Saturday, February 14, 2009

Claude's stories

Like any real master, Claude has another unique trait: story telling. Here is a small collection of stories told by him during my stay over at Plainfaing. I hope you'l enjoy and apreciate this.

* When he was a performer in one of Europe’s most famous circuses, there was another ‘hand to hand’ acrobatic duo working there and an atmosphere of competition was starting to happen.
Every morning the porter from the other duo would step into the training hall, and just like that, without any warm up or preparation, would press into a perfect, straight, accurate one arm handstand, and hold it steadily for 10 seconds before lowering down to the floor. Everyone would always be blown away by this guy’s ability to ‘start his day’ like that, so sharp and accurate with no means of preparation.
One morning Claude prepared himself a cup of tea and only then did he realize he was out of sugar. He went to the porter’s caravan to borrow some sugar. Upon knocking at the door, the porter’s wife opened it, and behind her, Claude sees the porter, in his underwear, performing set after set of handstands…. It turns out this guy would warm up and prepare himself intensely in his caravan, and would only come out to the training hall once he felt he is sharp and ready to go….

* Not long ago Claude’s best student of all times, Eric, came to visit him. Eric started to train with Claude when he was only 11, and he turned out to be the most talented hand balancer Claude has ever witnessed or worked with.
Eric is over 40 years of age, and still performs around the world in solo equilibre numbers as well as ‘hand to hand’ work with a partner.
After three days of visit to Claude’s house, eating good food and drinking lots of wine, he had to leave and go back to performing. After taking his things and going outside of the front door with Claude to say fair well and leave, Claude remarked to him: ‘Eric, you have been here three days, ate and drank like a king, but we haven’t trained any equilibre at all!’
Eric looked at him with a smile, put his hand on the hood of Claude’s car and just like that - fully dressed and without any warm up, pressed- slowly, up into a perfect one arm handstand, held it and came down with control to the floor. ‘Here you go, Claude, now I have also trained during this visit, you can relax now…’

* When Claude was 20 year old he was recruited into the French army and sent to fight in Algeria. He served in a 30 men platoon that lost 15 of it’s members. He witnessed many of his friends killed in sudden attacks and saw the horror of war. He was decorated twice during his 2 year service in Algeria. He never mentioned a word about it to any of his friends, students and family and even his 4 sons don’t know a thing about it. I discovered it through an incidental talk we had during my stay. He disappeared in the middle of the conversation into his room and brought out a couple of old envelopes with old photos from the war. In most of the photos you can see him performing some ‘hand to hand’ work with another soldier or standing on one arm on some object with his abdominals sticking out.
Another related story he told me was about a sunny day, during his military service. They were on vacation and resting for the day, and everyone was going to the pool. He took off his clothes and went to get some sun. When he reached the pool he decided to break a sweat by training a bit. After a couple of sets, a man approached him and said he used to do some similar stunts back in France and that he wanted to learn more. Claude with his famous friendly smile offered to help him out and teach him. After a long session they parted ways.
Only a week after, upon some other occasion, Claude encountered this guy, only this time in full military uniform, and he found out he was a 3 stripe officer. This man never said a word about his rank at the swimming pool.
From that day on, whenever Claude needed a favor, the officer, who became a good friend by this time, would help him out. In Algeria at the time (1950’s) this friendship was a big asset, needless to say.

* In 2003, Claude started to feel a numbness in the tips of his fingers. The sensations quickly spread out over his body. He went to the doctor, who quickly ordered him to immediate hospitalization. He was examined and tested and his bone marrow and nerve fluids were sent to laboratories all over France. No one knew what was going on.
His condition continued to deteriorate and he quickly lost the sense of balance (how tragic, for a man who dedicated his life to the art of balance) and couldn’t stand anymore. He could not stand the taste of water, as it felt metallic in his mouth. He lost sensation in his hands and feet, and had no reflexes, when tested.
The doctors were clueless and only figured he had some kind of unknown neurological disorder.
People who came to visit him, were sure that…. this is it. The end of his trip in this world. He told me he recognized death in their faces, and knew they were thinking he was done. But… he never gave up.
After three weeks of deteriorating health he was sent to a sanitarium for rest, as there was nothing else which could be done for him. He was wheeled in a wheelchair everywhere, and when he saw the other patients, old, sick men and women in wheelchairs, he was more determined than ever to heal.
He was ordered to lie down, but he started to use an aid for walking and tried to walk with it frequently. He also performed lots of Yoga, Pranayama exercises (breathing techniques from Yoga he learned over the years) and physical exercises. After a week, he amazingly regained the ability to walk. The doctors could not believe it.
After two weeks he was released to his home from the hospital, with improving health. The numbness in his limbs went away little by little and he regained full health. Little by little he came back to his full yoga and equilibre daily training, up to his current state.
Claude told me he never, in his life, fell into depression. Even when people who were coming to visit him were thinking the worst, and he knew it, he never let bad thoughts enter his mind. He is a fighter, and this wasn’t any different from any other fights he had during his life.
The doctors called his recuperation ‘A miracle’.
Now days Claude performs a daily routine of Yoga postures followed by a couple of sets of handstands (unsupported) and head-only stands on top of a couple of cubes of wood. He wakes daily at 08:00 and goes to sleep at around 23:30, most days without a minute of rest. He cooks two big meals a day for him and his visiting students, performs countless sets of rope supervision on his ‘hand to hand’ students (sometimes requiring hard rope pulls and good reflexes for sudden ‘saves’), cleans the house, washes clothes, works the garden, fixes anything that needs fixing around the house, and anything else.
His students can hardly keep up with him. Hell, I had trouble following him the whole week without getting dizzy. He has a great sense of humor, and we often found ourselves bursting into mutual laughter over things, just as if he is another 20 something friend sharing a funny moment.
I told him one evening that he lived enough life to satisfy five persons, but I wish him to live much more, and I am sure he will.
He is one of a few people I met in my life who I consider an example of how life should be lived.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Second day - training at Claude Victoria's

08:00 wake up. Slept real nice, deep and restful sleep in this small wooden bed. The house was kept warm, not too much, just as I like it.
I prepare a quick breakfast of eggs and a bit of Parmesan cheese on top and take my morning supplements. I also drink a cup of black coffee.
(Later to be discussed)

10:00 Claude is taking the French circus kid to the train, as he has finished his week’s stay here, so me and the two Spaniards are starting to train in the living room. A morning yoga routine of 9 postures, repeated 3 times each for 3 breathes. Its nice and easy, gets the body a bit warmer. We practice the Yoga on pieces of old sheep carpet, and it feels raw and rural.
After the yoga warm up we start to perform 3 types of lifts into handstand, each for at least 3 times. Afterwards it is a bit of head balancing on two wooden cubes and on top of them a small head ring, this is quite new to me and I am glad to give the shoulders a bit of rest and experiment.
Claude comes back from the train station and we get dressed quickly and leave for the local gymnasium. Going out of the door, I grab my water bottle, and Claude looks at me in a strange look. He tells me there is no water drinking during equilibre training, as it hurts the balance. OK, I leave the water bottle and we go on. The gym is quite close, just 2 minutes drive (actually, everything is 2 minutes drive in PlainFaing…) and we enter a small wooden floor old school gymnastics facility. Claude is allowed to use this facility in the mornings, and there is a lot of gymnastics equipment along with a harness pulley system to help his ‘hand to hand’ students. I only need a piece of carpet, so no problem here.
Claude starts to work with me on one hand handstand, in various positions, and I am very surprised to find out that I am in good alignment. He gives me some tips, in a form of touching me in certain body parts and also explaining the alignment he thinks is an optimal one, and I am again surprised to find out it is effortless to implement. I had myself worked up and worried about alignment issues, that the reality is that it was not too bad. One small problem though, is that I vibrate a bit in working arm. Claude says: from tomorrow, no Coffee for you. Caffeine can create a jittery feeling and effect your balance, so he is an anti coffee guy. No more coffee for me while I am here….
In my solo sets on one hand I get a couple of good holds, with a high free arm, just as Claude likes, and I receive complements from the Master. Yooohoo. Life is good on one arm.
I continue to work endless sets of the three positions, and also using a higher hand position - gluing the free hand to the hip. I feel my shoulder girdle and Trapizius muscles starting to tire.
Claude goes on to teach me the one arm lift off, I practice it, and due to the strength of my shoulder I am able to get a successful one or two sets. (ending with a 3-4 second hold in a wide straddle) Alignment is not optimal, but at least those muscles are there for a reason.
We finish with a bit of two arm handstand hops, very strict and close to the floor, in sets of 10, and I am finishing the workout with high spirits. Three hours on the hands. Not a bad first session.

It is 13:00 and we go home to eat.

16:00 I start to train an hour before the rest. A quick Yoga warm up sequence I like to use for getting into the ‘balanced mode’. (A routine I have developed from my experience with Shadow Yoga and learning from Dudi Malka, as well as my own tweaks and additions - from personal experience and insight)

At 17:00 they join me and we continue to do the 9 posture warm up of Claude. We finish it and go into a 2-3 minute inverted Yoga headstand. Claude is a big advocate of this posture, he believes, like many Yogis, it is good for circulation, health of the prostate gland and many other benefits.
Afterwards its right into the three types of lifts, in sets of 6 each and ending with a 10 second hold. Only this warm up sequence is 3 minutes total time on your hands, and this is considered beginner’s stuff here.
Afterwards I work on the straight position one handers, middle straddle one handers with a spot from Claude or on my own, and then he takes out the wooden cubes.
I am really bad with these cubes, so I start to do double sets - a 20 second hold on the cubes and then a set of one handers on the floor, to achieve better use of my time. I perform endless sets, in between them I do some head balance work on the head ring and 4 cubes below, until I feel my Trapeze tightening up and I decide I shouldn’t over do it the first day.
After a couple of sets the first Spaniard - the porter decides he had enough and goes to rest. I continue on with the girl-flyer and we perform 7-10 more sets, then she decides she is done. I continue on. Just another half hour. I continue with some straddle L-sit presses and Claude gives me some useful tips about head position, and afterwards I perform two endurance two hand handstand sets - one on the cubes and the other on the floor. I finish with some more stretching and go to take a shower.

Total training time for today - 7 hours. That is a lot, if you take into account that this is very monotonous work and small muscles are being worked very hard.

At the dinner table we eat some more well cooked food. I continue with my white lie about being diabetic, trying not to hurt Claude’s feelings. This man is has a heart of gold in his chest.
I eat a cooked Andiv dish, which is excellent, and also a can of sardines and a bit of cheese. After food we stay at the table, talking, and Claude goes on to speak about the state of the circus world now days. He speaks about economical issues, and the fact that all of the European and world circuses are not able to pay decent salaries to the performers, and that the only place an artist can get paid what he deserves is in the Cirque du Soleil and similar big projects - Cabaret shows like the Moulin Rouge in Paris. We talk and talk, and there is a lot of laughter, we are using a mixture of French, Spanish, Portuguese and English and are able to communicate quite well between us 4. Even jokes are told and the atmosphere is home-like.
I decide to retire and go to my room to sleep it off. First day of training is done. I take some BCAA before retiring, hoping my shoulder girdle wont be completely shut down tomorrow morning.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Claude Victoria, first day

I’m in my seventh change of transportation vehicle over the last 12 hours( Car, Train, Airplane, Electro-train, Metro, Train and one more train)
Passing village after village trying to figure out the letters in the names of places mentioned in the speaker system of the train. I finally reach a small place called Saint Die. I get down, its freezing cold, inside the train hall there is a small man seated in a large coat. His hair is white, our eyes meet and I know right away - this is Claude.
He welcomes me in a mixture of English, Spanish and Portuguese (soon to become our way of communicating) and explains that his car is near by and that we have another 20 Km to go to his village. His village is even smaller. it’s a place called Plainfaing.
We talk on the way on equilibre, his students, his journeys as a circus performer. I get the instant sting of inspiration in my gut. This man was all over the middle east, Europe, Canada, Japan. You name the place, chances are he was over there performing at some point.
We reach the house, there is a light layer of snow on the ground and we get in.
Inside I meet 3 other students that are already there training with Claude. One of them is a French kid, circus performer, who has been to Brazil 5 times already and speaks some Portuguese. This kid grew up in a circus family. His mother is an ex trapeze artist and now days owns a circus with many connections all over the world. He is not going to a normal school like other 14 year old kids. He is using a distant correspondence school program. You name the circus art, this kid does it. Trapeze, corda-lisse, ring, big-ring, juggling (any type of juggling), acrobatics, trampoline, fixed wire, and of course now - equilibre. He is leaving tomorrow, so I wont have a chance to train with him.
The other two are a couple - circus performers from Spain, specializing in ‘Hand to Hand’ work. The girl-flyer is a 24 year old Spaniard from the Canarian Islands, the guy-porter is 28 year old from the south of Spain.
They have been trained in a circus school in Spain, and spent a year in Argentina training acrobatics and gymnastics. They have been all over Europe, trying to learn as much as they can, perfecting their skills, but the name Claude Victoria seemed to pop up anywhere they went to. They are here for a week already and will spend here 3-4 weeks in total. (If they can last that long…)
I go to my room to take a quick shower and we sit down to eat.
Very good food is served, Minestrone soup, mixed salad with green beans and a cooked sausage and meat Hungarian type dish. (The guys add a lot of fresh Bagetts to the mixture and a desert of banana split with ice cream is served. I only avoid it barely, by saying I am Diabetic *white lie*, but still Claude gives me a strange look….)
We eat and talk and there is a lot of laughter, everyone seems so different and relaxed, I feel mixed feelings about it. But there is no anxiety, and I feel the difference from a Capoeira situation, in which you have a rush of competitiveness and aggressiveness mixed with a deep desire to put yourself to the test against others. These people are artists and there is no pressure, I cant wait to get started tomorrow.
The walls are covered in photos of equilibrists, starting from the 1940’s and ending in now days, in amazing positions, performing difficult feats of balance and strength. Claude tells me about his students - Samuel Tetrault, the Alexis Brothers, Franco Dragone’s son (From Cirque du Soleil fame and Dragone company now days), his own sons who achieved amazing abilities, and the best of them all, his best student - Eric.
He also tells me of his teacher, an Italian that took him under his wing and taught him the art of balance. He says until today he has never witnessed more perfect body lines than the Italian‘s. There is a small photo on the wall from 1945, and I am amazed to see his Italian teacher standing on one arm, with a straight body position, on top of someone. I am amazed because any photo that I have seen from this time (and even up till the 1960’s), gymnastics and circus alike, were always with an arched, old school type of posture. Well, according to Claude, the Italian is the innovator. He is one of the first, if not the first to demand and perfect the straight, clean body position in handstand work. We are talking here years before the straight position were acknowledged as the optimal one in gymnastics and circus circles. I am in the presence of greatness.
Good night, I am beat, going to sleep like a baby…