Ramon Kelvink Jr: 'there's not many of us in the world who do this job'

Article published on Sept. 1, 2007
Article published on Sept. 1, 2007
In Liguria, north-western Italy, we come face to face with the French tight-rope walker, 35, and hear his views from above on Europe and the world

The bar owner comes up to his with his eyes rolling, hitting the side of his forehead with his finger. 'You have to be crazy, doing those things up there.' Later, his grimace becomes a smile: 'Bravo! I don't know how you do it, but bravo!' he exclaims at Ramon Kelvink Jr, tight-rope walker extraordinaire. His family have been observing the world from up on high their ropes and trapezes since 1512!

Coarse hands – unlike Houdini

'See those ropes? I put them up there myself. I'm not the type who lets others do the dirty work for him,' he begins energetically. 'I've tight-roped every square in Europe, and others around the world. I've seen the planet from a privileged position! Trafalgar Square, Belfast, Paris, San Sebastián, middle Italy, Québec.' He calls Italy more 'home' now. 'Have you seen Fellini's La Strada? In Italy there's respect and a natural admiration. There's no need to put on a mask or a costume.'

I try to order a glass of Sciacchetrà, a local liquor. But Kelvink Jr. is one step ahead of me: 'a glass of fizzy water, please.' It slips my mind that alcohol is not exactly the best friend of someone who lives their life from 30 metres up high, without safety net and other tricks. It's just he, himself and his rope. 'And the pole – there's always the pole. You'll see,' he explains. 'Houdini was excellent, but he was more an illusionist. He pretended to take risks. But I actually take risks. If one day I hurt my foot, bam!' - he improvises a scream, hitting his fist on the table – 'that's me finished.' In other words: 'the world would split into two: the real world and the virtual world. Me with my coarse hands, with my body, I'd feel happy to belong to the first group.' The relationship with the material – the big vice of our time.

France is a model – look at Sarkozy

I ask him to tell me more about himself, and Kelvink Jr. is happy to comply. 'You see, I've done hundreds of spectacles, but each one is different. There's not many of us in the world who do this job. When do I intend to leave it? I don't know – within ten years I'll move on, maybe more. But before that I wanted to pass the baton on to someone. I need to think about it more thoroughly. You know, it's hard to sleep at night if someone fell from up above there and you had been their trainer.'

The Kelvink roots are widespread. 'I'm cosmopolitan, but above all I'm European. My paternal grandfather was Dutch, my grandmother was Romanian. My mother's family are Argentinian. All circus people, obviously. They didn't make me follow this career. They just put me on the unicycle one day when I was about five years old. Since then, it's been me who's been reluctant to get down.'

Kelvink Jr. is a happy man today. He lives with colleague and partner Catherine Léger. 'When the Cirque du Soleil call me, I just simply tell them no. I want to continue being Ramon Kelvink Jr, not just another travelling circus acrobat.' He looks like he's reading a note at the bottom of a page on a book critical of the French cultural system. 'I'm doing well in France,' argues Kelvink Jr., a native of Bergerac, like Cyrano, 'and I think that our country can be a model for many things. Look at Sarkozy: he doesn't ask anyone to produce their right-wing card. If he comes across talents in the left, he invites them to work with him. We need more of this today in Europe, to overcome the diversities which divide us in other ways.'

His performance in the town of Vernazza, 30 metres above, doesn't intimidate him. Doesn't the wind pose a problem? 'No, I'm used to the wind. But the salt could be problematic. The more salt there is in the air, the more slippery the rope becomes.' Is it possible that he has never ever been scared, not in any of his performances? 'Everything is dangerous: eating, walking. It's necessary to always put yourself in the game.'