Almost 50 years after the feat that made him known – moving on a wire stretched between the twin towers of New York, at 416 meters high – the man full of energy still holds in his pocket a short red string.
"Sometimes I stop and say: +It would be nice to put a cable there+," he told AFP earlier, holding it out at arm's length, his gaze turned upwards. "This little rope, for me, it helps me dream of crossings." Always in a vacuum, without security.
Thursday evening, under the eyes of 300 people, the elegant acrobat moves gracefully on his cable 15 meters above the ground, playing an exceptional scene: the National Building Museum and its sumptuous, huge hall.
Mr. Petit, dressed in white, the puff sticking out, sitting, lying down, taking his time, going back and forth.
French tightrope walker Philippe Petit mache on a wire 15 meters above the ground during a show in the lobby of the National Building Museum in Washington, Thursday, March 23, 2023 © Brendan Smialowski / AFP
On the wire, he is at home.
The play of lights, Anat Cohen on clarinet, Tal Mashiach on guitar, the magic takes shape. The eyes are drawn to the sky, to this little man who tames fear for this fundraising evening in the capital of the United States, country where he has lived for decades.
"Life of passion"
Tuesday, in orange shirt and red suspenders, he fine-tuned his installation, adjusted his pendulum. One step away from the anchoring of the heavy cable, a thick notebook: its hundreds of detailed instructions and sketches, years of work to make this installation possible – and this is not the last.
"I will never retire," says the Venetian-haired tightrope walker. "I have a lot of projects up my sleeves," stored in a box under his bed at his home in New York State. "There are amazing places, natural places, abysses, canyons, icebergs, and there are also amazing +buildings+."
From childhood, "I began not to follow the movement of authority." He climbs everywhere, on kitchen chairs, in trees, tames verticality, "and then one day, quite naturally, I put a rope between two trees".
A film, "The Walk" with actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and a documentary ("The Tightrope Walker", "Man on Wire"), tell his illegal epic in the sky of New York in 1974, under the wide-eyed eyes of the crowd and the police.
French tightrope walker Philippe Petit prepares a show, March 21, 2023 in Washington © Richard PIERRIN / AFP
Tired of being reduced to these few minutes of his existence, he always projects himself elsewhere, in his "life of passion". "Two shows are never the same (...), it's always an adventure where I learn, where I discover," he said in front of the wooden beams, pulleys and dynamometer that supported his aerial stroll Thursday night.
And then, he says like an old sage, "with my 50-55 years of experience, I am more in control".
One thing, perhaps, annoys him: the slackline, a recent practice from the mountain environment where the metal cable is replaced by a flat strap a few centimeters wide, stretched in a garden or between two mountains.
French tightrope walker Philippe Petit mache on a wire 15 meters above the ground, candles on his pendulum, during a show in the lobby of the National Building Museum in Washington, Thursday, March 23, 2023 © Brendan Smialowski / AFP
"It's a hobby for Sundays, it's great," he says, acerbic. "It has no elegance, no art, no thought, no poetry, no humanity." "It's a great sport," he continues, "another world than that of the majesty and beauty of playing your life on a thread."
Thursday night, to end his show, Philippe Petit played his life in the dark, a fine ray of light illuminating only his line above the crowd. On its white pendulum, it carries eight long candles.
© 2023 AFP