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.
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.
- The group makes a circle around the playing area
- One person enters the circle and continues to ‘flow’ a line of movement until it is natural for them to leave it
- When they leave the circle, they ‘high-five’ the person nearest them who then enters the circle.
- 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: