No Strings Attached

Kemp Powers is the author of "The Shooting: A Memoir."

On his street, where the 26-year-old bunks with his parents, you couldn’t jump from one rooftop to another unless you had wings. There are palm tree trunks to plant a foot against and the faux stucco wall to vault. But Beverly Hills isn’t Paris or London when it comes to close quarters or vertical challenges.

So Kravit’s passion--le parkour, which roughly translated from the French means obstacle course--can seem out of place. Southern California tends to build outward rather than upward, and parkour is about conquering buildings or stairwells or trash bins or other physical barriers to efficient movement. It was in the streets of Lisses, south of Paris, that parkour was created by childhood friends David Belle and Sebastien Foucan in the late ‘80s, and it was in bustling London that the sport exploded into a phenomenon four years ago, after television viewers, teenagers in particular, were blown away by a BBC commercial called “Rush Hour” that showed Belle flipping and leaping, no strings attached, across the city, using edifices as tall as 100 feet as catapults.

The first time you see the commercial or the British documentaries “Jump Britain” and “Jump London,” you are more or less shocked because you can’t believe human beings can do that. Cliff Kravit did believe, and tried it himself. Now he’s a godfather of a sport that, if you listen to some devotees, can’t truly be practiced in the sprawl of metropolitan L.A.


This is how British parkour promoter Paul “EZ” Corkery, the founder of Urban Freeflow Ltd., put it during a visit last year: “For a city to be good for parkour, you need the architecture to be more inspiring.”

This is the printable part of Kravit’s response: “Mr. Corkery is limited in his vision.”

When Kravit does a saut de chat over a handrail at MOCA, or executes a saut de detente between rooftops eight feet apart at Cal State Northridge, you see what he means.

Kravit is short and muscular, with long brown hair often pulled back into a ponytail. A computer support technician at UCLA Medical Center with a degree in computer engineering from UC Irvine, he lives with his folks, Stephen, an entertainment attorney, and Shelley, a nurse. Older brother Alan decamped awhile back for San Diego and law school, allowing Cliff to convert Alan’s room into his “second wing.” He runs from here, and oversees its organization on his desktop computer.

He fires it up to play a David Belle video. He’s watched it hundreds of times but still seems astonished by what his hero does on-screen. “I wish I understood French,” he laments, as Belle narrates for a news camera crew that captures him leaping over walls, swinging from trees and scaling the sides of buildings with no visible means of getting a grip.

This is how parkour became popular in the U.S. as teenage boys and young men (the sport is just catching on with women) were inspired by QuickTime and RealPlayer files exchanged like trading cards. “I was immediately hooked,” Kravit recalls of his first digital parkour sighting two years ago, when, during a hunt for martial arts and stunt videos, he stumbled some parkour videos featuring Belle.

Online research gave him a grasp of the basic concept, which is deceptively simply: “It’s about going from point A to point B using only the possibilities of your body.” Gymnastics, with different props and cooler clothes.

As an athlete--his room is decorated with soccer and baseball trophies, and he spent two years training as a gymnast--Kravit wasn’t put off by the idea of rushing headlong toward a fence, using it as a brace and spinning his body 360 degrees in midair. He’s a sensible young man, though, and decided to learn the ropes in a controlled environment: at a gym on UCLA’s campus.

“Cliff is almost neurotic when it comes to safety,” says Devin Dollery, a British parkour practitioner who trains in L.A. in the summer with Kravit.

At the gym, he started with simple vaults, or passements, back and forth over the balance beam. Then he moved up to reverse vaults. Then he moved outdoors, escaping with minor scrapes and bruises until last fall when he pulled a hamstring. And what he believes will be a lifelong zeal for parkour as both a physical activity and a philosophy.

“For most of us who have taken to this, it’s actually affected our lives, because we see things differently,” he says. “We approach everything as an obstacle we can pass, we can overcome. It’s about progression. We can let things get the better of us, or we can try to get past things.”

One hurdle early on was that parkour wasn’t a phenomenon in this country, particularly in this part of the country. Kravit discovered via the Internet that there were a handful of people doing it in and around Southern California, “but they were all pretty much doing it by themselves.”

To a certain extent, that meant that the sport didn’t really exist. It can be a solitary pursuit, but training on your own is, well, lonely. Beyond that, there’s only so much you can learn by watching videos. And Kravit felt something of a calling. “Part of the parkour philosophy is being useful and helping others, and for me a lot of it is teaching parkour and spreading the philosophy.”

So Kravit and several others introduced to Southern California the notion of a scene--parkour as a group activity, with traceurs, as practitioners are called, working together to pull off maneuvers in a freewheeling ballet. And for there to be a scene, there must be meet-ups, or organized events. The first in California happened at Cal State Northridge in 2004.

The campus had the essentials: rails to vault, walls to run, roofs to jump, minimal security. About a dozen young men showed up. They leapt from and landed on a precise spot, such as a thin handrail, while maintaining perfect balance. They practiced the shoulder roll, or roulade, which allows a traceur to recover from jumping great distances without injuring himself. (“There are so many ways to just roll,” Kravit notes, “but there’s only one way to do it right so that it won’t hurt to land on any surface, and you can do it from great heights.”)

Southern California is filled with parkour sites. Kravit ticks off some and their traits: the beach in Santa Monica for its jungle-gym equipment, which affords “lots of precision jumps”; the Manhattan Beach pier, where “you can vault over the side railing onto the sand, a 15-foot drop”; El Camino Real High School in Woodland Hills, because of the “good roof gaps to jump across.”

What about downtown L.A.? Although security in the area has given it a reputation as a demilitarized zone among traceurs, Kravit says they “have gone there and done a lot of fun stuff.” In this high-rise landscape and beyond, Kravit insists that L.A. traceurs share a kinship with European traceurs. “The way I see it, we all practice the same parkour,” he says, “whether it’s Los Angeles or Europe. We’re just taking to the environment that we have available.”

His parkour embraces a lot of ZIP Codes. Kravit has put thousands of miles on his 1998 Chevy Monte Carlo driving to sessions he set up from Santa Clarita to San Diego, often going miles out of the way to pick up traceurs he’d met online and who couldn’t participate because they didn’t have wheels. He has seen a lot more of the region than the typical white guy from Beverly Hills, getting to know black kids from South-Central, Middle Eastern kids from the Valley, Asian kids from Orange County.

“It’s fun to get people together,” he says. “It’s fun to spread this thing.”

To his way of thinking, he could spread parkour anywhere--even to the real flatlands. Let’s say you’re living on a farm in Nebraska: “If you’re starting at the barn and you need to get to the tractor and here is a whole bunch of equipment in the way, you do what you can to get over and around that equipment as efficiently as possible to get to your destination,” he says. “You keep your movements fluid. And that’s parkour.”

Britain’s Urban Freeflow is the best-known parkour organization. When an automaker needs a traceur to vault over a sports car at a public event or a filmmaker thinks parkour should play a role in his next action flick, Urban Freeflow usually gets the call.

That wouldn’t rankle Kravit, if what Urban Freeflow practiced was actually parkour; he says it’s not. The debate over what is and isn’t parkour is wide-ranging and global, boiling down to the question of whether an acrobatic trick--for instance, a flip that isn’t necessary to clear an obstacle but that adds a nice visual touch--is defilement or refinement.

According to Kravit, the Urban Freeflow crowd “added acrobatics, performance martial arts and things that already have names and their own communities and called it all parkour. I don’t consider them traceurs. They’re stuntmen and acrobats. . . . They’re catering to what the media wants to see.” Corkery objects, saying “if we do high-profile work, which requires flips and more showman-like techniques, we don’t try to pass it off as parkour.”

Kravit has fans in the U.S. “Cliff is the only one doing true parkour,” says Bobby “West” Granger, 34, a traceur who practiced with Kravit until moving to Florida. “He’s doing what David Belle taught, bringing people together and teaching, as opposed to learning a stunt to do a Levi’s commercial.”

It’s not that Kravit would disdain profiting from his passion. “I would love to be in a movie,” he says. “I have no problem with people making money off of parkour. But you’ve got to keep it pure. And to be honest, I’d be hard-pressed to think of someone I consider a true traceur who has garnered any real financial success from it.”

Actually, David Belle can be considered a success. He has had roles in several French movies, and stars in the upcoming “District B13,” an action film co-written by Luc Besson. It will be in U.S. theaters in June.

In an only-in-America twist, the future of parkour here is indoors, at the Los Angeles School of Gymnastics in Culver City. This is where Kravit hosts evening meet-ups once a month for people who want to be David Belle but prefer to fall on plumply padded mats instead of asphalt when they make mistakes. The cost is $15 per student per class; Kravit uses the money to rent the gym.

On a recent evening, word-of-e-mail has attracted a dozen youngsters from South-Central, Canoga Park, Huntington Beach and Woodland Hills. Parents have accompanied many of them. Jim and Leila Myers drove their son Garrett, 14, from Orange County. Garrett is a member of a parkour crew called Axon. “We got the name from a science book,” Garrett says through his braces.

After 20 minutes of stretching exercises, the spotting blocks and padded mats come out and the training begins under Kravit’s direction. The blocks are arranged in various configurations to simulate obstacles a traceur might encounter in a bona-fide urban world.

One person practices his kong, a vault where the traceur leads with his hands, propels himself forward, then with the forward momentum, pulls his legs up between his hands. In motion, it looks very similar to a speeding ape, hence the name. When performing a cat leap, another traceur jumps at a large spotting block and grabs it with his hands and feet, suspending himself in a hanging position (imagine a cat stuck to the side of a tree). In this case, the block is standing in for a terrace or the side of a wall.

After practicing each move individually, the traceurs begin to string them together, and it’s possible to imagine what the move will look like when the pads, vaults and spotting blocks are replaced with rails, walls and terraces.

The parents take pictures with digital cameras and chat on the sidelines. “He’s been doing this for six months now,” says Garrett’s dad. “But no rooftops until he’s 21.” His mother chimes in: “Not on my watch.”