“I want to know how this guy gets to close down traffic for hours to do this stunt.”
“How much did this cost the city?”
“Who in their right mind would want to walk across a wire 600 feet above the city?”
That was just some of the talk heard around the Chicago loop and in offices on November 2nd 2014, just before Nik Wallenda completed two Guinness World Record breaking high wire walks to the presence of an estimated 65,000 people cheering from the streets along the riverfront. The rigging was visible to all, criss-crossing the river like a giant spiderweb. The walks were also broadcast live on Discovery Channel and around the world to millions of viewers in a lengthy two-hour special which covered every aspect of the process, from the science of the engineering involved to Nik’s circus family history, to repeated weather reports. The audience in Chicago was savvy enough to recognize this buildup as part of the hype necessary to make these historic yet brief walks as suspenseful as possible (as if the risk of the act itself wasn’t enough.) Combined both walks totaled less than 10 minutes. But the line between stunt for spectacle’s sake and walking the wire as an art form is something the public openly questioned that weekend, even as Nik himself patiently explained his motivation to all who asked.
Another question the public inevitably asks of Nik’s work is “Cool, but why?” , while the circus world seems to dig deeper, asking is “Cool, but is it circus or stunt?” Nik has answers, but often it seems as if he is also justifying to himself the deep-seated reasons he has for the risks he takes. This may be why Nik’s optimistic mantras (he cites hope, inspiration, faith, challenge) often strike people as foolhardy or deluded. Still, the reasons behind his answers are why we are compelled to watch him and root for him in spite of our doubts. These simple answers reveal the underlying battles of every human as they face everyday challenges and shun defeat. Nik just does it on a grander scale.
Nik is not unaware of the conflicted feelings his high wire stunts inspire in the public. He told the press that earlier on the day of the event he had gone out in disguise to listen to the people on the streets gazing up at the wires in anticipation. “They were all saying ‘That’s impossible!’” Although those were surely not the only phrases he overheard regarding the impending act, those were the words he found most inspiring. To Nik, the word ‘impossible’ is a direct challenge, and like an extreme sport athlete, he is constantly challenging himself to surpass his former accomplishments. His previous seven world records have built upon each other, each leading to more extreme performances such as walking at a 15 degree incline (it ended up being 19) or walking blindfolded. When he answers questions from the press, it becomes clear that his motivation to walk is equal parts family destiny, passion for the art form and hoping to inspire others. He says he loves to get emails and letters from fans who tell him that they are inspired by what he does, “Not to walk a wire over Chicago blindfolded, but to pursue their dreams, even though they seem impossible. I just proved that impossible is not impossible if you’ve worked hard enough. That’s what it’s about.” Who could argue with that?
Nik was drawn to Chicago for his historic feat mostly because it is known as the Windy City, but also because he wanted to honor famous circus performer and high wirewalker Jay Cochrane, who died last year. Several years ago he had dinner with Jay, who told him how much he would love to walk the wire over the Chicago River as his retirement walk. Since Jay never took that walk, Nik considered it a passing of the torch.
The first walk was from the Marina West building to the Leo Burnett building across the Chicago river, and the second (the one Nik admits to being the most nervous about) from Marina West to Marina East, blindfolded. During the first walk, 454 feet long and on a very strenuous incline, Nik could be heard via broadcast chatting with his team on his headset, especially with his father, who guided him with feedback about footing. Nik also prayed quite frequently and generally kept up a line of playful banter. During the shorter 94-foot walk between the towers, he was much more silent, speaking only to his father about the footing while he carefully moved ahead blindfolded, feeling his way in the soft leather shoes his mother, Delilah Wallenda, a famous wire walker herself, made for him by hand.
Two days before his walk, on a morning filled with high winds and hail storms, he met with the press to answer the obvious questions about his motivation (high), his fear level (next to none), and his training (constant). I asked him how he hoped his work would benefit the American perception of the circus arts. “I haven’t gotten as much support as I’d hoped for from the circus world over the years,” Nik admitted, “But my dream was to make circus cool. I wanted to show how intelligent circus performers are. How much science goes into what we do. My goal is to show the world that what we do takes a lot of skill, a lot of training, a lot of dedication, and a lot of talent.”
Family participation has always been a hallmark of circus, and with 7 generations among the Wallendas, the tradition remains strong. Nik made frequent mention of his family, explaining how his mother made his shoes, how his children played chicken with him on the practice wire in the back yard, how all family members were invited to disrupt his concentration and balance as part of his practice routine and how his father was an integral part of his team. Although they do not perform together currently, there is a very active branch of the Wallenda family under the auspices of Wallenda Enterprises which performs in circuses around the world to this day.
Still, minor controversy about Nik’s work exists even within the family unit. Nik’s tells stories about his grandmother especially illustrate some of the difference in ideals between circus generations. Nik explained why he knelt down when crossing the Grand Canyon in 2013. She saw him training a few days before the event in blindfold 36 feet up, and afterwards she proclaimed “Yeah, yeah, now do something! I want you to kneel down! Do something. That’s not impressive to me.” To her, 36 feet wasn’t artistry in itself. He needed to do more. “She is old school circus performer through and through,” Nik explained, “It was respecting her, so it was good for her, but it was good for me too because it built confidence for me.” Of course, Nik is perfectly capable of doing stunts on the wire. He rides bikes, does headstands and makes eight-person pyramids. But when he walks across high places he focuses mainly on challenging himself to reach a new personal milestone, and perhaps this disparity between elaborate circus act and the intimacy of what Nik does explains some of the controversy he inspires in the circus world.
Regardless, Nik understands that his performances are departures from the traditional circus setting and offers this explanation, “I don’t know if it necessarily makes me cool, but I’ve lost the rhinestones. I get it from my grandmother all the time. She was yelling at me the other day because I wasn’t wearing a costume. You know, in order to continue a legacy for over 200 years, you have to change with the times. That’s what I’ve continued to do. That’s what Cirque du Soleil did. I know there are circus fans that don’t like Cirque du Soleil, but they took an age old tradition and made it new. Same skill, same talent but simply by adding new costumes, lightning, sounds and spending a lot of money on the theaters [it’s reinvented].”
Although few would compare him to Cirque du Soleil, he does offer a valid point, which is that the circus has branched into various genres and evolved to fit with the times. Even if his interpretation of where he fits into circus may not yet be solidified, it stands on a sturdy base that has been occupied by his family, his own work and his willingness to push the threshold of human daring. By continuing this legacy, one of his goals is to help accelerate the rebound of circus as an artform, “ It’s really the same art that it has always been. It’s like, this is what my great grandfather did a hundred years ago. But [I’m] taking it to a whole new realm and showing the world that what we do really is cool, and hopefully that will bring more people to the circus in the end to say ‘Wow, that is fascinating, and now I want to go see the spectacle that the circus is.’”
On the night of the walk, the weather had calmed down considerably, a seasonable mid-forties with mild winds, and everything went off without a hitch. The crowds roared below and people began to breathe again when Nik’s friends pulled him off the wire on to the roof of the Marina building. Moments before, watching him on the wire and holding my breath with the rest of the world, it did seem like the most natural place for him to be. Everything he told us rang true: how he’d walked the wire while still in the womb, started training at age 2, that it was second nature to him regardless of how crazy it seemed to the rest of us. “I say it often, I’m living my dream,” Nik announced with a triumphant glow at the press conference immediately after his performance. One thing that Nik and many circus artists seem to share is not just the desire to accomplish the impossible, but a sense of gratitude for having the opportunity to do so. If in addition to that, he honors the circus history of his family in his own style, then perhaps he is doing far more than racking up Guinness records.
Photography, quotes from Nik, and background information on the Wallenda family were provided to Kim Campbell, who attended press conferences facilitated by The Discovery Channel. Kim is a freelance writer focused on arts and culture, circus, fitness adventures and fiction. Check out her blog at http://blog.kimzyn.com.