CAGING – Foundational Training for a Performance-Parkour Ensemble

Background

The UPG Team has spent 10 years developing performance-parkour or 2PK; as a distinct language of dance-theatre. Our work has now travelled over five continents and includes several tours for the British Council, alongside UK touring for the Without Walls consortium, commissions from a variety of festival partners, and more recently our own strategic tours working with at-risk communities of young people.

Recently we received a small grant from the Arts Council to spend time as a company, including new members and guest artists, playing and sharing skills. It occurred to me during this process that I’ve never written up a description of our foundational training, what we can describe as the basic or daily training of a 2PK company and one we return to whenever we take stock of where we are as an ensemble or invite new artists and participants to join us.

Caging is the name of a game I first attempted within the informal context of Seafront Freestyle. This was a regular meeting of parkour enthusiasts which took place at different outdoor spots around Brighton and Hove each Saturday morning for around four years from 2005 onwards. Brighton is now considered to be one of the primary parkour cities globally with increasing numbers of PK professionals moving in, and visiting, and the strong community here can be traced back to these informal sessions and their continuation in various guises beyond Seafront Freestyle into Urban Athletics and the current Brighton Parkour Training webpages and the increasing international influence of Brighton based groups such as Storror.

One regular Seafront Freestyle spot was the stairwell at the top of an underground car park in Regency Square. Around the stairwell a foot high wall was topped by a much larger fence. The solidity of its black metal frame gave the appearance of a cage and the game developed there was named for this.

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But anything can be the cage. The cage is the agreed playing area for the game. It can be delineated by a series of obstacles and is more usually defined by the circle of players. Before I explain Caging though, I want to explain the various trainings on which it was based.

The UPG Team grew from a project of Prodigal Theatre. Miranda Henderson and I founded Prodigal in 1999 to combine her contemporary dance background with mine in laboratory theatre, through physical adaptations of classic texts. As a laboratory actor in Serbia I’d experienced various trainings drawn from the Grotowski and Odin legacies and variously based on Grotowski’s ‘Plastique Training’. Miranda’s work as a contemporary dancer was grounded in the daily classes of various choreographic techniques and she was exploring her own style of release based movement. Prodigal’s company practice took this release technique as the foundation of every day’s work, starting from the floor and slowly building up from individual explorations to group improvisations. We soon developed a complimentary exercise that would follow the floor sessions. We called this ‘The Waiter’s Tray’. It is fundamentally aimed at advancing individual and group spatial awareness, and serves as a ‘blank canvas’ of a training in to which numerous rules can be added for an ever more sophisticated play. Ultimately it becomes a means of playing characters in a pre-textual setting for exploring relationships and dramaturgy, status and hierarchy, extremes of movement and so on.
Alongside the work with Prodigal I had also spent a considerable time studying and teaching Capoeira and remained fascinated by the idea of a ‘joga’ that could capture diverse relationships between human beings through a relatively simple game of shared space. All of this work was present in my practice when I suggested the first version of caging and the success of that first session meant the game entered our company practice quite rapidly. Since then it has been endlessly ‘tweaked’ by the company into the foundational training it represents today.

Caging: The Game

Parkour training can often fall in to repeating single movements, endlessly, whilst one or two practitioners look to ‘break a jump’ or overcome a particular obstacle. This is fine for a couple of people, but not for a larger group. In the early, pre-UPG days of my Parkour practice I often became quite bored when this would occur. A group that had warmed up together, explored a space together, grown excited together, would suddenly splinter in to smaller groupings or pairings in which, at any time, more than half those present would be rendered audience to another’s attempts at ‘getting it right’. Inevitably the youngest, smallest, least experienced would be the most disenfranchised whilst the older, bigger, fitter participants got to taste success. I was never convinced this was how it was supposed to be.

I have a very clear recollection of when Caging started, as we had a reasonable turnout on a very sunny Saturday morning and there was quite a broad spread of ages and abilities. As always, I was the senior by around 10 or 12 years, so when I suggested moving off from the crowded seafront into the quieter Regency Square garden the dozen or so present all followed. The top of the car park, we discovered, represented a great spot. But it was small. Getting in to wasn’t so easy either, and involved climbing over the fence, or opening a door in it which necessarily altered the space. Within the fence was a brief landing, from which a staircase descended to the next level, turning once to create a half landing mid way. The entirety of the staircase was bordered by a handrail in the type of scaffold & KeeKlamp that is now so very familiar to me since our UPG sets are constructed from it. I could see a load of great movement possibilities, but also some real risks. It was important to govern the number of people inside the Cage, without losing the interest of everyone else. So we set some rules.

One absolute aim of parkour training is Flow. It has been described as the holy grail of parkour and whilst flow has come to mean different things in different contexts, for parkour it represents seamlessly transitioning one movement to another with no interruption or loss of momentum, rhythm, or pace. The biggest mistake most make in seeking to attain flow is that they go too fast. Flow can also be found at medium pace and even in slow motion, though slow motion parkour training is tough. Caging is best understood as the training for flow. The fundamental rules are simple, and all were intuited in that first session.

  1. The group makes a circle around the playing area
  2. One person enters the circle and continues to ‘flow’ a line of movement until it is natural for them to leave it
  3. When they leave the circle, they ‘high-five’ the person nearest them who then enters the circle.
  4. Those at the edge of the circle will move to fill gaps and keep the circle balanced, so that there is always someone ready to come in when a player steps out.

What is probably apparent straight away is that Caging depends in part upon a shared vocabulary. At Seafront Freestyle we’d built that up over weeks and months of training together, it wasn’t something we needed to discuss. In the UPG Team where Caging is our basic training, we are constantly working together to find new movements and improve older ones. When a new performer joins the company, Caging is the place they get to unify their knowledge with the group and also present themselves to the company. In Caging no one is meant to do the same as anyone else. No one is meant to look the same as anyone else. You might see another player put together a line that you like, but unless you’re entering from exactly the same spot as them, and have the same kind of physique as them, and the same movement preferences as them; that line won’t make sense for you. More importantly, underlying Caging is a game of invention. In following flow as the aim of the game, we seek to move away from a training based on technical acquisition of prescribed movements. Caging is the game in which the transitions between techniques become far more visible, far more important than those learned techniques themselves.

You can play Caging anywhere. You can apply this set of rules to a chair, a bench, a table, a train carriage or a classroom, a simple coaching block or a complex gym. We have played this game in trees, on rooftops, in designed parkour training sites and as the way of ‘christening’ every new set we’ve worked on for ten years. Over time the rules have developed. We would now say that there are principles – the rules always in play – as well as optional rules, or tasks that can be added.

Some of our principles are:

  • Every player must remain in a position of readiness to enter the cage
  • There is nothing to be gained by staying in for a long time
  • You do not have to stay in any longer than you wish
  • You cannot refuse the invitation or hesitate to enter
  • You must enter from where you are in the circle to the nearest part of the obstacle.
  • Once in you must keep moving until you leave
  • Let the movement lead you, don’t plan your moves
  • There may be contact, but no impact
  • Each new rule is in addition to the last
  • Move in silence
  • Activate your bullshit detector – if you stop flowing; get out, if you have a ‘brain freeze’; get out, if you try something and it doesn’t work; get out. You’ll be back in soon. Don’t worry!
  • Pick up the rhythm & pace of the player before you. Continue their Flow.

Once everyone has had a go, and the means of play are understood, the next step is to add further players. We can, on one of our touring sets, take up to a dozen players moving simultaneously through a shared environment. Obviously it takes a little while to build up to this, often days, but certainly where we have groups to whom we return or with whom we work over an extended residency this can be achieved quickly and with total safety. Adding multiple players requires unpicking some of our principles above:


The Short Run
Often with a simple set or site there is not an obvious way of continuing a long flow. That’s fine. Its far more effective for players to move for a few seconds at a time, fluidly, than spend minutes in the cage without really flowing. Flow in a 2PK setting can be considered a habit. The better you get at it, the easier it becomes, but building up that skill takes a long time. Many short runs are more fruitful than a few long runs in which the aim is never sustained. Also, with a larger group, this helps to ensure everyone is getting a turn, and no-one is left waiting too long on the outside.

Staying Ready
Everyone must be ready to come in, if the game requires that you cannot refuse or hesitate when invited to join. Therefore a state of readiness is also trained by the game. If you’re on the outside of the circle whilst three or four plays are flowing lines within the cage, you have to be watching all of them in order to ensure your own readiness. This is a double training, in which you learn the performer’s skill of maintaining that state of readiness, and the learning skill of observation. Not only will you see and recognise the movement choices that resonate with you, you’ll also develop the ability to predict a line of movement by recognising what will flow in a particular space. And this is a very revealing aspect of caging, the idea that a space contains its own ‘Flow Lines’ which you can discover when you move through them.

Enter from where you are
Often beginners will seek to walk or run around a set of obstacles to the other side from where they start, in order to perform a movement they’ve trained earlier. So if for example we teach ‘the scissors’ on a hip-height rail, often students will try to get to that rail in order to perform that movement. This has to be ‘trained out’. One aim of Caging is to find new movement, by adapting techniques we’ve learned to new situations, or by intuiting alternative movements. If you have to start where you are on the circle, and reach the obstacle by the shortest route, then new movement will have to be found. The game requires of us that we explore, and this was one of the most important discoveries for me back in that original session. The older, more experienced practitioners were in fact relying on a narrow set of preferred movements they had trained repeatedly over time, and Caging was hard for them. In contrast the newer players had fewer pre-conceptions of what parkour was, or how to do it. Faced with a simple game they invented what were, for them, entirely new movements and this levelled the playing field between players of different ages, abilities, and body types. These days we often add an additional rule that says no walking or running between ‘the circle’ and ‘the set’ so the floor itself must be encountered as the first obstacle. We slide, roll, jump, quadrupedal into the Cage, rather than approaching it as pedestrians.

Keep Moving
Parkour’s root-motto is ‘Etre forte pour être utilé’. To be fit to be useful. In the context of Caging, there is nothing less useful than someone in the cage, not moving. They become a distraction, and break the flow of the group. Normally the stop is to consider what to do next, which brings us back to planning our movement.
Non-Planning of Movement
If players awaiting their turn plan a line of movement, and other players are still in the space, it is inventible that those players will ‘get in the way’ of the planned line. So its better not to plan, and simply move. We’re also trying to awaken the ‘body-mind’, we’re trying to achieve embodiment. If on the outside of the circle I resort to that thinking brain planning, its very difficult to remain present in a state of physical readiness. Minds drift. By choosing not to plan, I remain open to my colleagues. I watch them, attentively. If I can remain physically ready, and attentive to my colleagues, when one invites me to move, or when the gap appears for me to enter the cage, I’m alive to it. We’ll return to the idea of the gap below.

Contact, Not Impact
Unless everyone is very aware of the space, themselves and each other at all times, some degree of contact will occur. We’re happy to embrace contact, and as a company we work in a setting where our colleagues can be lifted, supported, caught, assisted, or will perhaps move us, move over us, move onto us. Its part of our shared vocabulary. For new players we say ‘contact without impact’ and introduce them to the move we call an ‘embrayage’. Embrayage is the French word for a clutch. For us it denotes a simple spin, on the spot, either at level or used to descend or ascend. In this context it allows a player that spots the potential collision with another to spin, spot a different path, and move on to it seamlessly with no loss of flow. It is the equivalent of putting your foot on the clutch whilst driving – you have not lost your momentum, but for the moment neither are you applying power. The change of direction is equivalent to the change of gear. When two players make the embrayage, they can do so with contact, and they’ll find there is no impact. However often if one were to simply stop, and the other continue, there would be a moment of impact instead, and obviously this is to be avoided.

Stacking Rules
This is a principle imported from Laboratory Theatre Training but often we find that when the ‘director’ adds a new instruction an earlier one is forgotten. In Caging we’re looking to build layers of complexity through additional rules, to refine and evolve the game and what can be learned from it. To this end, unless stated, each rule is an addition.

Moving In Silence
This is a general rule for Parkour training anyway, and has a few outcomes. Firstly, parkour is safer if quiet. Studies are now showing that instructing participants to think about silent landings reduces the impact levels experienced in landing jumps, for example. We find it also adds a really useful layer of self-awareness to our movement and that of our students. With performance-parkour we’re often trying to promote a freedom of movement that comes from committing to a task and letting go of outward perceptions of how you look when moving (or how you think others think you look when you’re moving). Working towards silence though puts you in contact with your environment, with the effect of your moving in that environment, and also refines your awareness of others moving in that environment with you. Its a positive self-consciousness, an awareness of self rather than a judgement on the self.

Bullshit Detector
Very quickly, Caging teaches us to know when we’re flowing, and when we’re faking it. Its really important that a group is set up to embrace this as a positive attribute, rather than worrying about when we lose flow, either through a stumble, or a failed attempt at a particular movement or technique, or through a simple brain-freeze; that moment where we just don’t know what to do next. So we make a virtue out of recognising when we didn’t flow, and also the generosity involved in acknowledging that; to give up one’s place and tag someone else in. So long as we work in an atmosphere of mutual support and trust (which is inherent in our work) this is fine. Nobody dwells on that moment where it didn’t go right for them. Its not a big deal. They’ll be back in the Cage in no time, and may well get another crack at the same movement. Either way, recognising the moment of losing flow is the positive outcome, rather than seeing the loss of flow as a negative.

Pick Up The Flow
This the heart of the game for us. Whilst Caging is a really useful tool for developing an individual’s skills and 2PK ability, it is intrinsically a group exercise, aimed at improving the work of the ensemble. When we lead Caging sessions, we’re aiming at quickly moving past the individual lines to a group setting, so that we can start to work on the flow of the group. Each individual is tasked with the responsibility of maintaining the group flow. We are not trying to see the flow of one individual, we are trying to maintain a beautiful flow of bodies through the space. Players enter and exit, overlapping with each other. We remove the high-fives, the tagging in and out, the rules on how many players are in a time. We might say: ‘No less than three, no more than five’ and the group decides when they start, when they end. Between times, between three and five players maintain flow in the space. As one begins to exit on one side of the cage somebody else is entering from the other side to fill the gap that has been left in the flow. This is when Caging can become something really beautiful. And maybe we play in slow motion. Or with music (very often to the accompaniment of music). Or in the dark. And every game is different. Like Capoeira, we can say that is impossible for some of the group to have a good game and others not. The game is the group, in the way of real training.

Flow & Displacement

When the game is flowing, when ‘a flow’ is established inside the Cage, from the outside you start to see both the individual flow of your partners and the gaps created in the space by their movement. This is where the individual invention of a performer arises and its where one of the critical underlying principles of authentic parkour has something of enormous value to offer theatre and dance training. As we’ve written elsewhere, one way to translate the French term for Parkour ‘L’art du deplacement’; is ‘The art of movement’ but an alternative translation, and one of more use to us, is ‘The displacing art’. Displacement is the change of state caused in one body by the presence of another. Its easy to think of the old apocryphal take of Archimedes getting in to his full bath tub and the water getting out. Eureka! So with Parkour we can describe the obstacles – those objects which are comprising the interior of the Cage – as the forces which displace our usual movement. We cannot simply run in a straight line because if we do, we’ll crash into them. So these bodies, these obstacles (and indeed the bodies of our colleagues) displace us. We alter our movement and the shape of our body to match the space available. Our movement is a reaction to the environment of the Cage. We find our flow when we are able to shift shape as we move without being stopped by the obstacles and/or our partners. If we plan our movement in advance, this is impossible. We would be imposing our movement choices on the space, rather than reacting to it. In this way the Cage becomes the great leveller. The least experienced player has the same significance in the space as the most, often more. Caging is a successful foundational training because it teaches us to work cooperatively, as an ensemble, whilst providing the means of individual invention throughout. After 11 years I can say it remains an infinite, intricate, intriguing puzzle of a game.

Alister O’Loughlin
Oct 5th 2016

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