Renowned for his illegal high-wire performance between the World Trade Center’s North and South Towers in 1974, Philippe Petit captivated Vassar students, faculty and local community members by telling his life story in the Martel Theater on the evening of Oct. 10.
Petit began the evening by announcing that he would not only speak about his experiences, but perform them with the help of a little imagination from the audience. Rushing onstage, he exclaimed, “So about my walk at the World Trade Center, I get always the same question over and over: How did you do that first step? What exactly happened in your head, in your body, at the moment of leaving the building? Well, I’m not going to answer that question in front of you today by remembering; I am going to answer it by reenacting, recreating, reliving.”
The unusual approach that Petit took to deliver his story left a deep impression on his audience. Interim President Jonathan Chenette recalled, “I didn’t know what to expect from his campus appearance, but he managed to mix visceral re-creation of key points in his life, wonderful story-telling, magic and a marker board that he gradually covered with pictures and words to create a sense of wonder and joy among those of us lucky enough to be there.” Audience member Lily Kitfield-Vernon ’18 corroborated, “Petit is one of the most energized, fascinating speakers that I’ve ever seen. His audience consisted of kids, parents, students, professors and elders, and he engaged and motivated them all. That seems like a very difficult thing to do right now, with so much negativity on the news and in daily discussion. It was exciting to be so entranced by a man who could also reach young children while still speaking of the social and political tensions that have influenced his life.”
Creative Arts Across Disciplines (CAAD) sponsored Petit’s visit to campus for his ability to inspire a the audience with his creativity and charisma. Interdisciplinary Arts Coordinator Tom Pacio recollected, “Having Philippe Petit come to campus was a big deal. We got an overwhelming response from the community when his lecture was announced. I think it is safe to say that his presentation is one of the more high-profile events CAAD will host this academic year.” Both personal experiences and media coverage attracted people to the performance. Professor of Mathematics John McCleary elaborated, “I vaguely recall reading in the newspaper of Petit’s walk in NYC, but I was reminded of it by the novel ‘Let the Great World Spin’ by Colum McCann. Shortly after reading it, the movie ‘Man on Wire’ was released, and I enjoyed it a lot. It was clear from the movie that Mr. Petit is a man of considerable daring and creativity. I wanted to hear what he had to say.”
During his evening at Vassar, Petit discussed his childhood leading up to his performance career, his preparations for the walk between the North and South Towers, as well as his later experiences with Moai statues and the valley of Ben-Hinnom in Israel. Kitfield-Vernon summarized, “For starters, gathering the courage to even think about walking on a tightrope, let alone between some of the largest artificial monuments on the planet, let alone in front of huge masses of spectators, that is astounding on its own. But I was even more impressed by how he spoke of his upbringing. He talked about how he dropped out of school to learn magic and circus tricks, how he was a pickpocket while living on the streets after his family disowned him and how even during his escapades as a recognized tightrope walker, he had to use a wounded white pigeon instead of a dove when he hoped to convey a message of peace and unity. He was so honest and tangible.”
Picking up the theme of the wounded white pigeon, Chenette continued, “In a surprising way, Petit’s talk touched on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Recounting a wire walk he performed between the Arab and Jewish quarters of Jerusalem, he described his attempts to release a dove from his hand midway as a symbol of peace. The freed dove unexpectedly landed on his head, then on the end of his balancing pole, and then on the wire behind him. The crowd of tens of thousands went wild with delight, assuming this was rehearsed rather than accidental. As Petit resumed walking, the crowd settled into a unison clap, accompanying each step and urging him on. Differences between Arab and Jew became immaterial as the pleasure and wonder of the magnificent walk and the uncooperative dove crossed all cultural divides. As Petit re-enacted those steps for us on the Martel stage, we in the audience clapped along. It was a wonderful community-building moment.”
Petit showed his talent for improvisation when the stage crew made a few gaffes. Looking back on the preparations for the evening, Casio explained, “Bringing Philippe Petit to campus was an exciting and complicated endeavor. Any time you host an artist for an event there are many logistics to consider in order to set that moment up to succeed. As the audience experienced on Thursday, Petit is a master story-teller who had the dexterity to navigate a few technical challenges that occurred.” The technical challenges included a video playback that stalled in silence for several minutes, a missing stagelight that left part of Petit’s performance in darkness and logistical difficulties with running microphones through the audience during the question and answer period.
But Petit took these difficulties in stride and managed to convey the essence of his life’s work. McCleary opined, “I liked him very much. He explained in simple terms his engagement to his art and how it fit into his life. I was not so surprised by his lecture, but pleased to see how his view of life was so interlaced with his art.” Reflecting on freedom and creativity in his own life, McCleary concluded, “For me, the list of attributes of his art resembled what makes a good mathematician.”
Pacio agreed, “There are many different disciplines at work in Petit’s craft that can be appreciated by many different perspectives.” The interdisciplinary connections suggested by Petit’s visit attests to the vibrant life of Vassar’s arts programs. Comparing recent investment into the sciences with the creative arts, Chenette predicted, “Seeded by a four-year $750,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Creative Arts Across Disciplines initiative will continue beyond the grant period as we replace Mellon funding by gifts. Rather than sciences’ physical bridge, the arts will benefit from funding for programs that foster opportunities for boundary-crossing artistic creation and deepen the engagement of Vassar students across the curriculum with methods and ideas from the arts.”
Discussing CAAD’s plans for the near future, Pacio elaborated, “Still remaining this semester is a screening of a John Waters film with a ‘scratch and sniff’ card, a visit from the Kairos Italy Theater, and a guest lecture by Jane Hirschfeld. This is all in addition to any programming that will take place in the Collaboratory. For the spring term we have lots of exciting things in store that are still in the planning stages. In addition I am proud to announce this year CAAD is working with the Music Department to produce Modfest.”
Besides highlighting CAAD and the creative arts at Vassar, Petit pragmatically advised students not to lose their imagination and sanity over the course of their studies. Kitfield-Vernon concluded, “His advice about surprising yourself spoke to me and my chaotic daily routines. I think at Vassar, we all become too focused on just making it through each day’s packed schedule and that can make us frustrated with our peers, this campus and ourselves. I hope to learn to surprise myself every day, as Petit suggested, to make life here a little less oriented around productivity and a little more oriented on mental health.”
Thinking in broad strokes at the end of the evening, Petit concluded, “So now I would like you to go home, right, and to do something that Icarus did; I want you to go home and glue feathers to your arms. And to take off, to fly, but don’t go too close to the sun. And as you are flying, you will surprise yourself, you will look at our beautiful planet from a different point of view, and now I will whisper because it’s a secret—now I know that when you see mountains, you may agree with me that mountains can be moved.”