Friday, December 4, 2009

My Life as a Parkour Traceur

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I guess it's a generational thing, but when I mention parkour to anyone over 40, I usually get a blank stare, which if nothing else makes me feel young and in the know. If you too are going "huh?" just think of those videos you've probably seen of ridiculously agile teenage daredevils — Spidermen without the web — jumping on, over and off walls, railings and other structures that get in their way. They are called traceurs presumably because they trace a path through space while leaving only a faint imprint.

The Wikipedia definition is pretty good: "a physical discipline of French origin in which participants run along a route, attempting to negotiate obstacles in the most efficient way possible, as if moving in an emergency situation, using skills such as jumping and climbing, or the more specific parkour moves. The object is to get from one place to another using only the human body and the objects in the environment around you. The obstacles can be anything in one's environment, but parkour is often seen practiced in urban areas because of the many suitable public structures that are accessible to most people, such as buildings and rails."

If you still don't know what I'm talking about, here's one of those videos:

This summer in London I actually had the opportunity to participate in a parkour workshop and performance at the National Theatre, meet some of the original practitioners, and grow some thoughts about connections between parkour and physical comedy. I would have written this sooner, but there's so much to cover!

Parkour is essentially a street art form like graffiti or skateboarding, but with its own unique philosophy and history. The word parkour comes from the original French term, parcours, meaning course, as in obstacle course. Parkour seems to have become the accepted international spelling because it's phonetic and therefore less likely to confuse. Depending on who you're listening to, free running and l'art du déplacement are either synonyms for or variations on parkour. (Wikipedia translates l'art du déplacement as the art of moving, though it also contains the more exact sense of displacement or shifting.)

If there is an inventor of parkour, it would have to be David Belle , the guy in the video above. Belle developed parkour with friends in Lisse (just south of Paris) in the 1990s, and has since become an international celebrity as an actor and stuntman in films and commercials. He was also the subject of a New Yorker profile piece, which you can read here.

The story of parkour, however, goes back way before Belle and, in fact, shares roots with modern movement theatre. Belle's father Raymond — a French soldier, fitness enthusiast, and firefighter — was a legend in his own right. Raymond Belle's training in the French military had brought him into contact with the teachings of Georges Hébert, which he passed onto his son, and which played a key role in formulating the basic tenets of parkour.

And who was Georges Hébert? He was a French military officer who traveled all over the world before World War I and later became a teacher of physical education. Hébert came to the conclusion that the weight training regimen used by the military was building muscle without promoting dexterity and speed. In its place he developed la méthode naturelle, which he based on the movement skills of indigenous peoples he had observed in his travels, especially in Africa. "Their bodies were splendid, flexible, nimble, skillful, enduring, resistant and yet they had no other tutor in Gymnastics but their lives in Nature."

Hébert's natural method, also known as hébertisme, promoted "the qualities of organic resistance, muscularity and speed, towards being able to walk, run, jump, move quadrupedally, to climb, to keep balance, to throw, lift, defend yourself and to swim." One of Hébert's top tools for achieving this was the obstacle course — le parcours du combattant — which was to become integral to French military training. So if you ever hated being forced to run an obstacle course back in high school or in army basic training, you have Hébert to blame. On the other hand, if you ever did an Outward Bound program and loved it or you're into adventure racing, how about a tip of the hat to uncle Georges?

Although his teachings were already widely accepted by the '40s, the publication of his multi-volume work, L'éducation physique et morale par la méthode naturelle (1941–43) no doubt cemented his reputation. Here are some scans from the book, courtesy of Hovey Burgess.

Hébert's work was also a strong influence on French theatre, and specifically on movement training for actors. Jacques Copeau, whose work in the 1920s at the Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier in Paris was strong on improvisation and physical training, adopted Hébert's natural approach to movement as an antidote to the artificial stylings of the staid establishment theatres. He created the Vieux-Colombier theatre school, whose instructors included the Fratellini clowns and one M. Moine, an Hébert-trained teacher.

There is a clear line from Copeau's school straight through to modern times through such figures as Jean Dasté, Jean Dorcy, Étienne Decroux, and Jacques Lecoq. Decroux taught such physical performers as Jean-Louis Barrault, Marcel Marceau, and Leonard Pitt, and created modern corporeal mime, inspiring such mime artists as Thomas Leabhart and Daniel Stein.

Lecoq writes about his debt to Hébert in his book Le Théâtre du Geste and in The Moving Body, describing him as one of the significant influences on the transition from artificial mime styles to a more scientific study of the body in motion. Mark Evans, in Movement Training for the Actor, points out that "Lecoq's Paris school was to find its final home in a disused gymnasium, a symbolic return he himself noted with approval... Lecoq's meticulous approach to the analysis of movement owes much to the French tradition of scientific, anthropological, and philosophical movement analysis..."

Silent Film
The film world offers more direct connections between parkour and physical comedy, the most obvious being the reverence parkour practitioners have for such silent film stars as Douglas Fairbanks and Buster Keaton. When Fairbanks first went to work in Hollywood in 1915, his boss was the legendary director, D.W. Griffith, whose Birth of a Nation had just changed the course of film history, and who immediately locked horns with the acrobatic young actor. "D.W. didn't like my athletic tendencies," Fairbanks recalled. "Or my spontaneous habit of jumping a fence or scaling a church at unexpected moments which were not in the script. Griffith told me to go to Keystone comedies." This parkour-like spontaneity was part of his creative process, prompting Alistair Cooke to comment that his collaborators needed "a willingness to let Fairbanks' own restlessness set the pace of the shooting and his gymnastics be the true improvisations on a simple scenario." The Mark of Zorro (1920) is just one of many examples of Fairbanks in parkour mode.

The following archival clip, which has appeared on some parkour sites, is from the movie Gizmo! (1977) and has also been identified on YouTube as from 1930, but is actually German stuntman Arnim Dahl (1922–1998), and is probably from the 50s.


Another movement source for parkour is even more ancient: the animal kingdom. Or as they say on the Mumbai parkour web site:
Q: What do you get when you combine a monkey, a cat, and a frog together?
A: A Traceur!
In that New Yorker profile, David Belle talks about a trip to India and an encounter with a tribe of monkeys: “I was at a waterfall one day, and there were huge trees all around, and in the trees were monkeys. There were fences and barriers around them, so they couldn’t get out, but I went around the barriers and played with the monkeys. After that, I watched them all the time, learning how they climbed. All the techniques in parkour are from watching the monkeys.” Belle then showed the New Yorker reporter segments from the BBC documentary, Monkey Warriors. Here's a clip that shows exactly what he means:

Monkeys and physical comedy also have a shared heritage that can be traced back to popular animal impersonations by such 18th and 19th-century physical comedians as Grimaldi, Mazurier, Gouffé, Perrot, and Klischnigg , which you can read all about in chapter five of my book Clowns. You can get a good sense of what these performances might have been like from Buster Keaton's 1921 turn as a monkey in his short The Playhouse, which you can watch in the supplemental material for chapter five.

While the origins of parkour go way back, its rapid dissemination throughout the world came in the form of videos that were uploaded to the internet and quickly went viral. In fact, it has been said that parkour is the first art form whose growth into a movement has been totally dependent upon the internet. In the process, however, parkour has become a case of different strokes for different folks. For some, it is trick-based, the idea being to pull off the most spectacular stunt, and YouTube videos certainly lend themselves to showcasing these feats of derring-do. The founders and many subsequent practitioners have, however, framed it in far broader terms. Here are some of the concepts that have been put forward:

Civilization has made people lazy, but parkour trains one to get along in nature and with one's physical environment. This hearkens back not only to Hébert, but also to Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his writings on nature and the education of the whole person.

Hébert's maxim "be strong in order to be useful" is often cited in parkour writing. Both David Belle's father and Hébert were "superheroes" who had won considerable acclaim for dramatic rescues made possible by their physical prowess.

Parkour is a discipline, as much as any martial art. One must overcome mental obstacles to overcome physical obstacles. For example, the philosophy section of the American Parkour site reads: "Many people take the principles they learn through parkour and apply them to their lives. By challenging themselves in parkour both mentally and physically, it becomes easier to deal with problems and obstacles in everyday life. When a difficult situation comes up in daily life, a parkour practitioner can see this as any other obstacle which they've learned to overcome quickly, efficiently, and without disruption to their intended path."

Parkour is play, and play is essential to creativity.

The essence of parkour is the attainment of efficiency, moving efficiently through a space rather than around it. "If you run through a pedestrian zone without losing speed and without touching any person, you do good Parkour although you probably don't use any techniques like saut de bras or saut de chat." (Benedikt Bast)

It is a fresh way of looking at one's physical world, viewing architecture as function rather than form. Parkour teaches pkvision, the ability to look at the environment and see the potential for movement within it.

Parkour is self-expression, not performance. Once you start drawing attention to it, creating crowd-pleasing movements, is it still parkour?

Instead of society discouraging parkour because of liability and insurance issues, parkour should be recognized as a valuable form of self-expression for youth, an alternative to over-indulgence in alcohol, drugs, or video games, and as an activity that does not require equipment or the formation of teams. Older practitioners of parkour send a message to youth that it is still okay to play.

The Urban Playground
So there we were in London in July, taking advantage of all the good productions offered at affordable prices (£10 and up) at the National Theatre, when we discovered that their outdoors series, Watch this Space, was sponsoring the performance troupe Urban Playground (an offshoot of the Prodigal Theatre in Brighton), in five days of parkour workshops, forums, and performances.

UPG (Urban Playground) performers come from backgrounds in contemporary dance and in Eastern European theatre labs, and specifically Grotowski's system of physical actions. They are older (thirty-somethings) and approach parkour less from a daring stunt angle and more from that of actor training, movement, and theatrical exploration. Their literature favors the term l'art du déplacement, and this definition of the term from Parkourpedia fits them nicely: "The spirit is still the same as Parkour, there is still the aim of being strong, to be useful and the need to overcome fears, but the movement is less concerned with speed and efficiency and more to do with the aesthetic of the movement."

UPG subverts traditional parkour use of found space by traveling with their own mobile playground, and this summer they even opened a permanent facility as well, the "UK’s first permanent, free, outdoor Parkour Training Area" in Crawley (West Sussex). They brought the mobile version to the National with them, and used it for their workshops and performances.

The Old Man & the Seesaw
Sorry about the pun, which at any rate may be wasted on those of you unschooled in the writings of Ernest Hemingway or Karen Gersch. I’m sure parkour has been done on a seesaw, but not by me. In fact, you could certainly argue that parkour has never been done by me, despite my decades of climbing trees, rocks, and man-made objects, not to mention hugging parking meters. But here's the story:

UPG's residency at the National included a series of short (free) workshops, including one just for kids, one just for women, and one just for brave souls over the age of 50. I somehow managed to qualify for the last one and, egged on by my sweetheart Riley, joined her in this afternoon adventure, wondering how my bad hip would feel after diving off rooftops and all that. Could I become the George Plimpton of parkour... and live to tell about it?

As it turned out, the workshop was not really challenging physically, but the process was quite interesting and worthwhile. Though it was taught from a dance and movement theatre perspective and certainly not from a physical comedy angle, it did give me a feel for the potential discoveries possible when one art form "samples" another.

Because of light rain, the workshop began in an upstairs lobby space. There were just eight of us: four students and all four UPG performers as teachers: Alister "Buster" O'Loughlin, Miranda Henderson, JP Omari, and Janine Fletcher. Not a bad faculty–student ratio, eh? Led by Buster, the workshop was first framed by a discussion of the history of parkour and of UPG's involvement. The warm-up began with follow-the-leader movement throughout the lobby space, with the kinds of walks and stretches that I'm sure many of you have experienced in workshops you've taken. The difference here was in the more deliberate use of the physical environment, from simply making contact with various surfaces (walls, steps, railings, furniture, etc.) as we passed near them, to pushing off and rolling off of walls as you ran, to engaging with obstacles rather than simply detouring around them.

Next was floor work, where we did some basic shoulder rolls, with the usual emphasis on smoothness, spreading out the contact with the floor, and controlling one's center of gravity well enough to roll in slow motion. Maintaining the line of attack of the roll was emphasized, and to work on our orientation in space we did them in pairs side by side, holding our partner with our free hand, trying to stay in unison as much as possible.

By then the rain had let up so we got to move outdoors to the "jungle gym." The first exercise was simply to move "through" one of the structure's horizontal bars on our own, either going over or under it, while our workshop leaders observed our choices. While it was not a question so much of right or wrong technique, there were some good suggestions for increasing efficiency and awareness of the space. One was to touch the apparatus as we went through even when we didn't need it for support, the idea being that this would aid our proprioceptive awareness of where our body parts were. The second was a specific technique for gripping the bar as we passed under it that involved crossing one wrist over the other so as to provide a smooth transition as our orientation rotated 180º.

We repeated these simple movements many times, focusing on efficiency and spatial awareness, and then built on them with a series of variations. We passed through one bar and then immediately through another at a 90º angle. We played with grips and positioning for maneuvering over the bar. We developed more complex paths through the structure and had one person begin when the person in front of them was only part way through, adjusting the timing to avoid collisions. By the end of this segment all eight of us were exploring the cubes and railings, as many as four at a time, moving in and out at will, developing awareness of the structure and of one another's movements.

Our Micro-Choreography
After a break for lunch, we were ready to start putting together what UPG terms a micro-choreography, a very short piece to be performed then and there for whatever public we could muster in the middle of a rainy afternoon. For yes, it had indeed started raining again, and we had a dilemma on our hands. All of the open-air structures were getting soaked, but what audience there was to be found would have to be outdoors. There was, however, an overhang just outside the National's coffee shop with a row of tables under it. Ever resourceful, UPG chose to commandeer the last table and its four plastic chairs and throw together some minimalist parkour.

The entire piece, three minutes plus, was put together in under an hour, with Miranda as choreographer. The process was clearly from the world of dance, with the vocabulary borrowing from parkour basics. We began in our chairs, and we each came up with our own three to five movements involving the chair, which we then stitched into our own movement phrases. Here and throughout, Miranda's role was not to give us any specific movement, but rather to help us make choices from what we'd come up with and to structure it in a dynamic way. She focused on building on moments that worked best; when she saw a dynamic relationship developing she sought to bring focus to it.

Next we tackled the table, some of us literally. Again we came up with a variety of movements, picked our favorites, and sequenced them, but since there were four of us and only one table, we also had to work out the timing of our movement in coordination with the whole group.

The final stage of our magnum opus involved descending two short nearby stairs, finding different ways to get down them. Clearly this was an example not of moving efficiently through the stairs space, but of transforming them into a plaything. Again, we had to coordinate this with one another and eventually work toward an ending of sorts.

The modernist performance philosophy behind all this is that dramatic relationships and moments arise from the dynamics of these structured improvisations without any specific intention being imposed. Performers interact, patterns emerge. Rather than the piece telling a story, the audience is free to take whatever narrative from it they like. For me as a participant this went against my clown and actor instincts. I had to fight the urge to seek out eye contact and grow it into a psychological relationship with another character. It was hard not to think in terms of status and control, hard not to want to transform a physical movement into a physical comedy bit. (Yeah, yeah, that's also the story of my life, but we'll save that for another post...)

While the end result (below) was clearly a "process piece," I liked the process and can see its potential for developing all kinds of material. And yes, the rain did let up and we did get an audience of 30 to 40 people, all of whom gave us a standing ovation because it was still too wet to sit down. All I could think of was the storied tradition of the National Theatre: Gielgud, Richardson, Olivier and now Towsen.

In Performance with the French duo Gravity Style: Quartet
For the weekend performances of Quartet, UPG was joined by
two leaders of France's Gravity Style, Charles Perrière, and Malik Diouf, original members with David Belle in the group Yamakasi, back in Lisse in the 90s. They've been collaborating with UPG for several years and on the weekend put together several semi-improvised performances.

UPG's interest in mixing genres is echoed in Gravity Style's concept of gravity art: "Around the art of dispalcement (parkour), the sportive and artistic discipline popularized by the Luc Besson Film, Yamakasi, it brings together a wide range of physical performance such as acrobatics and urban dance and integrates them into different artistic contexts."

The performance of Quartet they did later that night was scaled back somewhat because everything was still quite wet, but it went over very well with the audience. The video below, shot with a handy-dandy Flip camera, is from far enough back to take in the whole space, so you lose some detail. To remedy that, here are some photos of the performance taken by Riley that help balance things out.

And here's the video (about 11 minutes):

Parkour and Physical Comedy
If UPG's choreography eschews character and plot, and other manifestations of parkour are self-expression, what does it all have to do with physical comedy? Physical comedy as a specific genre is usually based on meticulously planned out characters, stories, and blocking. Still, I do see some useful connections:

• Movement vocabulary
The most obvious link is between the acrobatics seen in a lot of parkour and that robust branch of physical comedy that emulates the daredevil antics of Lloyd and Keaton and likes large spaces and big movement.

Intention, or, why did the chicken cross the road?
The parkour traceur's intention is a given, the desire to get from point A to point B as efficiently as possible. The physical comedian is more likely to be running from someone. Speed is an issue, the intention is survival.

Obstacles and Inventiveness
The obstacles are what make parkour and physical comedy interesting. Both the traceur and the physical comedian are creative in their solutions to overcoming these obstacles. While these solutions are efficient and "simple," they would not be the obvious choice for most people, which just reinforces the eccentric nature of the physical comedian's character. Likewise, it is usually the clown's m.o. to overcome obstacles in an inventive way, even when not working in a physical mode.

A textbook example of parkour-style physical comedy is the climactic scene in Keaton's College (1927), where Buster — an abject failure as a college athlete — must make a mad dash to his girlfriend's dormitory room, where she is being held captive by an overly-insistent male rival. The intention is clear, the obstacles many. In the course of his rescue mission, he successfully makes use of many of the sports techniques that had eluded him on the playing field.

It should be noted that the pole vault was the only time in his silent-film career that Keaton used a stunt double.

Not only can physical comedy make use of parkour-style leaping and bounding, it can also make fun of it. Here's a sharp parody of Douglas Fairbanks by Will Rogers. You may think of Rogers as primarily a verbal comedian and political satirist, but he had a long career in silent movies as well, making fifty of them! In this excerpt from Big Moments from Little Pictures (1924), Rogers channels his inner clown as he offers us a rather fey Robin Hood showing his very merry men the fine art of jumping.

And then there's this parkour parody from the current season of the tv sitcom The Office:

Good ending, but I gotta admit it, overall I thought Rogers was a lot funnier.

Physical Comedy in the 21st Century??
Since we're doing some genre-bending here, I'll close with a cool video by Vidéo El Dorado that combines Mayan ruins, parkour, visual effects (time remapping ), and of course more monkeys. Not sure if it fits my "physical comedy in the 21st century" category because it's not exactly comedy, but it is cool. Did I mention that it has monkeys?

Well, that's a lot of stuff to throw at you. I hope it makes sense to all you old folks! I know I'm a novice here and just scratching the surface, so here's some more info for the insatiable:

Jump Four — a 2003 BBC documentary about parkour that features French free runners leaving their trace on London's landscape. This is available on YouTube, segmented into five parts. — "all the best videos of parkour"
Parkourpedia — a reference source compiled by the Australian Parkour Association
American Parkour — site for AMK
Training Videos — also from the AMK site
New York Parkour — site for NYPK, parkour group for NYC / New Jersey area
Sandbag — parkour events staged all over the world to promote the fight against climate change
Point B — a 2009 documentary about parkour
Parkour in Casino Royale — James Bond chases Sebastian Foucan. I'd like this a lot better if there weren't so many cuts undermining the believability of the leaps. I want to see the take-off, flight, and landing all in the same shot, thank you very much!
Update (3-15-2010): Parkour Motion Reel — from Vimeo, a short but cool hand-animated flip book about parkour.

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