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TED2012

Philippe Petit: The journey across the high wire

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Even a death-defying magician has to start somewhere. High-wire artist Philippe Petit takes you on an intimate journey from his first card trick at age 6 to his tightrope walk between the Twin Towers.

- High-wire artist
High-wire artist Philippe Petit surprised the world when he walked illegally between the Twin Towers in 1974. Full bio

This sound,
00:18
this smell,
00:21
this sight
00:25
all remind me of the campfires of my childhood,
00:29
when anyone could become a storyteller in front of the dancing flames.
00:33
There was this wondrous ending
00:40
when people and fire fell asleep almost in unison.
00:43
It was dreaming time.
00:48
Now my story has a lot to do with dreaming,
00:51
although I'm known to make my dreams come true.
00:55
Last year, I created a one-man show.
00:59
For an hour and a half I shared with the audience
01:02
a lifetime of creativity,
01:06
how I pursue perfection, how I cheat the impossible.
01:09
And then TED challenged me:
01:13
"Philippe, can you shrink this lifetime to 18 minutes?"
01:16
(Laughter)
01:19
Eighteen minutes, clearly impossible.
01:20
But here I am.
01:24
One solution was to rehearse a machine gun delivery
01:26
in which every syllable, every second will have its importance
01:28
and hope to God the audience will be able to follow me.
01:30
No, no, no.
01:32
No, the best way for me to start
01:34
is to pay my respects to the gods of creativity.
01:36
So please join me for a minute of silence.
01:40
Okay, I cheated, it was a mere 20 seconds.
02:01
But hey, we're on TED time.
02:04
When I was six years old,
02:06
I fell in love with magic.
02:08
For Christmas I got a magic box
02:11
and a very old book on card manipulation.
02:14
Somehow I was more interested in pure manipulation
02:18
than in all the silly little tricks in the box.
02:21
So I looked in the book for the most difficult move,
02:25
and it was this.
02:29
Now I'm not supposed to share that with you,
02:32
but I have to show you the card is hidden in the back of the hand.
02:34
Now that manipulation
02:39
was broken down into seven moves
02:42
described over seven pages.
02:45
One, two, three,
02:49
four, five, six and seven.
02:51
And let me show you something else.
02:55
The cards were bigger than my hands.
02:56
Two months later, six years old,
03:07
I'm able to do one, two, three, four, five, six, seven.
03:09
And I go to see a famous magician
03:13
and proudly ask him, "Well what do you think?"
03:15
Six years old.
03:18
The magician looked at me and said, "This is a disaster.
03:19
You cannot do that in two seconds
03:22
and have a minuscule part of the card showing.
03:25
For the move to be professional, it has to be less than one second
03:29
and it has to be perfect."
03:34
Two years later, one -- zoop.
03:38
And I'm not cheating. It's in the back. It's perfect.
03:43
Passion is the motto
03:51
of all my actions.
03:57
As I'm studying magic,
03:59
juggling is mentioned repeatedly
04:03
as a great way to acquire dexterity and coordination.
04:06
Now I had long admired how fast and fluidly
04:11
jugglers make objects fly.
04:15
So that's it. I'm 14; I'm becoming a juggler.
04:17
I befriend a young juggler in a juggling troupe,
04:21
and he agrees to sell me three clubs.
04:25
But in America you have to explain. What are clubs?
04:29
Nothing to do with golf.
04:32
They are those beautiful oblong objects,
04:33
but quite difficult to make.
04:38
They have to be precisely lathed.
04:39
Oh, when I was buying the clubs,
04:41
somehow the young juggler was hiding from the others.
04:43
Well I didn't think much of it at the time.
04:46
Anyway, here I was progressing with my new clubs.
04:49
But I could not understand.
04:53
I was pretty fast, but I was not fluid at all.
04:55
The clubs were escaping me at each throw.
04:59
And I was trying constantly to bring them back to me.
05:02
Until one day I practiced in front of Francis Brunn,
05:05
the world's greatest juggler.
05:09
And he was frowning.
05:11
And he finally asked, "Can I see those?"
05:13
So I proudly showed him my clubs.
05:15
He said, "Philippe, you have been had.
05:18
These are rejects. They are completely out of alignment.
05:20
They are impossible to juggle."
05:23
Tenacity is how I kept at it
05:29
against all odds.
05:35
So I went to the circus to see more magicians, more jugglers,
05:37
and I saw -- oh no, no, no, I didn't see.
05:40
It was more interesting; I heard.
05:43
I heard about those amazing men and women
05:45
who walk on thin air --
05:47
the high-wire walkers.
05:50
Now I have been playing with ropes and climbing all my childhood,
05:53
so that's it. I'm 16; I'm becoming a wire walker.
05:56
I found two trees --
06:01
but not any kind of trees,
06:05
trees with character --
06:08
and then a very long rope.
06:10
And I put the rope around and around
06:12
and around and around and around till I had no more rope.
06:14
Now I have all of those ropes parallel like this.
06:16
I get a pair of pliers and some coat hangers,
06:19
and I gather them together in some kind of ropey path.
06:21
So I just created the widest tightrope in the world.
06:27
What did I need? I needed the widest shoes in the world.
06:30
So I found some enormous, ridiculous, giant ski boots
06:34
and then wobbly, wobbly I get on the ropes.
06:38
Well within a few days I'm able to do one crossing.
06:41
So I cut one rope off.
06:45
And the next day one rope off.
06:47
And a few days later, I was practicing on a single tightrope.
06:49
Now you can imagine at that time
06:53
I had to switch the ridiculous boots for some slippers.
06:55
So that is how -- in case there are people here in the audience who would like to try --
07:00
this is how not to learn wire walking.
07:05
(Laughter)
07:08
Intuition is a tool essential in my life.
07:10
In the meantime, I am being thrown out of five different schools
07:18
because instead of listening to the teachers,
07:23
I am my own teacher, progressing in my new art
07:24
and becoming a street juggler.
07:28
On the high wire, within months,
07:31
I'm able to master all the tricks they do in the circus,
07:34
except I am not satisfied.
07:37
I was starting to invent my own moves and bring them to perfection.
07:39
But nobody wanted to hire me.
07:48
So I started putting a wire up in secret and performing without permission.
07:50
Notre Dame,
07:56
the Sydney Harbor Bridge,
08:00
the World Trade Center.
08:04
And I developed a certitude, a faith
08:07
that convinced me that I will get safely to the other side.
08:09
If not, I will never do that first step.
08:13
Well nonetheless,
08:15
on the top of the World Trade Center
08:18
my first step was terrifying.
08:21
All of a sudden the density of the air is no longer the same.
08:29
Manhattan no longer spreads its infinity.
08:33
The murmur of the city dissolves into a squall
08:36
whose chilling power I no longer feel.
08:39
I lift the balancing pole. I approach the edge.
08:43
I step over the beam.
08:45
I put my left foot on the cable,
08:47
the weight of my body raised on my right leg
08:51
anchored to the flank of the building.
08:54
Shall I ever so slightly shift my weight to the left?
08:57
My right leg will be unburdened,
09:01
my right foot will freely meet the wire.
09:04
On one side, a mass of a mountain, a life I know.
09:07
On the other, the universe of the clouds,
09:12
so full of unknown we think it's empty.
09:14
At my feet, the path to the north tower -- 60 yards of wire rope.
09:18
It's a straight line, which sags,
09:24
which sways, which vibrates,
09:28
which rolls on itself,
09:31
which is ice,
09:33
which is three tons tight, ready to explode,
09:34
ready to swallow me.
09:39
An inner howl assails me,
09:41
the wild longing to flee.
09:44
But it is too late.
09:47
The wire is ready.
09:50
Decisively my other foot sets itself onto the cable.
09:52
Faith is what replaces doubt
10:05
in my dictionary.
10:10
So after the walk
10:12
people ask me, "How can you top that?"
10:13
Well I didn't have that problem.
10:15
I was not interested in collecting the gigantic,
10:17
in breaking records.
10:20
In fact, I put my World Trade Center crossing
10:22
at the same artistic level as some of my smaller walks --
10:27
or some completely different type of performance.
10:30
Let's see, such as my street juggling, for example.
10:35
So each time
10:41
I draw my circle of chalk on the pavement
10:44
and enter as the improvising comic silent character
10:47
I created 45 years ago,
10:52
I am as happy as when I am in the clouds.
10:54
But this here,
10:58
this is not the street.
11:00
So I cannot street juggle here, you understand.
11:02
So you don't want me to street juggle here, right?
11:05
You know that, right?
11:07
You don't want me to juggle, right?
11:08
(Applause)
11:11
(Music)
11:19
(Applause)
13:11
Thank you. Thank you.
13:16
Each time I street juggle
13:30
I use improvisation.
13:33
Now improvisation is empowering
13:44
because it welcomes the unknown.
13:46
And since what's impossible is always unknown,
13:51
it allows me to believe I can cheat the impossible.
13:55
Now I have done the impossible not once,
14:02
but many times.
14:05
So what should I share? Oh, I know. Israel.
14:07
Some years ago I was invited to open the Israel Festival
14:09
by a high-wire walk.
14:14
And I chose to put my wire
14:16
between the Arab quarters and the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem
14:18
over the Ben Hinnom Valley.
14:22
And I thought it would be incredible
14:24
if in the middle of the wire
14:26
I stopped and, like a magician,
14:28
I produce a dove and send her in the sky
14:30
as a living symbol of peace.
14:34
Well now I must say,
14:36
it was a little bit hard to find a dove in Israel, but I got one.
14:39
And in my hotel room,
14:42
each time I practiced making it appear and throwing her in the air,
14:45
she would graze the wall and end up on the bed.
14:50
So I said, now it's okay. The room is too small.
14:52
I mean, a bird needs space to fly.
14:55
It will go perfectly on the day of the walk.
14:57
Now comes the day of the walk.
14:59
Eighty thousand people spread over the entire valley.
15:02
The mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek, comes to wish me the best.
15:06
But he seemed nervous.
15:11
There was tension in my wire,
15:13
but I also could feel tension on the ground.
15:16
Because all those people
15:18
were made up of people who, for the most part,
15:19
considered each other enemies.
15:22
So I start the walk. Everything is fine.
15:25
I stop in the middle.
15:28
I make the dove appear.
15:30
People applaud in delight.
15:32
And then in the most magnificent gesture,
15:34
I send the bird of peace into the azure.
15:37
But the bird, instead of flying away,
15:41
goes flop, flop, flop and lands on my head.
15:42
(Laughter)
15:45
And people scream.
15:47
So I grab the dove,
15:49
and for the second time I send her in the air.
15:52
But the dove, who obviously didn't go to flying school,
15:57
goes flop, flop, flop and ends up at the end of my balancing pole.
16:00
(Laughter)
16:04
You laugh, you laugh. But hey.
16:05
I sit down immediately. It's a reflex of wire walkers.
16:08
Now in the meantime, the audience, they go crazy.
16:11
They must think this guy with this dove,
16:14
he must have spent years working with him.
16:17
What a genius, what a professional.
16:19
(Laughter)
16:20
So I take a bow. I salute with my hand.
16:22
And at the end I bang my hand against the pole
16:25
to dislodge the bird.
16:27
Now the dove, who, now you know, obviously cannot fly,
16:29
does for the third time a little flop, flop, flop
16:32
and ends up on the wire behind me.
16:35
And the entire valley goes crazy.
16:37
Now but hold on, I'm not finished.
16:40
So now I'm like 50 yards from my arrival
16:42
and I'm exhausted, so my steps are slow.
16:45
And something happened.
16:47
Somebody somewhere, a group of people,
16:49
starts clapping in rhythm with my steps.
16:51
And within seconds the entire valley
16:55
is applauding in unison with each of my steps.
16:56
But not an applause of delight like before,
17:00
an applause encouragement.
17:03
For a moment, the entire crowd had forgotten their differences.
17:06
They had become one, pushing me to triumph.
17:10
I want you just for a second
17:15
to experience this amazing human symphony.
17:18
So let's say I am here and the chair is my arrival.
17:21
So I walk, you clap, everybody in unison.
17:24
(Clapping)
17:28
(Applause)
17:34
So after the walk, Teddy and I become friends.
17:40
And he tells me, he has on his desk a picture of me
17:43
in the middle of the wire with a dove on my head.
17:47
He didn't know the true story.
17:49
And whenever he's daunted by an impossible situation
17:51
to solve in this hard-to-manage city,
17:54
instead of giving up, he looks at the picture and he says,
17:57
"If Philippe can do that, I can do this,"
18:00
and he goes back to work.
18:02
Inspiration.
18:06
By inspiring ourselves
18:15
we inspire others.
18:17
I will never forget this music,
18:20
and I hope now neither will you.
18:21
Please take this music with you home,
18:24
and start gluing feathers to your arms
18:27
and take off and fly,
18:30
and look at the world from a different perspective.
18:32
And when you see mountains,
18:38
remember mountains can be moved.
18:41
(Applause)
18:44
Thank you. Thank you.
18:52
Thank you.
18:55
(Applause)
18:58
Translated by Timothy Covell
Reviewed by Morton Bast

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About the speaker:

Philippe Petit - High-wire artist
High-wire artist Philippe Petit surprised the world when he walked illegally between the Twin Towers in 1974.

Why you should listen

Besides having stretched a steel cable without permission between the towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, high-wire artist Philippe Petit is a street juggler, writes, draws, performs close-up magic, practices lock-picking and 18th-century timber framing, plays chess, studies French wine, gives lectures and workshops on creativity and motivation, and was recently sighted bullfighting in Peru. Also, he has been arrested over 500 times … for street juggling.

Petit’s book To Reach the Clouds is the basis of the Academy Award-wining documentary film Man on Wire. His new high-wire project on Easter Island -- Rapa Nui Walk -- is an homage to the Rapa Nui and their giant carved stone statues, the Moai.

Petit is working on his seventh book, Why Knot? He just completed his first series of Master Classes: Tightrope! An Exploration into the Theatre of Balance. He is also hard at work on a new one-man stage show titled Wireless! Philippe Petit Down to Earth.

More profile about the speaker
Philippe Petit | Speaker | TED.com