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No Strings Attached

Parkour is a French import that has young men flipping and leaping their way across L.A. Kemp Powers spends time with the sport's chief translator.

April 23, 2006|Kemp Powers | 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."

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