Come on. Hasn't everyone here dreamt of flying? So why haven't humans flown yet?
I've been obsessed with learning to fly my whole life. I grew up a feral, adopted child on the northern shore of Lake Ontario, following my bricklayer / fisherman father around. I was always fascinated by things that moved, catching small animals, holding them in my hands, feeling the magic of their movement; playing with fire, thrilled and terrified at its unrelenting force, accidentally burning my father's barn down—just once.
That was my first brush with real danger, the fire and my father. When I was about eight or nine years old, I caught a fly in a mason jar. Studying that fly, I thought, "Wow, it's changing directions in midair with acute angles, and it's going so fast, it's a blur. Why can't we do that? Can we?"
Everywhere I looked, there were things moving. And these things moved with their very own causal rhythms, their very own mechanistic anatomies. It was clear to me—and to Newton—that things move based on their component parts: worms squirmed, birds flew, kangaroos hopped. And a human's first bout with flying was falling accidentally, tripping, or slipping on that fabled banana peel. Once your ground is dragged out from under you, a world of wonder comes rushing in.
I had found my territory. I was seized with a compulsion, a primordial urge to learn how to fly, like a human. For the next 10 years, I did my experiments alone, on my own body. I drove my Honda 350 across the United States in an "Easy Rider" kind of way. I got my degree in modern dance. I mimicked that fly in the box. I dove horizontally through glass; on the way, I punched a hole in it. I was trying to figure out something about flight.
When I was 27 years old, I found myself in a rat-infested New York City loft, getting ready to hurl myself off a ladder. I climbed higher, higher, higher, and I jumped. Wham-o! I landed. That hurt.
And it occurred to me that people didn't really enjoy getting hurt, and that maybe the reason that we weren't flying yet is that we were still attached to that false idea that we would fly the way birds do, or butterflies. Maybe we needed to assumption-bust, to ask a different kind of question—about duration, for instance. Humans in the air? A few seconds. Birds and butterflies? Minutes, maybe hours.
And what about fear? I think fear is complex and personal. I really think it has to do with curiosity and not taking yourself so seriously. We might need to get a little hurt, just not too hurt. And pain: redefine it. Rather than "pain," say, "another rather interesting, foreign sensation." Something like that.
I realized then that to learn to fly, we were going to have to learn to land. My hero, Evel Knievel—one of them—said, "Anyone can jump a motorcycle. The trouble begins when you try to land it."
Landing hurts. I was curious, though. I thought, "Well, why don't we invent an impact technique? Why don't we just expand our base of support?" I had seen pieces of plywood fall, and they didn't flinch on the way down. So I made my body into a perfect line and tilted back. Whaft! It was a totally different sound than "wham-o." And I rushed out onto the streets of New York City and went up to complete strangers, and I said—well, I thought—"I did a backfall today. Did you?"
In 1985, we started to tour all over the world a little bit, and I started my company, called STREB EXTREME ACTION. In 2003, we were invited to go to Kitty Hawk to celebrate the 100th anniversary of flight with the Wright Brothers. We had gotten very good at landing; now we needed to get up into the air. And like them, we wanted to stay there longer.
I came across this quote by Wilbur: "If you are looking for perfect safety, you will do well to sit on a fence and watch the birds; but if you really wish to learn, you must mount a machine and become acquainted with its tricks by actual trial."
Ah, machines. It incited the hardware junkie inside of me. And if we did want to go or travel to unhabitual places in space—to that banana peel spot that confuses us; to that place outside our vertical comfort zone, where we encounter unexpected turbulence and get accelerated oddly, where the ground changes and moves out from under us—like the composer who is trying to hit a note higher than the human voice can sing, he invents a piccolo or a flute, I set about the invention of my prototypic machines. And if we wanted to go higher, faster, sooner, harder, it was necessary that we create our very own spaceships. And we did. And we did travel to unknown, invisible, dangerous territories, and it changed us.
If any of you want to try this, let me know.
In 2012, we brought all of our best machines to London and put them in their most iconic places. We got on the London Eye. It was 443 feet above the earth. And as we reached the zenith, we unlocked our brake and fell—200 feet on the radius, on the spoke that we were attached to. We reached as far up as heaven that day, I'm pretty sure of it. And then I and two of my dancers walked down the outside of London's City Hall. As I stood up there, 300 feet above the ground, and looked down, I saw 2,000 eyes staring up at me, and they saw what they usually do—the sky, a bird, a plane—and then us. And we were just a tiny speck up there. And I realized that action is for everybody.
Now we have our very own mason jar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It's called SLAM: STREB Lab for Action Mechanics. It was a former mustard seed factory. And I designed it after the use of a petri dish, and in that petri dish, I put Kid Action, STREB EXTREME ACTION and circus arts, and we all learned to fly, fall and land and invent extreme action together. And you know what we found? In comes everyone—every size, shape, age, capacity, every nationality, every race, every class, all genders, the timid and the bold, the outcast and the cool, the risk avoiders and the risk obsessives. And these buildings exist all over the world, and every one of them can be a flying training center.
And you know, as it turns out, people don't want to just dream about flying, nor do they want to watch us fly. They want to do it, too, and they can. And with a little training, they learn to relish the hit and the impact, and, I guess even more, getting up afterwards.
I've found that the effect of flying causes smiles to get more common, self-esteem to blossom, and people get just a little bit braver. And people do learn to fly, as only humans can. So can you. Come fly with us.
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.