Running Wild and Free
Le Parkour is taking off, with a new generation of thrill-seekers hitting the streets
Walking outside Belfast’s Waterfront Hall, you might be forgiven for thinking you had stepped into an outdoor stage production, with people passing obstacles of rails, steps or walls in their path through acrobatic movements such as vaulting, jumping and somersaults.
This is free running, a physical artform derived from le parkour, founded by Frenchman David Belle. Le parkour bounced into the public consciousness with the 2003 documentary Jump London featuring Sebastian Foucan, a childhood friend of Belle’s.
Foucan wanted to develop the more aesthetic side of the art, one which embraced tricks and street stunts, rather than parkour’s ethos of getting from point A to point B in the quickest and most efficient way, getting over all the obstacles in your path as you would in an emergency situation.
Communities around the world discovered the form and began organising mass 'jams’, learning from one another in groups. In Belfast, Bangor and Derry communities have sprung up, sharing videos and discussing the latest stunts or ideas on online forums.
‘Bane’ (Colin Devenny) and ‘Fake’ (Dave McConville) are the onscreen names of two free runners that met through a mutual friend when the community was beginning in NI. The names now stick as tags when the free runners refer to each other. McConville taught martial arts and was interested in seeing the free runners in action.
‘I had a new camera and wanted to take a few photos,' he says. 'After seeing the training session I said to Bane that he had to teach me how to do it, and since then we’ve been training together.’
Devenny says that if you practice with discipline, as opposed to just for fun, free running becomes part of your life. ‘When you have the opportunity to go out and practice at the weekends, you train properly for hours,' he states. 'Then when you have to go back to work on Monday you’re still eyeing up spots and looking for rails and walls with potential.’
He explains that the differences between le parkour and free running mean little to him. ‘The expression of movement is paramount,' he says. 'I call what I do parkour, but I don’t worry about the politics of it. I move how I want to move and have fun doing it.’
The first time either heard of the sport was through a programme advertisement on BBC1, featuring parkour founder David Belle. ‘It was a clip showing a man taking off his tie and shirt,' says Devenny, 'and leaving his office building via the roof, proceeding to leap from rooftop to rooftop to get home and watch a TV programme.
'Seeing that for the first time in that format completely blew me away, and then the introduction of Jump London on Channel 4 set the bar for formal training. At that point I realised if you put a large amount of work into it you can get a great amount back.’
Both explain the immense sense of achievement they experience after practicing a particular move or sequence and then completing it. ‘The feeling of being free, nothing constrains you,' says McConville, 'when you walk down the street you’re not looking just ahead, you look up.
'I came from a background of rollerblading and you look at things in a certain way, but you’re constrained by the device. When it comes to parkour everything is free. All you need to do is use your imagination and everything then becomes an opportunity.’
Free running comes with an element of danger which needs to be approached with caution. ‘Recently it’s been labelled as an extreme sport,' McConville tells me.
'It’s more of an artform than a sport - you use your environment to create movement, as opposed to risking your life doing extremely dangerous moves. You need to know your ability, when people see Sebastian Foucon in the James Bond movie or David Belle doing rooftop stuff they immediately think they’ve gone to that, when it’s taken 18 years of training.’
Why do people choose this over other urban art forms? Devenny says there’s an element of freshness. ‘Even with the amount of media exposure it’s had in recent years, it’s still a discipline in its infancy.
'When I started practicing in the street, the majority of people didn't have a clue what I was doing. I was met with inquisitive glances and although sometimes that’s still the case now, most people know what free running is and some will come up and ask about it.’
Adam Turkington, Arts & Community co-ordinator at the Waterfront Hall says he first witnessed free running from his office window. ‘I saw these people jumping over things, although it looked a bit strange and amateur at that point, gradually they improved as they practised.
'Two years ago during the first Urban Arts Academy, we made a film with the free runners. At that stage they were getting better, although there were really only about six of them doing it regularly.’
Turkington explains how free running's popularity has increased and why he included the course in this year’s Urban Arts Academy. ‘Pretty much every Saturday I would see large numbers of people doing it around the Waterfront. The landscape outside the Waterfront lends itself to doing a variety of jumps, rolls and tricks in quite a small space.’
Turkington also tells me that free running isn't simply about just jumping around. ‘It’s ideologically based - free runners would say it's a way of ‘integrating into your urban space’, taking concrete and urban landscapes and making them beautiful. It’s quite counter-culture. At the Waterfront skateboards are banned, but they can’t ban shoes and feet!’
Course tutor and theatre physical performer Sean-Paul O’Rawe appeared in Bruiser Theatre's production of Metamorphosis, based on Franz Kafka’s novel about a man who turns into a beetle. O'Rawe integrated his free running into the performance and tells me what attracted him to the new art form.
‘The initial draw was the challenge and demand on my own body,' he says. 'I get a great sense of freedom, pride in my physicality and ownership of the environment in which I live. I’ve learned to appreciate the architecture of the city and notice the beauty in the environment. I see things I didn’t notice before, by looking up, not walking around with my head down, staring at the footpath.'
O’Rawe says he now feels a buzz and excitement about the cities he visits. ‘It feels like I have a real connection with places like Derry through going up there with other free runners, rather than saying I like going there because it has a great shopping centre or something.
‘When teaching, we’ll start with simple stuff, adapting people’s minds to what everything is about, getting them to understand how much effort or how little effort you have to put into things before moving on to teach different techniques and moves and then allowing them to practise them.
‘My stance on free running is that it’s your choice and your decision on what you want to do and it shouldn’t be dictated by someone else, you shouldn’t always copy someone else and should discover things on your own. We’ll give people the techniques and skills to do that safely, as well as making them understand that it's not just about how high you can jump.
'It's also the theology of overcoming obstacles and how you can bring that into your own life, discovering more options and more ways of doing things and not be set in the one path of thinking. With parkour there’s no competitions, you're not going out to prove something to a coach or a sponsor or competing with other runners. It’s about proving it to yourself.’
The Trans Belfast Free Running course takes place July 30-August 3.
Breakfast Of Champions:
Freerunners: Gerard Donnelly (Gyro), Colin Devenny (Bane) & Gary Whelan (Air-Bourne)
Film/editing: Gerard Donnelly
Music: Sirocco MCs - Everybody (From album 'The Basics')