Footmarks in France
Mon, 2010-11-15 11:45
The great names of parkour are well known throughout most of the global community – the name David Belle is often followed by hushed whispers of awe and admiration; Sebastian Foucan is famous for his role in the Bond movie Casino Royale; the Yamakasi will forever be known as the group that first brought parkour to the silver screen. These names are respected, and rightly so. However, there is another name that, among those who know it, holds no less significance than all the others. That name is Stephane Vigroux, and for two cold and brittle December days in 2005 Forrest and I were fortunate enough to gain a small insight into this little-known master of Parkour.
Of course, he would never refer to himself as such. Stephane – a tall, lean man only twenty-eight years of age – is, in the manner of many truly skilled individuals, also truly humble. Though years of dedicated training have given him an unshakeable confidence in his physical abilities, he is still shy of the camera and constantly self-deprecating. Calm, polite and playful, he is extremely reserved when it comes to talking about himself and is quick to play down talk that he is anything special or even worthy of attention. But spend some time with the man, observe his training and his movement, and there will be no doubt in your mind that, when it comes to parkour, this one has certainly found something very special indeed.
We met with him in his old stamping grounds of Lisses and Evry, two of parkour’s most famous locations, and though there had been some small changes over the years Stephane still felt very much at home amongst the familiar walls and walkways of these Parisian suburbs. After all, this was where he had begun his training with David Belle some seven years earlier and where he had practised for an average of six hours a day. Dedication, it would seem, pays dividends.
We began the guided tour of Stephane’s old backyard in that notable little town whose own name has become synonymous with the birth of the discipline – Lisses.
Though in many ways just like every other sleepy town in France, for the freerunner Lisses is a place charged with history and energy. There is no doubt that the architecture and format of the town lends itself to the movements of parkour, and is crammed with possibilities, but there is also something more, something indefinable. Like too much vitality contained in one place, Lisses seems to jump out to the trained eye and almost demands to be used. The famous fire escape stairwell near the school, for example, stands like a metal skeleton upon which the original traceurs built their skills and honed their instincts. As we approach, Stephane refers to it as ‘a structure of torture’, recalling the gruelling hours of precision training upon the rusty red rails and faded yellow walls that surround them.
We spend many hours in Lisses, moving from place to place as Stephane demonstrates how and where he used to train with David. Tellingly, many of these locations are not particularly big, or at great height, or even overly challenging. That was never the point, Stephane indicates: some days they would spend hours, taking their lunch with them, at a single low-level precision jump, drilling it over and over until the movement was perfect in every way. Sound like fun? Perhaps not. But Stephane is adamant that their must be the notion of ‘work’ in one’s training just as much as there is the notion of ‘play’: by ‘work’, he means the ability to turn off your thoughts and simply repeat each movement ten, twenty, a hundred times, until it is mastered. At times it must be hard, it must be demanding – otherwise no real progress will ever be made, and one will only ever be playing at Parkour. Equally, if there is no play, one will soon tire of the training and will likely not stick with it at all. The two combine to create proper practise, and must exist in balance to be most effective.
Reunited with his old friend and training partner Forrest for the first time in years, Stephane quickly began to relax into his role as guide and teacher, something to which he is very well suited. As the day wore on and he reacquainted himself with the various obstacles and opportunities Lisses has to offer, what was most noticeable as he moved was in fact what one didn’t notice – sound. Stephane makes next to no noise whatsoever as he trains, landing from vaults and jumps with complete control and graceful fluidity. Traceurs have long embodied this ideal and kept it as a core tenet of their practise, but rarely does one encounter someone who exhibits such precision silence as Stephane Vigroux.
Moving on from the low-level training areas, suddenly, jutting proudly from the semi-rural landscape of Lisses, there was the Dame du Lac, perhaps the one true icon of Parkour. Blessed with an amazing day of crisp, winter sunshine, the Dame presented quite a sight before we even came close to it. With a commanding position of the lake, it sits in beautiful terrain, between two lakes in fact and surrounded by trees and expanses of grass. Up close, it is a giant. A climber’s paradise (for it was originally designed as a climbing wall), it was appropriated by parkour and ever since has become a symbolic site for the sport. Indeed, its design mirrors the spirit of parkour – an unusual structure built from usual materials, full of distorted lines and skewed curves. Like a great rock pyramid or the tip of a stone iceberg, it seems to hold hidden depths beneath its pitted surface… but be warned; it is unforgiving both of beginners or mistakes of any kind. People died climbing the Dame, which is why it remains cordoned off to this day.
That day would also grant a fine insight into the playful nature of the traceur’s mind as Stephane was distracted within sight of the great structure by a simple children’s playground, spending a good half hour balancing on a sprung rocking horse! When he finally did make it to the Dame itself, Stephane said it was like coming home to an ‘old friend’, and that he had to redevelop a relationship with the stone lady. He approached it almost tentatively at first, for it soon became apparent that even something as solid as the Dame du Lac had had a few nips and tucks over the years, forcing the traceur to find new routes up and across its surface, and providing him with new challenges which required new techniques. Yet although over time the environment around him alters, the freerunner’s approach does not. Still there was ground and stone and air to master, and watching Stephane fly across the Dame one could be forgiven for thinking he had been training there only yesterday rather than over a year ago.
Here he was able to demonstrate his agility and confidence moving at height, and it was here that it was most evident how at home he is within his abilities, how sure he is of what he will or won’t be able to do. This instinctive awareness is a product of years of considered practise, and is difficult to achieve through any other method. It goes hand-in-hand with that subtle shift in perception that one develops through parkour, through endlessly sizing up distances, gaps and new obstacles as one moves through one’s daily life. And Stephane, like all experienced traceurs, displayed the peculiar trait of actively interacting with his environment at all times, constantly stretching, limbering up, examining surfaces and hopping from place to place. A kind of play, yes, but over time it serves to improve greatly one’s spatial awareness and proprioceptive skills. Lisses offers a perfect setting for both parkour play and parkour work, and would provide an amazing place for any beginner to take his or her first steps along the path.
From Lisses we move on to Evry and into an environment that most traceurs know all too well – the city. Crowds, noise, traffic… but, again, some superb terrain for parkour. Evry is perhaps best known for containing the enormous ‘Manpower’ gap-jump of David Belle, but it also holds limitless opportunities for less extreme training regimes. Guided through the prime practise sites by Stephane, it soon became clear why so many French traceurs have been drawn to the area over the years. An expanse of pedestrian areas and multi-level walkways generate some excellent and challenging terrain here and, as if to demonstrate this fact, while wandering though Evry we even encountered two students of the Yamakasi warming up in preparation for a training session.
Evry also displayed a great deal of construction work occurring. One real perk of training in a built-up urban environment is to be found in its constant regeneration. Cities are always undergoing maintenance and redevelopment as great chunks of architecture are dismembered and replaced with more of not-quite-the-same. New buildings spring up, pavements are refurbished, walls and railings shift around like pieces of Lego. This means, for the traceur, that his playground is constantly being overhauled and reshaped, which means there will always be new things to work on and new obstacles to overcome – in the city its just a matter of time.
This transient nature of the form of our environment served to highlight another point that Stephane was keen to make clear. Lisses, Evry, District 13, whatever the name of the place; one must remember that they are just that – places. In and of themselves they are nothing extraordinary. There is a danger that people new to the discipline of parkour come to treat these original locations as somehow sacred, as if merely by making the same famous jump once or twice one will inherit some of the skill of the traceurs who found them. Yes some places provide better terrain for practise than others, but when it comes down to it a wall is just a wall and a roof is no more than a roof. It is the man moving through these places that makes them extraordinary – and then only for that brief moment in time.
A Guide along the Way
Seeing these places through the eyes of one who had made them his own was a privilege and a true pleasure, reinforced by the fact that Stephane was always completely open with his knowledge and extremely generous with his time. A gentle spirit and a cheerful mentality, the Frenchman seems very much to have found his own pace in life, quite content to hang his hat in Thailand for the rest of his days. I found him to be an inspiration and a breath of fresh air, one who seeks no limelight or personal fame but who is happy simply to continue to practise his art and improve for improvement’s sake.
He advocated time and again a maxim that we at Parkour Generations have always kept close to our hearts – that there are no secrets to parkour and no hidden magic. Diligent training, a disciplined approach, and honest commitment are all one needs to attain real skill. Work on the basics, drill them until you are exhausted and then drill some more. Do not be overly concerned with spectacular movements or glorified stunts: make the small things perfect and the big things will take care of themselves. This sentiment is echoed in almost all true transformative practices, in every notable discipline, and it rings just as true for parkour.
For Stephane, parkour is a way of life; nothing less. This ‘way’, he explains, lies in a very particular manner of thinking and is very difficult to stumble across by chance. One must be focussed, observant of oneself, aware of one’s place within one’s surroundings. He goes on to say that he learned this Way from David, and that David found it much by trial and error and constant practise. The original traceurs opened the door to this Way, and for that they will always be respected – but everyone who follows must seek their own Way along the path, must decide what works best for them. In typical style, Stephane points out very clearly that one must not be mesmerised by the skills or abilities of others upon the path: that he, or even David, is nothing particularly special.
And true though this may be in one sense, even he could not deny that this Way they both walk is nothing short of exceptional.