Is it as hard as it looks to walk on a wire? Yes. Your correspondent tried it twice, once on a slackline – a two-inch band of nylon webbing that bends and sways under the weight of the walker – and once on a much less mobile half-inch metal “tightwire.”
The slackwire – all the rage these days, especially with rock climbers – was set up in a climbing gym. Real circus artists such as Molly Saudek, an American who trained at Montreal’s National Circus School and is now a renowned tightwire acrobat in France (see her do her stuff at youtu.be/FU5r2cn8n2I) don’t even think of slacklines as a circus discipline: “It’s a sport.”
Watching someone like climber Dean Potter wobble untethered across a slackline off the cliffs of El Capitan is massively impressive (youtu.be/IsagruTOXA8) – but all he has to do is get across.
A tightwire, on the other hand, stands still, and thus demands grace and art and tricks, which is where the hard part comes in.
I tried the slackwire for half an hour and, sweating like two pigs, was finally able to take three steps before falling off, almost spraining my ankle in the process. The wire was a foot off the ground. It was not a manly display.
To find a real tightrope, I made my way across Toronto to the Centre of Gravity circus school, where a clown/juggler/wire walker named Circus Jonathan had set up a rope three feet off the sidewalk. He was wearing rubber Doc Martens, and could juggle and answer complex questions while walking the wire.
Aygul Memet, a Uyghur-born high wire artist and teacher at the school, was watching. You might recognize Ms. Memet: She recently caused mass hysteria with her circus acts on Canada’s Got Talent.
Uyghurs are famous for their balancing abilities: A Uyghur tightrope walker named Adili Hoshur holds the world record for living on a tightrope – 60 days. Ms. Memet was placed in a circus-training school by the Chinese government at the age of 8.
I tried eight times to walk the wire; I managed four very unsteady steps. But I liked it more than the slackline. It was about discipline as well as balance.
I asked Ms. Memet what she found hardest about tightrope walking. She said: everything.
“Circus is crazy, is not easy. You have to practise eight hours a day. One trick takes years.”
A trim, 5-foot-2, 37-year-old mother in her late 30s, she was wearing her white spangly circus costume. She looked like a cake decoration.
She thought a bit. “The most difficult thing is standing on one leg, with my other leg straight up in the air, while standing on my partner’s head, while he is walking the wire eight metres in the air.” She paused. “It’s impossible to learn without falling over and over again.”
I stopped trying after that.
The problem is physics, as Markus Bussman, a professor of engineering at the University of Toronto, explained to me later the same day. Prof. Bussman did not look like a petite wire walker, but was tall and had white hair.
“The tightrope walker has to keep his centre of gravity above the wire. But the wire is swinging, and he’s moving, so his centre of mass is going to be moving,” he explained.
All these factors increase the walker’s angular momentum, as expressed by the formula T=Iw, where T is the moment of torque, I is the moment of inertia, and w is the rate of rotation.
I barely understood a word the man said, through no fault of his own. But the general thrust was clear: “What the tightrope walker wants, in the process of going off centre, is to rotate really slowly, so he has a chance to compensate.”
That’s why, as he walks, Mr. Wallenda will hold a 30-foot, 45-pound (the weight of an average 6-year-old boy) steel balancing pole, attached to a shoulder harness – a way of spreading his centre of gravity wider.
That doesn’t always work. Mr. Wallenda’s great-grandfather Karl, the legend who formed the Flying Wallendas, was using a pole when he fell to his death during a performance in Puerto Rico in 1978, at the age of 73: The pole got in his way and prevented him from catching the wire.
“He died a year before I was born,” Mr. Wallenda says, “and I’ve seen that video hundreds if not thousands of times. It’s part of our family history.”
That history is littered with deaths: In 1962, at Detroit’s State Fair Coliseum, a human pyramid collapsed, killing two Wallendas and paralyzing a third. Karl survived with a broken pelvis. A sister-in-law and son-in-law both died in later high-wire accidents, but the family kept performing.
“Through triumph and tragedy one name in our industry is No. 1, and that’s Wallenda,” the latest scion says. “And it’s not like we’re gonna give up any time soon because of those tragedies.”
Mr. Wallenda and his mother have since performed the walk that killed Karl. At 18, before he decided to follow literally in his family’s footsteps, he wanted to be a pediatrician.
Now, he prays to God when he is out on the wire. “I often just talk. But He’s always listening, that’s for sure.”
Here is the bizarre thing: As hopeless as I was on the tightrope, as soon as I could balance even for a moment, I began to imagine trying to perform NikWallenda’s feat.
The lasting appeal of the high-wire artist over the centuries is that he stays balanced on a narrow path all of us wish we could follow but can’t. And yes, that is a metaphor.
“It’s always been high-wire walkers, the person who works the highest, who has to have the highest level of sustained concentration, who is most respected,” says Ms. Saudek, the American tightropist in France.
“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.