Portrait

Fairfield’s Dauntless Movement Crew parkour performers. By Maxine Beneba Clarke.

DMC parkour at Sydney Opera House

Million-hit YouTube clips of parkour and freerunning are stomach-drop terrifying. Lithe casual-clothed teenagers and twentysomethings leap from rooftop to rooftop. They backflip over moving cars. Handstand on the balcony rails of hundred-metre-high apartments. They swing from building site cranes as if they’re playground monkey bars. No fear. As if it’s nothing: dangling death-wish high against a blue-sky backdrop as they reach for the next metal rung. As if it’s nothing. Watching, your mind tells you it’s a trick: some kind of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon meets 007 computer-generated imaging. Only it’s not – not an eye trick at least.

In the Sydney Opera House’s Studio theatre the construction scaffolding and concrete pillars of inner suburbia have been re-created for the stage. Fairfield’s Dauntless Movement Crew stand six-strong, facing the audience – blood-tight parkour family. The five slim broad-shouldered blokes, and the slight woman who looks as if she’d be more at home in a dance class, list each recent training year, and their corresponding broken body parts: speaking over each other in bruised cacophony: “2012. Right wrist. Left arm. Back. Right elbow. 2013. Left ankle. Right shoulder. Back. Left foot.” The years and injuries blur into a six-voice soundscape of parkour-pain-recovery-parkour-pain-recovery. As if it’s nothing. A clicking starts, sudden. The performers move their bodies jerkily, capitulating to their injuries. The brief broken-boned dance ends in mutual handstand. As if it’s nothing.

Justin Kilic throws his body at the seven-metre-high concrete block: runs at it again and again. First his shoulder crashes against it. Then his arm. Thunk. His chest. Thud. Other shoulder. Thunk. “Come ON! Come ONNNN! You can do it!” The other members of his parkour crew scream open-throated encouragement. Kilic’s fingers grip the front edge of the giant concrete block. His biceps strain. He pulls his torso up; drags his legs up afterwards. He stands king-of-the-castle triumphant, long brown hair pulled into thin wash-night ponytail, eclectic tattoo collection crawling out from under his singlet and down both arms.

Kilic talks about a time before parkour, when his burning rage-flashes manifested in violence. About the time he headbutted three holes in the outside wall of his brother’s house like it was nothing. “Then I walked away down the street, with my head split open.” It was parkour that saved Kilic from this anger-uncontrollable. “I used to flip tables, throw chairs, swear at the teachers… I went to 11 schools. Six of those schools were anger management schools.”

Natalie Siri seems the polar opposite: softly spoken, vampire-slayer nimble. She lands like a ballerina but is assassin-sharp in her movements. Black hair pulled back into tight ponytail. Skinny-jeaned. Meaning business. At one point in Jump First, Ask Later, Siri steps forward to recount her journey to parkour. Her previous gymnastics training. How the boyfriend she had when she first started training disapproved of her hanging around with a bunch of blokes. The rest of her crew puff their chests and Kanye-swagger around the stage knowingly. “Understandable,” one of them shoots back, smugly flexing. Later, they throw Siri into the air cheerleader-style. As if it’s nothing. She flips, metres-high, with so much confidence in their catch her eyes don’t so much as flicker downwards. Parkour-family. It wasn’t easy, Siri says, explaining to her parents that she was quitting university to pursue parkour. It caused arguments. Still does.

From backgrounds as diverse as the Western Sydney area from which they hail – Vietnamese, Turkish, Cambodian and Italian – one of the most poignant moments in DMC’s first show is the projection of images of their parents and grandparents onto the concrete blocks they’ve been tracing. The old-country loved ones prepare noodles; stare directly into the camera from puffy white wedding dresses; cradle fat smiling babies.

Each traceur has had their own distinct awakening. For former arts-college-kid Joseph Carbone, the group’s coach of sorts, there was a hip-hop dance calling first. For James Pham, it was martial arts. Patrick Uy started out breaking and joined a B-boy team, but has recently discovered callisthenics. Abs clenched, biceps popping, he is at pains to explain it’s not all primary-school-girls-in-sparkles, like most snigger and imagine. The Opera House audience sniggers, and imagines. Then Uy demonstrates a breathtaking series of seemingly impossible chin-up tricks and exercises, three metres from the ground, circling around and around the metal scaffolding.

“I dance. It’s a thing I do when I’m tired, or stressed out or something.” Johnny Do’s monologue is voice-overed. He doesn’t speak much, the prerecord confesses. Never has. That’s what drew him to dance, and then later to parkour. Physical expression. Johnny Do writhes as though some magical creature might claw its way out of his chest. He moves ethereally, with what seems like a seamless blend of contemporary dance, mime, and tai chi.

Theirs is a language of shared movement, with parkour as the glue. Carbone runs the team through their warm-up paces. Pham pairs with Do, to mime an amusing quick-footed martial-arts street-fight sequence. Do and Uy perform a mesmerising swinging routine on the construction scaffolding. Siri backflips and tumbles over her crewmates. By the end of the 50-minute performance, they’ve backflipped into one body: it’s the Dauntless Movement Crew against the suburban-scape around them. It has simply become about body and possibility. A park bench is no longer a park bench, but a stepping stone. A roof becomes a diving board. Staggered scaffolding is a double-bar. A balcony railing is a balance beam; a parked car becomes a vault; a road sign is a staircase.

Outside, in the blinding daylight, I walk around the curved white sails of the Opera House, past the steep concrete steps, under the paved pillars of the shops and restaurants lining Circular Quay. The world looks different than it did an hour ago: suddenly, I am unseeing the ordinary.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 8, 2016 as "Whose vault is it anyway?". Subscribe here.

Maxine Beneba Clarke
is the author of The Hate Race and Foreign Soil.