All of a sudden jumping between buildings and springing over pillar boxes has become cool. Even Madonna is at it. John Elliott reports on the new craze of free-running or parkour
Seven storeys above a peaceful ornamental garden in Singapore, Stephane Vigroux reached for the railing at the pagoda’s edge. With the breeze catching his yellow T-shirt and sun warming his toned arms, he stretched out and gently raised himself into a death-defying handstand — balanced only on the railing, 80ft above the ground.
Now perpendicular, he held the pose with barely a wobble for 10 seconds, the merest slip carrying the potential for a grisly finale, plunging unchecked to the ground below.
This was last Sunday. Was Vigroux suicidal? Or had the 26-year-old Frenchman simply had too much sun? “It was quite fun, and more difficult because it was windy, but I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t sure of my skills,” said Vigroux later with a shy chuckle. “It’s challenging, scary and frightening, but it’s part of parkour.”
Vigroux is one of the world’s top exponents of parkour — a graceful and explosive kind of urban street ballet, which has got youngsters around the world jumping from roofs, bouncing from benches and swinging from lamp-posts.
For Vigroux, it’s not just fun. He is in Singapore to film a new documentary, Planet Parkour, as part of a six-man crack parkour group, Urban Freeflow.
There is an undisclosed fee involved. And the group’s leader, Ez, a 32-year-old former boxer from London otherwise known as Paul Corkery, says Urban Freeflow is also sponsored by Nokia and Adidas, which has produced a special parkour trainer.
Parkour reached the British public from France three years ago in a BBC promotion called Rush Hour, which showed a man vaulting and jumping in the dash home to watch television.
Ez estimates there are now some 2,000 dedicated British parkouristes. He added: “Every area from the UK is represented to some degree, with small units of people training and meeting up.”
With its street-cred-heavy blend of adrenaline and performance art, parkour looks like catching up with skateboarding as the alternative sport of choice for individualistic urban youth.
On the Urban Freeflow website, there’s a healthy level of banter between young devotees, with dozens of groups in cities around the country arranging meetings — known as “jams”.
District 13, a police action thriller starring one of parkour’s founders, David Belle, opened in cinemas last week; and the barnstorming opening sequence of the new James Bond film, Casino Royale, features another parkour godfather, Sébastien Foucan, in a high-altitude, gravity-defying chase with the new 007, Daniel Craig.
Never one to miss a new pop-culture trend, Madonna signed up Foucan to wow the crowds on her current Confessions world tour. Even Anthony Minghella, the Oscar-winning film director, has shot a parkour scene for his forthcoming film Breaking and Entering — starring Jude Law — using members of Ez’s group.
Schoolteachers have caught the bug too, seeing parkour as a way of getting rebellious teenagers to exercise. Quinton Kynaston and St Augustine’s secondary schools in Westminster have been holding after-school sessions on basic moves and safety, and Westminster council has brought in experts to teach it to drifting local youngsters as a healthy alternative to drugs and petty crime.