Nik Wallenda: Life on the Wire
In which we send an aerialist to talk to a stuntman. Whoa.
By Raven Hinojosa,
6:58PM, Thu. May 19, 2011
[From the Editor: Last week, aerialist Raven Hinojosa spoke with tight-rope aerial stuntman and seventh-generation performer Nik Wallenda – (yes, of those Wallendas) about his daredevil life and about his Stunt Spectacular show at Schlitterbahn
In last week's Chronicle print edition, we ran a preview piece on the Arts front page, "Nik Wallenda: Blasting the Circus Into the Future." This is Raven's in-person follow-up interview (see video at end of interview). – Kate X Messer]
Raven Hinojosa/Austin Chronicle: In the article I mostly focus on your vision for where circus is going. You’re taking circus arts to that demographic between Cirque de Soleil and Ringling, and you’re doing it through mass media. Let's continue and explore that further.
Nik Wallenda: There are positives and negatives to having a famous last name. The positives are, it opens a lot of doors. The negatives are, they put you in a cage and hold you down. I want this to be more than about what I was raised doing. More about my industry and about the Nik part, than about the Wallenda part. All of it is in honor of my great-grandfather, Karl. He brought circus to the next level, and that really inspires me. It’s my duty almost, as a seventh generation performer, to amp it up and take it to the next stage and take it mainstream. There are so many kids out there who love the circus, but once they get to a certain age, they don’t have any interest in seeing the circus at all anymore. I want to change that.
AC: And also because of how circus is changing already. We talked about the entrance of the theatre aesthetic through Cirque de Soleil.
NW: Yeah it is changing, and a little bit is too forced I think. I’ve talked to Nicole (Feld, producer for Ringling) on many occasions and told her what I would want to do with the circus. I think they’re trying to change their image. They have an image that is sort of tried and true, that has been successful for over 100 years. So why change that as much as they're trying to? A little bit of it, I think, has to do with the animal aspect, and activists are causing them to have to change. I think that’s a small part of it as well. Once she took over the show about two years ago – she and her sister – they tried to change it abruptly. But they don’t spend money in the right areas, in my opinion. They will spend a million dollars on a lighting package, but then they won’t pay the performers to bring in the great performers that they should have there. When my grandmother was on the show, there were 600 performers on the show, and when I was on there two or three years ago, I think there were 89 performers on there. So, it just shows you the direction they’re going. They’re thinking, okay, well, we’ll spend more money on lighting and try to take it this direction and cut down on performers. To me that’s not the right way to do it. You need to find a happy balance.
AC: What does Giovanni (Zoppe of the Zoppe Family Circus and Nik’s uncle,) think of where you’re taking it? He’s doing interesting things, but his vision is different in the exact opposite direction. He’s recreating the old world feel. A friend of mine saw a video; she said it looked like a toy circus.
NW: Well, he’s paying tribute to his father and to this family history in that sense of keeping it original, which I think there’s something to that. I think that’s a cool angle to go as well. Old is new again and what’s retro is cool, that sort of thing. I think his idea is to keep it as original as possible, and he’s been fairly successful at it. I don’t agree with everything that he does, but he probably doesn’t agree with everything I do. But you know, I haven’t really asked him his opinion, but I think he’s obviously proud of what I’m doing. He’s thick-headed, too. There are ideas that I’ll give him where he just won’t even take the advice because he’s thick-headed. It’s just going to be his way, and that’s just how he is.
AC: As a person from a circus school background, that’s most of the circus world I know. I spent a little amount of time with the Pages on their show (Circus Pages) and one of the things I learned about old-school circus culture is this really huge hierarchy between performers and workers. I’m wondering, is that changing?
NW: I think so, it is sort of a cultural thing. There are certain terms that as a performer you use with people that aren’t from our business. They just don’t see the world the way we do.
AC: I mean: roustabouts versus performers. I’m not saying it’s negative, I’m just wondering if things are changing culturally with this generation of performers like yourself.
NW: Gotcha. Yea, I never liked that. I always thought there should be a little more respect because we’re all humans. We’re all doing our thing, and we all should be treated equally. If you’re meaning to look down upon, that is often the case from older school performers in a big way, and treating disrespectfully, often.
AC: In the last decade, there’s been an explosion of circus schools in the states. What is the opinion of the old guard of the new guard performers? Of those who grew up in it, versus the performers who learned their craft in circus schools?
NW: In some ways you look at it and go, are they taking work away from people that were raised in it? I have never seen it that way because I try to put myself at the forefront, so it doesn’t matter. I don’t feel like I’m losing work to people like that. Now industry-wise, yeah, there’s definitely a lot of that. Oh, these people are coming in; they’re not from the industry; they’re taking work away from us. But in my opinion, a lot of those people, because they weren’t raised in it, are willing to work that much harder. A lot of them are better performers than performers that were raised in it. There are very few of us that want to push the limits and continue to do amazing things. Well, there are very many that come from the outside that want to push the limits, and do amazing things, and want to perform beautifully, and learn. And are willing to spend the money, and the time, and hours, and the energy into doing it. Whereas if you’re born in it you’re sort of, "Okay, that’s what I do." So in that sense, I respect them a lot. I think Cirque de Soleil is ingenious for involving divers and gymnasts. These people dedicate their lives to what they do. A lot of performers take it for granted: "Oh, it’s just what I do, I was raised in it." They don’t push hard enough, and their acts are often substandard in my opinion because they can get away with it. Somebody coming from the outside, they have to prove themselves. Coming from the inside, you’re just grandfathered in. I think that’s a bad thing in some ways. Some of the performers do look at it like they’re taking work. But well, if they’re taking work from you, then work harder and be better and they’re not going to take work from you. It effects what a generational performer would charge. What someone from the outside would charge is often very different.
AC: You said a lot of what you’re doing is expanding your circus skills into the stunt world. Are you learning from non-circus stunt people – new techniques and skills?
NW: I would say so. I mean most performers who were born into what they do can do a little bit of everything, whether it be flying trapeze, or horse training, or walking a wire. You do it all. So I’ve just tweaked what I do, and a lot of performers, again, are complacent. They go, "Oh well, we’re making a living, so we’ll just go along with it." Rather than me, going, "Yeah, you’re making a living " But if I see a football player getting paid a million dollars to throw a football, why can’t I make a million dollars risking my life? What I’m doing is much more dangerous. It’s pretty impressive. So I see it from a different angle, and I’ve taken it to that level. Very few performers even own a house by the time they’re 40 or 50, and I’ve already paid for three of them. I’ve proven that you can take this industry to a whole new level. There’s a lot of jealousy in our industry. There’s a lot of them that can’t stand me because of jealousy. But I was blessed, because my father came from a circus school and my mother is the Wallenda. My father married into it when he was 18, from Sailor Circus in Sarasota. He was hired by my great-grandfather to go on the road and just help put up equipment. He met my mom, fell in love, and started performing. So I got the blessing of seeing it from both sides. I can look at it and go, "I’m not jealous, I’m happy." When someone succeeds in my business, they’re only making it better for me and easier for me, so I’m happy for them. I’m not jealous of them, but there’s a lot of that in our business. I’ve taken my skills and said, how can I broaden my horizons? I don’t give up. I have permits to walk across the Grand Canyon. No one’s ever done that. I have legislation in right now in New York to walk across Niagra Falls, which is literally a bill that’s being passed within the next couple weeks. I’ve got meetings with the mayor and everybody on the Canadian side because I’m going to walk from New York to Canada. It’s never been done. They say Blondin did it. He did it five miles upstream. No one’s ever walked over Horseshoe Falls and I’ll actually be the first person in the world to ever do that. I don’t give up.
AC: Another difference in the mass media market is that you’re not doing your stunts as a character. It’s more as yourself. Does that make it more personality based?
NW: I think so. I mean, it’s about relating to the audience. After I do the second stunt, I’m out there signing autographs for probably an hour and a half or two hours. That’s something that I just do because I want the audience to know that I’m real. I’m human and I can talk to them. This TV show [a reality show being shot for the Discovery Channel] will show the world that. Circus performers are often looked down upon as stupid, because most of them are, to be frank about it. And to change that image is to show that these people are really smart and educated. I mean the science and engineering that goes into what we do is unreal. People have no idea what goes into this. It’s all done on CAD drawings. I have an engineer who travels everywhere I go. I know exactly how fast I’m going. I know exactly how much fuel I’m using. We spent about $25,000 on a stunt before we even showed up, testing wire. But people wouldn’t believe me. They’d tell me I’m a liar, or I’m just B.S.ing. But that’s just what goes into what we do. This TV show really shows that to the world.
AC: Don’t you think the old school circus acts put the same kind of thought into it? It’s just spread out over generations?
NW: Over generations people have gotten complacent. For instance, my great-grandfather did sway poles back in 1918, in Germany. He was on a wood pole actually, and he was up about 120 feet. A sway pole today is 70 feet tall. Why? Well, I’ll tell you why, because producers will pay you the same amount whether you’re 170 feet up or whether you’re 70 feet up. They’re not going to change your pay. So performers are going, "Why am I going to go that much higher? It’s that much more work to put it up. It’s that much more energy that goes into it. It’s that much more dangerous. Why would I waste my time?" And as long as producers continue to look at it that way, including the Felds, nothing going to change.
AC: I know I sometimes had to psyche myself up for something that freaked me out. Do you psyche yourself up for a hard act? Do you have any rituals that you do?
NW: No, you know, I say a prayer, and that’s about it. You can stress yourself out and psyche yourself out very easily from doing anything. You can over-think things. What I do is risk my life every time, so of course, common sense tells me not to do it. The more that you build that up in your brain, the harder it is to do that. You learn to just deal with that, and if anything, you take what your mind wants to make negative, that you can fall and break your back and kill yourself at the bottom of that pool, and you go, "Okay, I know I can do this. I know I’m capable of doing it." You turn that from the negative to the positive. You talk yourself into it, rather than out of it, and tell yourself why it is safe. You know you’ve trained for so long for this and that sort of thing, and that’s really the psyche part that comes into it is that.
AC: It’s like how an Olympic gymnast will lose her edge after a certain age. Not because she’s physically too old, but because you start to hesitate in your body after it’s learned a certain amount of injury. You have to muster a child-like bravery to do what you do.
NW: I even see that in Bello (Nock, of Ringling’s “Bellobration”) who’s a close friend of mine. As he gets older, he gets more reserved, whereas before, he used to jump off the roof and jump up. And now he’s going, why don’t we put a mat down there before we jump off. As you get older you just go, "Man, I’ve had this injury, I’ve had this. You start to go, I don’t need to push it." It’s got to be a drive inside of you, ‘cause it’s easy to do that. I can make a great living at this point in my career. I can make a great living without doing things that I’ve never done before. Do I still want to have that drive? Do I still want to be on top? Do I still want to be the best? And do I want to show the world I can do more than just walk a wire? I can do things that they can relate to. Like, that guy is just a normal guy. He’s not a circus freak. He’s just a normal person who does abnormal things. That’s the exciting thing about what we’re doing with Discovery (Channel) especially, because the world will know now that I’m just a normal person doing something very unique. You know, I’ve got three kids and a wife, and we play in the water park, and we do family stuff. We’ll go see a movie together tonight, and that’s just what we do. It’s a normal life. We just have an interesting, unique occupation.
AC: Have you planned anything for your children in the future, if anything were to happen to you? Not just financially, but fatherhood-wise?
NW: Definitely. Oh I think so. I’m a very hands-on father who’s involved with their lives, and we try to instill everything that’s in me in them also. I am risking my life, and I could die at anytime. It’s just a fact – any one of these stunts. That could happen, and that’s a reality that we all have to face. That’s part of the reason why they’re always with me, too. They’re not in school this week because they’re here. They get to spend the extra time that most kids can’t. In our industry, with our kids, when we’re touring and we’re with them, it’s 24/7. Whereas most kids whose parents are at work 'til five, they’re at school all morning. They see their parents three hours a day by 8:30pm. And that’s all they see of them. Whereas with us, my son by now, by 13, I’ve been with him probably more than most parents will be with their kids by the time they’re 21 or 22. AC: I remember thinking, watching the kids growing up on the road with Circus Pages, it seems like a great childhood, actually. NW: It is, it is. I was doing an interview yesterday and had tears in my eyes because they said, tell me about your childhood. And you know, I can’t imagine having a different life. There’s no comparison. I’ve looked at everything else. I haven’t lived everything else, but I can’t imagine living a different life. When my kids spend a week living in an amusement park with a private pool in our room? Last week we were in Atlantic City, and we had a Jacuzzi in our room and it was like $7,000 a night. And we were there for a week. The life that they live is extremely glamorous. They get picked up in a limousine. Kids don’t live that way.
AC: Are they also training, though?
NW: They often walk the wire. A little bit. My son wanted to go down the zip line, the 13-year-old did, and I wouldn’t let him. But he went up there with me and we looked at it, and I said, "Would you do it?" And he said, "Yeah, I would do it." And I was like, "Do you realize the risks and the dangers?" We had that father-son talk of, this is how dangerous it is. As a parent, I don’t want my kids to follow in my footsteps. Most performers push their kids to go, "You need to do this and learn." I’m totally the opposite. I want my kids to go to school. I don’t want them doing what I do because what kind of level headed parent looks at their kids and says, I want to see you risk your life everyday?
AC: But if you have such a passion for it, wouldn’t you want them to share a similar passion?
NW: No, because I care so much about them I don’t want to see them risk their lives like that. It’s different. Performers do the same thing day in and day out. If they’re doing lyra (aerial hoop) they’re doing lyra every single day, and they’re working with tigers everyday – whereas what I do is totally different. Even every wire walk I do is never the same twice, whether it be wind, atmosphere, the tension of the wire. All that is engineered now. Through the wires, we get pretty close, but it’s never the same twice. Here [at Schlitterbahn], this is something that I’ve never done. I’ve never been lit on fire before. There’ are a lot of things. I’m adding so many different elements, so it’s even more dangerous than most, in my opinion. Now everything that they’re doing is dangerous and has its risks. But now I’m taking what’s familiar to them and doing the unfamiliar week in and week out.
AC: So, how do you arrive at the idea for the next new thing for you?
NW: Always wanting to do cool and unique things. We were invited to come here by Jeffery and – How can we do something cool and unique? A wire walk is a wire walk, but I wanted to do something different here. There was a pool here, and there was a water slide, and there was a big tree. I said "Hey, why don’t I do a slide (zipline)?" I’ll drop into the pool and it’ll be cool because I’m jumping from so high into shallow water. And then I said, "Well, I’ll light myself on fire on top of that!" And they said, "Oh yeah!" After here, I go to Puerto Rico, and I’m going to recreate the walk that killed my great-grandfather, which hasn’t been done. Which is very emotional for the family, and will give closure to the family. No one has been able to get permission until now.
AC: Are your parents going to go with you?
NW: Absolutely. Then I go to Branson, Missouri, and I’m going to do helicopter trapeze. And then I’m going to do an iron-jaw hang, which has never been done. It’s a lot of just bringing back the old. My grandmother always did iron-jaw hang, and I said, "Why can’t I do that?"
AC: Yeah, it was actually a classic for that era.
NW: Let’s do it under a helicopter and show the world. Because how much of the world has seen a circus? Probably 15-20%. It’s not as many as we think. So the rest of the world will go, "Wow, I didn’t even know that was possible!" A lot of performers will look at me and dislike me because they’ll go, "Oh so what? My mom did that, or my grandma did that." But you know, for the world, they haven’t seen this stuff. We’re putting in a new element. We’re taking you out of that circus element and making it more unique.
AC: Like the wheel-of-death stunt you did the other day in Atlantic City. You did classic stuff, but you put it up high above the boardwalk. Did you get a Guinness record for that?
NW: It is in the works right now. I’ve not officially received it yet, no.
AC: In our phone interview, we talked about that quote from your great-grandfather; “Life is on the wire, everything else is just waiting.” You described being on the wire for you as a feeling of peace and freedom. What is it that creates that peaceful feeling for you on the wire?
NW: I’m alone. I’m by myself. I’m away from the world. I can’t focus on the troubles of the world, or my kids getting into trouble at school. I’ve got to focus on what I’m focused on. So all of that stuff goes away – all those troubles go away and it’s just me and that wire. That’s it. There’s no worrying about what’s for dinner or any of that stuff, it’s just that peacefulness and that solitude of, I’m alone. I’m here. I guess it’s similar to yoga. You get into your own world and then that’s it.