Dancing on a High Wire

Philippe Petit performing in New York, 1977
John Blower, via Flickr

Adam Navis and Liz Waid look at the high wire performer Philippe Petit, and his most famous performance. He walked on a wire between two buildings - more than 400 meters in the air!

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Voice 1

Welcome to Spotlight. I’m Adam Navis.

Voice 2

And I’m Liz Waid. Spotlight uses a special English method of broadcasting. It is easier for people to understand, no matter where in the world they live.

Voice 1

It is August 7, 1974. A man stands at the top of a tall building, 420 meters off the ground. He faces another building. Between the two buildings, there is only a thick wire cable. The man feels the wind blow. He can see birds flying below him. He feels excited. Years of training and planning have led him to this place. The man steps off the building, on to the wire.

Voice 2

This man’s name is Phillipe Petit. Petit is a high wire performer. He is also an entertainer and artist. He finds the most joy in amazing people with his performances. Today’s Spotlight is on Phillipe Petit.

Voice 1

Petit is not a usual kind of performer. From a young age he made his own decisions. He was expelled from many schools. He then went to a special school for performers. This school trained the students to work for a circus. Circus performers do many kinds of amazing physical tricks. Circus performances may also include trained animals, and funny clowns. High wire performances are common in the circus. But young Philippe was even expelled from circus school.

Voice 2

Instead of a circus, Petit liked to perform on the street. He juggled, throwing balls high into the air. He performed magic tricks, and acted out stories. He always created new and different art. And instead of learning from other people, Petit taught himself how to walk the high wire. He told New York Magazine,

Voice 3

“I taught myself all the things you could do on a wire. It took one year. I learned the usual tricks - the backward somersault, the front somersault, the unicycle, the bicycle, the chair, and jumping through round hoops. But I thought, “Why is this popular? It looks almost ugly.” So I stopped doing those tricks. I remade the art.”

Voice 1

In 1970, Petit started planning more difficult acts. He wanted to set up high wires on famous buildings. He wanted everyone to see. He knew that he would not get permission to do this. It was too dangerous. So he made his plans in secret.

Voice 2

Petit knew the first place he wanted to perform. It was Notre Dame. Notre Dame is a famous, beautiful church in Paris. Petit knew this was the first place he wanted to tight rope walk. In 1971, he and a friend climbed to the top of the church. They went in the night so no one would see them. They worked together to stretch a wire between the two famous towers. As the sun came up, he walked between these two tall towers of the church.

Voice 1

Petit was excited by this experience. After that, he knew what he wanted to do. He wanted to perform like this again. He planned another high wire walk. This time it would be where more people could see him.

Voice 2

Petit’s second public high wire walk was in Australia. In 1973, he walked between the tall towers of the Sydney Harbor Bridge. Cars were driving under him. Soon they stopped to watch him walk. Police came and arrested Petit when he came down from the bridge.

Voice 1

These two performances were exciting, but Petit was not satisfied. He knew he wanted to perform again in public. This time he wanted it to be even more amazing. He wanted to walk between the two buildings of the World Trade Center in New York City. At the time, these buildings were new, and famous. They were very tall - more than 400 meters tall!

Voice 2

Petit knew that the authorities would never permit this performance. Like his other public performances, it was too dangerous - even insane! Instead he would do it secretly, and without permission.

Voice 1

He visited New York many times to work on his plan. He rode in a helicopter over the buildings to take pictures of the top. He studied plans of the buildings. He watched the guards and security police. He took pictures of construction workers’ clothes. He wrote down the time everyone came and left. He wanted to know everything about the buildings.

Voice 2

Petit often went into the buildings secretly. He climbed to the top floor. He took many pictures. He waited to see if anyone came up to the top floor. He also talked to construction workers who built the buildings. Finally, in 1974, he was ready to perform. Petit called this performance “le coup.” This is a French word meaning ‘an intelligent plan.’

Voice 1

On the day of “le coup” Petit had a crew of friends helping him. They each had a false identification card for the building. They wore the clothes of construction workers, office workers, and building security. They each had a special job to do.

Voice 2

The crew entered the building on the night of August 6th. They took their supplies to the 104th floor. All night, they worked to set up the wire. Finally, in the early morning, it was ready.

Voice 1

On August 7, at 7:15 in the morning, Petit stepped on to the wire. He spent 45 minutes walking between the two towers. He sat on the wire. He jumped. He lay down on the wire. He laughed and talked happily to the birds flying by.

Voice 2

People gathered by the buildings to watch. They were amazed. Police officers met on the top of the buildings. They tried to get Petit to come down. One officer later told the television program American Experience,

Voice 4

“I saw him half way between the two buildings. When he saw us he smiled and laughed. He started dancing on the wire. When he got close to the building, we asked him to get off the high wire. But instead, he turned around and ran out to the middle. He was bouncing up and down. His feet left the rope and then he landed again. It was unbelievable.”

Voice 1

When he was finished, Petit was arrested by the police. But because of public attention, the authorities gave him a different kind of punishment. They ordered him to perform for children in Central Park in New York!

Voice 2

Philippe Petit had made his dream come true. He had completed “le coup”. This performance made him famous. And his work did not stop there. He stopped doing the kind of illegal tricks he did in the past. But he continued to do amazing high wire walks. Very few people can do this kind of dangerous art. But he continues to bring joy every time he performs.

Voice 1

The writer of this program was Johanna Poole. The producer was Joshua Leo. All quotes were adapted and voiced by Spotlight. You can find our programs on the Internet at www.radioenglish.net. This program is called ‘Dancing on a High Wire’. We hope you can join us again for the next Spotlight program. Goodbye.

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Have you ever seen a street performer? What did he or she do? Are street performers allowed in your city?


Avatar Spotlight
said on September 14, 2012

I think it’s so dangerous but really exciting when we can walk and jump on the high wire between two building.His actions is not normal,but it’s give everyone so much feel excited when they saw.
Sometime,the life need adventures like that!

Avatar Spotlight
Rain Bows
said on September 14, 2012

Helo Spotlight.
This was a nice article.
Doing the wire tricks is very difficult.
They usually have wires at the beach here, every time I try to wall in is so difficult.
I wonder how much he tried till he could even do it in high places above the ground.

Avatar Spotlight
said on September 14, 2012

wauu.. It’s wonderful and awesome. Petit is an excellent artist
I see that He enjoys this tricks is very easy for him unbelievable how this man maintain the G on the high wire over 104 floors without fear.
For all over the world we have strange people and show me that everything is possible
working hard.

great topic thanks spotlight

Avatar Spotlight
said on April 01, 2015

When I was child.I often watched circus performance on entertaiment program on TV.There were many kind of circus performance such as animal circus,physical circus or magic trick.These make me so excited.In dance-in-wire or curve performance,I could not believe how they could peform so well.It was very risk and dangerous.But they completed performance very excellently.I thought they spent so many time to practice.And they must be patient and suffer pains in physical.

Avatar Spotlight
said on August 01, 2016

This article reminds me of the film called “The Walk”. What an interesting story! He’s a brave artist!

Kaleb Kolaibi's avatar
Kaleb Kolaibi
said on August 01, 2016

In my opinion, this isn’t athlete but it’s a dangerous adventure.
God bless you

Avatar Spotlight
said on August 04, 2016

When we are young we can do a lot of work. When we are at school we learn many subjects. We can write, draw, play music, play sports and help everyone. Life has joys and sadnesses. Success needs hard work. True way leads us to true finish. Wrong way leads us to failure and tragedy. We wish true finish. Life has joys and sadnesses. We bring joy and hope to everyone. We make much effort to go on true way. We wish true finish.

Severino Ramos da Silva's avatar
Severino Ramos da Silva
said on August 20, 2016

From: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) (Severino Ramos)
To: spotlight programme
Subject: answer to the question above
Date: Saturday 20, August 2016
São paulo SP Brazil

Dear Liz Waid ,Johanna Polle, Adam Navis, and Joshua Leo:

At first, I want to thank you to bring us readers and learners of English more one great article. Thanks!
Yes, I have.
He jumped into a fire circle(wheel).
Yes, they are allowed to do his or her performace in my city.

Yours regards,
Severino Ramos

Avatar Spotlight
said on January 22, 2019

Thank you for interesting programm.
How many amazing people live in our World!
Yes, of course, I’ve seen street performers many times. In our country it’s allowed. Street performers usually dance, sing, do different tricks. Sometimes it’s not so good, but pretty often it’s very interesting and professionally. Anyway, that makes the life of city streets more fun, more interesting, more amazing and more atmospheric.

Avatar Spotlight
said on January 22, 2019

Yes. They are very common on our streets, occupying the place where there are traffic signs. They perform with balls, juggling and unicycles and end their performances asking for some money to those who are driving cars. I think it’s a humbling way to survive ...