Breathtaking moves

Kevin Berry

As awe-inspiring open-air street dance production Freerunning@ hits stately homes and cultural venues across the UK, Kevin Berry talks to some of the key players bringing this spectacular urban art form to a wider audience

Free running is a jaw- dropping spectacle that combines supreme athleticism, awesome gymnastics, the beauty of martial arts and a good deal more. It has been seen in TV commercials and corporate events and some recognisable moves have crept into contemporary dance. Now there is a free running theatre show touring the country’s stately homes.

Peel Heritage, a subsidiary of Peel Entertainment, is staging Freerunning@, which has been devised by Sam Parham and other members of 3Run, a world renowned free running and parkour team based in Basingstoke. The terms free running and parkour are often confused. Parkour is what you do when running from one place to another, Parham tells me, free running is what you do when you get there. Free running is developing its own universally-accepted vocabulary for standard jumps and manoeuvres, which is always a healthy sign in a new art form.

Parham, already a martial artist of international repute, was originally attracted to parkour/free running through watching Jackie Chan films “and those real cool, quirky parkour moves he used to go up walls and get away from the bad guys”.

Ben O’Hara, of events creation company the Business, is the creative director of Freerunning@. He recalls how his company got involved: “We were putting together some workshops a couple of years ago for a client and we put some research into what were popular urban sports and parkour/free running was high on the agenda. It was a coming sport. It has an air of danger – a ‘gasp’ quality. So then we pitched the idea of free running as part of a live performance, set to music, alongside graffiti artists and street dancers. That was for JCB in Paris. It was a bit of a gamble, because free running hadn’t been done very often in a live [performance] environment, and it worked really well.”

O’Hara put that success down to the style being something new and different. In preparing Freerunning@, he has had to bring out the athletes’ musicality and acting abilities, using their sport to convey the story. Free runners are not used to theatre audiences.

“Fluidity and continuity are a challenge,” O’Hara continues. “Within stately homes there are areas we can use well, but there are challenges in that a lot of the architecture is protected. We have to meet with the operations team at each site, find out what we can and can’t use and still get the level of spectacle we need. We base most of the show around a large-scale set and it’s been specially developed with Sam Parham and the free runners. We have had to create enough levels, enough places to duck and dive, enough equipment for the free runners to work with.”

Rain is to be expected and has been planned for. Nick Farmer, the show’s production manager, says: “We have a wet weather show, with the stunts toned down, and a normal dry weather show.”

Farmer is a former holiday parks entertainments manager who learned the art of production management on the job with Peel Entertainment. He talks of the free runners being constrained – by having to be directed rather than actually being constricted. He has a small backstage crew, because he likes it that way, including five “hulking great technicians, built pretty much like myself” to erect the stage. That job will take no more than four hours, with most of the time spent getting the stage level. “Lots of spirit levels and lots of scratching of heads,” he says.

The narrative will be driven by music with character voices on the soundtrack. So no need to mike the free runners then wait for them to get their breath back. There will be no lighting issues for the show because most performances will begin at seven o’clock.

“The whole point of the show is letting the show itself be the spectacle,” explains Farmer. “Having seen the action in rehearsal, I have to say that lighting would detract from the action. Sometimes, in this industry, we rely a little bit too much on lighting effects rather than the actual content of the show.”

Injuries are few and far between. Parham tells me he has had no serious injuries in ten years of free running, thanks to good preparation and staying fit. “The fitness is at such a level that your confidence goes through the roof,” he says.

O’Hara adds: “Parkour/free running looks very dangerous, but in reality it’s a very safe discipline. The athletes, or traceurs, are so well trained and so well disciplined that they don’t attempt any run or any jump unless they’ve worked out their launch point and their landing point. It’s one of the safest disciplines there could be.”

Crucially, the carefully choreographed launch points and landing points will not be noticed by the audience. What they will see is the spectacle – hence the gasps.

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