Brandee Laird has a Xena: Warrior Princess thing going on. Pointing that out is high praise.
It not only suits her, it suits her purposes — like heading to Freeway Park in downtown Seattle for a parkour workout at 2 a.m. She can because she has biceps the size of most people’s thighs, dons flowing, black, Ninja-like garb and, when she needs, can work a scowl.
“That’s not the intent behind my look — I’m just being comfortable — but it is a… convenient side effect,” Laird says, laughing. “There are people who would avoid those places and the times I’ve been in those places. For me, it’s just more serene. And the people who are around are nighttime street people I can deal with, who I might even be one of, depending on who you’re asking.”
At “29 1⁄2,” Laird seems perpetually in mode traceur, which is what you call a practitioner of parkour, a training discipline developed in France during the 1990s from movements used in military obstacle courses. Like her, many of the original traceurs were bored, multiracial urban kids. Laird and her young brother Zander coped by replicating training montages from films like Three Ninjas, from 1992, about three kids and the martial art ninjutsu. Laird says she’s seen the movie hundreds of times. She, her brother and their neighborhood friends set up forts and obstacle courses in the woods near their home in Kent. When Laird discovered parkour (or, rather, defined what she’d already been doing most of her life), she was juggling for PURE Cirkus, a now defunct performance troupe.
Today, Laird not only glides, rolls, climbs, vaults, swings and leaps obstacles not intended to be navigated at speed, she is the headmaster at Parkour Visions, a training facility in north Queen Anne that she helped found as a non-profit in 2007.
Parkour very much is a practice that lives on video. It’s eye-popping stuff — Jackie Chan and Spiderman often are cited as inspirations.There’s that stunning opening sequence in the 2006 James Bond film Casino Royale that stars Sébastien Foucan, one of the original traceurs.
In the videos, those guys probably have done that 20 times before.
Yeah, but what about the first time?
The purpose of the discipline is to go into that first time knowing, yes, I can complete this, or, yes, I can fail at this safely. If it’s no, or I don’t know, you’re not supposed to jump. People do jump because those people (tend to be) teenaged boys.
You are called the “low-line queen” of parkour. What does that mean?
It’s something we coined here. The common thing you see in parkour is “high line” — a lot of staying on your feet, a lot of air time, a lot of powerful moves where you might not have a lot of points of contact. Low line is the exact opposite of that — you’re prioritizing points of contact, low impact, no impact, low to no air time. So trying to stay as controlled and connected to the environment as possible while making your way through. It’s going under instead of over, prioritizing hand placements and foot placements, instead of just foot placements. Things like sliding, rolling. (She demonstrates on the street corner in front of Volunteer Park Cafe where we meet).
If I was more audacious, I’d default to high-lining, right?
Most people err to that, or don’t even realize there’s another option. I’ve taught workshop son this, where I bring people back to the ground and show them how they can move through space that they’re used to, but without big jumps. It just blows people’s minds.
Parkour started in France as a very urban thing. Is it still that way?
People tend to find it easier to practice in urban environments. In the city, one of the big things about the discipline originally is that you’re doing these things in places not built specifically for it. So we’re just at a park, or we’re using this wall in a way that was not intended. The natural environment is less accessible to most people and more intimidating. It’s less predictable. You have tree bark, which can be all kinds of slippery and flaky. Or rocks and things that are irregular. I find the difference to be negligible.I enjoy walls and bars and concrete, but I also enjoy trees and rocks and dirt.
Your favorite place, Freeway Park, was designed by the late Lawrence Halprin, who also did the FDR Monument in Washington,D.C., Skyline Park in Denver and Ira Keller Fountain in Portland. They all have another thing in common.
Every single park he’s built is a parkour hot spot.They’re just brutalist, with angles and concrete and chasms.Speaking of brutalist, your body must take a lot of punishment… A decent amount, just based on the fact that the discipline happens on concrete. There are some things that my body can do, but my mind won’t let my body do it. That can be seen as two different things: Maybe I can chalk it up to wanting longevity, or maybe I’m not as courageous as I want to be. That’s actually more the case for me. The past few years my main goal has been to get my mindset to meet where my body is capable. There are certain jumps that I’m adverse to — especially ones from height. Flips freak me out.
Your oldest student at Parkour Visions is in his 70s. How long do you intend to practice?
I intend to be the oldest traceur. Sometimes I will warm up as if I’m already 80 — I’ll walk up the stairs, then walk down the stairs backward, then back up sideways. I try to break it down into the essence of what it is as a discipline. I also have a pretty high sense of self-preservation. I’d much rather spend a lifetime in parkour than achieve all these crazy heights and distances and burnout in this blaze of glory and broken joints.