Saturday, July 10, 2010

Pre-Watson Adventure: "Paris"

So how do I sum up the last two and half weeks? In relation to the project, it has certainly been everything that I was hoping for (and then some). I guess that I should start from the beginning.

After a long and sleepless flight to Paris by way of Reykjavik, Iceland, a rather sleepless one I might add because, as usual, I spent the entire flight trying to watch every movie available. This meant that when I arrived in Paris, I was both jetlagged and cross-eyed from watching the small screen for so long. I spent a day recovering and hanging out with a friend that had recently moved to Paris to work for an American company selling advertising. He was kind enough to let me crash on his floor for a few nights, and we spent the evening people watching and hanging out at the only Argentinean bar in Paris while watching their World Cup match.

The day after my arrival in France I took the train out to Evry and met with the Yamakasi/Majestic Force. To preface what happened next I think that a brief bit of history/background is in order.

Parkour was started by a group of young men in the 1990s in the banlieue of Evry/Lisses/Courcourronnes outside of Paris. The group of 9 young men were known as the Yamakasi, a name that means “esprit fort/home fort” (strong mind/strong body) in zingala, the ancient language of Zaire. Their discipline/sport/movement emerged as a combination of different athletic interests and was heavily influenced by the architectural “uniqueness” of this particular region of France, which was a “planned city” that incorporated many of the ideas of Corbusier in the post-WWII era. After devoting themselves to making what had started as childhood games into a “mode de vie” (way of life), various members of the group split off to pursue their own styles of the sport.

Perhaps one of the best know members, and the man whom some call the “godfather of parkour”, David Belle went on to do a number of successful movies using his unique skills, the first of which was “Banlieue 13” (released internationally as District B13). His name is associated with the sport of “parkour”, and his definition for the movement is the one that is used around the world of the “movement from Point A to Point B in the most efficient and fluid way bodily possible, going over, under through, or around obstacles”. He recently worked with the choreography of the “Prince of Persia” video game and subsequent movie, but has been relatively absent from the media/general parkour community.

David Belle

Sébastien Foucan went on to Great Britain where he started the “Freerunning” movement. This particular style is considered by many to be much more superfluous and showy, with an abundance of flips and jumps that many “parkour purists” claim are not true parkour. He is best known for his part in James Bond: Casino Royale (the opening scene features him being chased across the city, up a crane, and through a construction site by a much less agile Daniel Craig). The freerunning movement really took off after the release of the “Jump London” documentary released in 2003. This was followed by the sequal, “Jump Britian” in 2005, and by “Jump Westminster” in 2007 (a great documentary, this film was actually one of the inspirations behind this project. You can find it here.

Sébastien in Casino Royale

In 2005, four of the original Yamakasi; Châu Belle, Yann Hnautra, Williams Belle, and Laurent Piemontesi, started the label Majestic Force with the aid of long-time friend Bruno Girard. They were later joined by Guylian N’Guba Boyeke. This group has been the primary force for the discipline in France, and their style, known as “l’art du deplacement” can essentially be called “the art of movement”. They opened an “Art Du Déplacement Academy” (ADD Academy- not the same thing as one would imagine in English) in 2008, and ever since they have been steadily working to expand and improve their organization. The Academy is based in Evry, the birthplace of parkour, and through the cooperation of the city government, which has embraced the discipline; they recently started construction on an indoor training facility in the center of town, as well as a number of modifications to several outdoor public areas to make them into better practice spots for practionners. This in itself is symbolic for the progress that the sport has made in the last few years, since at the beginning the discipline was used as a way for the Yamakasi to adapt to their city and its unique architecture, but now the city is being adapted to better-suited the needs of the practionners.

Châu, me, Guylain, Yann

Last summer I was given a generous grant by the Abernethy Foundation at Davidson College to go to study the activities of the Yamakasi in Paris over a four-week period. My time spent with the team allowed me to really get to know the guys in the group, as well as to witness the effects of their actions and the influence that it had one the kids that they worked with. I left at the end of the month thoroughly amazed and inspired and good friends with many of the guys, especially Bruno Girard who wears the hats of close friend, advisor, manager, press aide, and producer to the team.

My arrival in Paris two weeks ago was planned to coincide with the “International Art du Déplacement/Parkour/Freerunning Meeting”, a 3-day affair that included traceurs from all around the world. I arrived a few days in advance of the opening activities on Friday to be able help out Bruno and the rest of the Yamakasi to help in any way that I could. The first two days were spent doing small errands and watching the guys rehearse for their big show on Saturday. The highlights of those days were definitely when I got to climb around on the 3-story scaffolding (think your average jungle gym on lots of steroids) that had been set up for the performance, taping down mats on the platforms, getting it ready for the show, and generally “monkeying around”. Thursday things started to pick up as we started getting everything ready for the following day’s activities, and the flood of foreign visitors that were expected.

Here is a link to the site for the event for those that might like more details.

Friday was essentially a day for the press and politicians, featuring interviews with the mayor and other city officials, and a press-conference/debate on the status of the sport in Evry. Although the statements by some of the politicians and “experts” sounded a little rehearsed and un-genuine, I was very impressed by those of a number of the other people that attended. Among those were the members of London’s Parkour Generations, and Eugene Minogue, their contact within the city of Westminster who was one of the driving forces behind the “Jump Westminster” project. Both he and Mohammed Nesch, the organizer of the “Mixe 3 Terres” arts festival in Blois that I attended with the Yamakasi last summer, spoke to the potential of the sport in their work with youth and their observations of the success of their respective programs. I learned a lot from the press conference and hope to receive a written copy of the transcript soon so that I can a link to it.

One of the defining features of this weekend was the emphasis made on working toward the unity of the sport/discipline of parkour/freerunning/ADD. The presence of Sébastien Foucan at the event was a big deal for many of the traceurs that had come from abroad due to his international celebrity status and the fact that he is a seldom seen member of the parkour community now. Although many online blogs have criticized his lack of communication about his activities and called him a traitor to the sport, I found all of my experience to be quite the contrary. Not only is Sébastien as generous and open as the rest of the Yamakasi, he is actually kind of the clown of the group. He was constantly cracking jokes throughout the weekend, and his antics seemed to be regarded with fond patience by the other Yamakasi. Despite being surrounded at all times by a mob of curious traceurs posing all manner of questions, he took everything graciously and never seemed to tire or to let it go to his head (for an example of the mob that surrounded him, see the before and after pics here. The time difference between the two pictures is about 4 seconds.) For more information about Sébastien, you can visit his site at:

Seb and I

Seb, me and "the mob"

When I wasn’t attending the press conference, running errands, or hanging out with the guys, I was working the reception desk for participants in the workshop later that weekend. This was a lot more interesting than it might sound at first because it gave me the opportunity to see the full breadth of international involvement at the event. I met participants from all over Europe, with particularly strong representation from Italy, France, the UK, and Germany; as well but with many other countries represented (Poland, Lithuania, Switzerland, Belgium, Estonia, Spain… even Australia, although I was the only American). Many of these visitors were being hosted by various members of the team, or were staying in the gymnasium that the city had generously offered for the event (where I was given the job of essentially being co-babysitter to a bunch of very coordinated and energetic “kids” with a fellow bilingual member of the support team).

I spent Saturday working on a number of administrative tasks and then got a chance to visit the four workshops that had been set up around the city. Each spot had a group of the ADD Academy/Yamakasi instructors working in conjunction with instructors from Parkour Generations and Parkour Italia. Practitioners were encouraged to do a circuit of the city and receive tips, workouts, and hang out with some of the most respected traceurs in the world. Saturday culminated with a show that was put on by the Yamakasi in the local concert arena. The spectacle had been produced by Châu and choreographed by Guylain and was called Darwin Fantasy. It featured a number of different pieces that followed the evolution of man’s movement from pre-human and pre-historic ages to the modern day. While I had seen something of a similar theme last summer in Blois, this spectacle was on an entirely different scale and of a much higher caliber. Although I had witness the evolution and improvement of the show over the course of the week, and the final performance was probably my 15th repetition, I was continually amazed by what the guys could do. Unfortunately I don’t have any footage of the show because there are plans to do a professional DVD release of the show, but I will post a link to it as soon as that is made available.

Sunday was the official “workshop day” and included an 8-hour series of practice sessions around the city. I was finally able to work some of the rust out of my system after a year of little-to-no parkour training and had a lot of fun. Although the sessions were short, the length of the day had its effect and I came back to the city hall thoroughly tired but happy.

Throughout the week I was continually impressed by how integrated the Yamakasi and the ADD Academy are into the city of Evry and in Paris in general. The entire event seemed to involve a city-wide commitment of resources and it was clear that the city officials were very proud of the team. The Yamakasi have also established an impressed entourage of artists and support staff, from DJ Mao, a professional DJ who managed the entire soundtrack for the show from the spot of honor at the top of the central scaffold throughout the show. Other friends like Daniel Toti were involved with the release of a new clothing line by the Majestic Force/Yamakasi label, that will soon be released (I’ll have more details on that in a future post). There are countless other friends and supporters of the team that I met this weekend and each one contributed to the atmosphere of cooperation and progress that pervaded this weekend.

This atmosphere was what really made this weekend special. Talking with other participants everyone remarked on the spirit that seemed to permeate all the activities this weekend. Maybe it was the coming together of representatives from each of the 3 “branches”: l’art du déplacement (Yamakasi), freerunning (Sébastien Foucan), and parkour (Parkour Generations); or maybe the continual references to “unity despite differences” and “embracing your individual style”; or maybe just everybody’s excitement to be at the birthplace of the discipline, working together to make each other stronger. While I have had pretty limited contact with fellow traceurs in the US due to the fact that I was usually training for track/XC and therefore not allowed to train for parkour, I have found that this sport/discipline seems to attract a lot of very genuine, friendly, and generous people. Although I know that this weekend was unique for its star-studded cast, I hope that the atmosphere of cooperation is not and I’m looking forward to repeating my experience around the world.

I would like to give special thanks to Bruno Girard, Marie Gayan, and the whole of the Yamakasi/ADD Academy for their warm welcome and the generosity that they showed me during my visit.

Bruno, me, Marie

Some members of the ADD Academy & entourage

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