Man on wire: putting the fun into funambulism
English high-wire walker Chris Bull aims to cross the river Suir this week – 30ft up – as part of the Clonmel Junction Festival
High-wire walker Chris Bull plans to cross the river Suir on a wire this Saturday, to the tune of a marching band with choreographed puppetry and a flotilla of flag-waving boat enthusiasts
The man steps out. The rope sways. The crowd gasps. There is something about the art of the high wire which brings out the child in all of us: we watch, wide-eyed, as Philippe Petit dances between New York’s Twin Towers in the film Man on Wire or as Nik Wallenda is suspended in the dizzying centre of the Grand Canyon on YouTube.
But there’s nothing to compare with watching a high-wire walker in real life. At this year’s Clonmel Junction Festival English circus artist Chris Bull plans to cross the river Suir on a wire, to the tune of a marching band with choreographed puppetry and a flotilla of flag-waving boat enthusiasts.
“We’re going to cross at a bit of an angle, so we’re looking at in the region of an 80-metre crossing,” he says.
Bull will be almost 30ft above the surface of the river. “At that height I can’t really do very much in the way of dancing or fancy moves – but I should be able to nail a couple of salutes,” he promises.
For those of us who can’t even stand on one leg on the floor without falling over, the very idea is shudder-inducing. Why does he do it?
“I hope that it offers some inspiration,” Bull says. “Just to give people the chance to look up from the ground and the day-to-day, eye-level world, and open their eyes to the skies. It’s really rare that people gaze up into the sky – other than looking at clouds, which I thoroughly encourage. But to see a wire walker is a lovely thing.”
It is also, as Colum McCann’s novel Let the Great World Spin made clear, an otherworldly, almost spiritual experience – partly because, in our high-speed society, the deliberate movement of the wire walker is unusual in itself.
“We have to move slowly and steadily,” Bull explains. “You’d be surprised how much of a job it is when you’re up there. The balancing pole is heavy, and I might be fighting the wind – but despite all of that a slow, gentle, graceful movement forward makes everything much easier. As soon as there’s any sort of sudden movement, then it becomes much more of a struggle. And the fear sets in.”
Bull got up close and personal with what he calls “the high stuff” more than a decade ago. He was working as a juggler and clown at a festival in Greece when he saw a woman called Jenny walking a slack rope. “I remember the first step that she took as she made the weight transition from the back foot to the front foot,” he says. “It was like she was floating.
“I felt that floating, weightless feeling and I wanted to emulate it. So I asked her for a lesson. To cut a long story short, she gave me a rope and told me how to tie a knot, gave me two or three pointers and told me to get on with it.”
For the past four years Bull has been working with the Invisible Circus, a Bristol-based collective that specialises in bringing old buildings back to pulsating circus life.
If he were to offer pointers they would probably be: preparation, preparation, preparation. This includes health and safety issues – he works with Roadrunner Rigging, one of the few companies he trusts to set up a high wire safely – as well as thousands of hours of practice for each walk, and serious amounts of meditation and yoga.
‘I must be crazy’
Has Bull had any bad moments? “There have certainly been times,” he admits, “when I’ve been standing on ropes or wires up there in the middle of an act and thinking to myself, ‘I must be crazy. What am I doing here?’ Usually those moments pass pretty quickly.”
He also admits to having mixed feelings about watching such daredevil stunts as Nik Wallenda’s Grand Canyon crossing.
“I’m full of admiration for this guy, but part of me feels maybe I should try and do something as long, or as high. Then another part of me feels that’s not necessarily the direction that I’m heading – getting into that element of competition.
“But at a time when people are extra double-conscious about safety, it’s important to show that people can take serious risks and walk away unscathed. To show, in fact, what the human body and mind is capable of.”
Chris Bull’s high-wire walk takes place on Saturday at Gas House Bridge, Clonmel, at 7.30pm. He will also be in conversation at the Common Thread Cafe tomorrow at 5pm. See junctionfestival.com