Nik Wallenda: Blasting the Circus Into the Future
Daredevil scion Nik Wallenda wants to reinvent circus for a new generation
Like the great P.T. Barnum, Nik Wallenda has a vision for the circus. He thinks in grand, sweeping arcs about its direction and potential, storming headlong into the future. Unlike the 19th century showman, however, Wallenda is young, a stuntman and an artist, and has at least seven generations of circus ancestry behind him.
At the age of 2, Wallenda learned to walk on a wire. Everyone he's closest to comes from ancient circus families and have been working together since Barnum brought them over from Europe. According to Wallenda, the circus is literally in his blood. They've found the daredevil gene, and he has it – bad. He also has three high-wire world records, and that's just a start. This Saturday at Schlitterbahn, you can watch the guy set himself on fire, slide down a zip line, and dive three stories into 3 feet of water. After that, he'll dry himself off, climb into a tiny crate with a bunch of explosives, and blow the thing up.
These things are ridiculously amazing, it's true. But more to the point for Wallenda is the way he's presenting them. He's dedicated to being a pioneer, not just in stunts but in the way circus is perceived and consumed.
What happens when you take a classic trick like the iron jaw, do it from a helicopter instead of a big top, broadcast it on international television, and wear jeans instead of a sparkly unitard? The future of the circus, says Wallenda. Cirque du Soleil has already done its part to transform an art form that is widely perceived as becoming obsolete. They took bits of the circus, placed it in a theatrical milieu, and sold it to professionals with a budget for the performing arts. Wallenda thinks that's fine, but it's only half the picture. Wallenda is taking these age-old arts and staging them as the extreme stunts they actually are. He's stripping them of the circus' faded glamour and using new media to sell them to younger audiences. In his own words, he "wants to do for circus what David Blaine did for magic." Wallenda is filling the gap by way of Hollywood and New York.
Wallenda, the stuntman and entrepreneur, might be forging a new role for circus arts, but there's another side of him. As an artist, he is firmly connected to his inheritance. He often quotes his great-grandfather Karl Wallenda: "Life is on the wire, and everything else is just waiting." When asked what this means to him experientially, Wallenda was for the first time at a loss for words. But like ol' P.T. Barnum, he managed to come up with a few: "Describe me on the middle of a wire? I don't know, it's hard to put into words. It's just life. There is no better feeling of peace or freedom. The first step is the hardest, and after that there's no turning back. You are alone out there. In between gigs, I'm always waiting for the next moment."
The Nik Wallenda Explosive Stunt Spectacular presents the Fire Slide show Saturday, May 14, noon, and the Blasting Box of DOOM!, 4pm, at Schlitterbahn in New Braunfels. Both shows are open to the public and free with park admission.
Raven Hinojosa is a writer and performer with more than a decade of involvement on and off the stage in all things circus.
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