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Slasher Flicks: Fencing

Choose your weapon: Going one-on-one at the L.A. International Fencing Center

Jessica MillerChoose your weapon: Going one-on-one at the L.A. International Fencing Center

You will pine for the raconteur days of Cyrano and d’Artagnan the moment you set trembling foot within the Los Angeles International Fencing Center. O, to settle things like gentlemen! On a misty dawn in a clearing in the woods, a trusted second by your side, ready to toss over a new blade should yours break, or to scoop up your bloody, perforated corpse should you lose. That dream has almost nothing to do with the vibrant, modern sport of fencing, owner Misha Itkin will scowl. But the sense of it suffuses the place, summoned from the distant past by the meaty clack-clack-clack of sword against sword. The sound drifts out of the center’s front doors, beckoning you into the fray. A duel — or 50 — are in progress.

Jessica Miller

(Click to enlarge)

Choose your weapon: Going one-on-one at the L.A. International Fencing Center

Jessica Miller

(Click to enlarge)

Jessica Miller

(Click to enlarge)

Club member Gerard Moreno makes his point.

Itkin, who runs the place with fellow owners Gago Demirchian and Daniel Costin, is alternately stoic and jovial, in the manner perfected by Eastern Europeans (he’s Ukrainian). Soft on the outside, steel-hard on the inside, like a character in a Chekhov play. “Why do I like it?” he says of fencing. “I do it. I get up. I come here. I fence.”

Itkin’s 8-year-old son shuffles by for a lesson with a shy smile. Kids love Itkin. “Here is the biggest big shot,” he says, ruffling the boy’s hair.

You start with an intro class, then begin training in one of the center’s three programs, which correspond to each of fencing’s three kinds of weapon: the light, courtly foil, the heavy épée, or the hack-and-slash saber. The center is a wonderful, kinetic place to be, full of a sense of industry and competitive purpose. Everybody struts around in white knickers, electronic, touch-sensitive lamé vests half-buttoned, mesh face guards like beekeepers’ masks tucked under arms. They can’t help it. Fencing equipment just looks cool.

You might strike up a conversation about the merits of foils versus épées with one of the chattering high school kids gathered around the large conference table, doing geometry homework, awaiting their turn to stab each other in the chest — only to have them go teenager silent at your gall. Or you might note one of the fencing ingénues who hang out at the center — tallish, creamy-skinned 14-year-old Harvard Westlake sophomore Emma Petersen, perhaps, who recently snatched the gold at the Summer Nationals; she was frowning through a copy of In Style magazine between bouts last time I was there.

The place takes itself both seriously and not too seriously. Three members of the U.S. Olympic team practice here, including Gerard Moreno, who won a Paralympic gold medal in a wheelchair. Take a lesson with a highly decorated Olympian from China one day, another from the champion fencer in Armenia the next, and both would happen under the silly, watchful eye of Puss in Boots in the Shrek 2 poster on the wall in Itkin’s office.

Fencing is an anachronism in an age when the wielding of AK-47s could count as an Olympic sport. Fencing’s movements — balletic, they’ve been called, or “the Western martial art” — are gorgeous, hunky. The delicate swords, suggesting nothing so much as the world’s longest shish kebabs, poke into wakefulness the brainy warrior spirit within us. Primal yet elegant, fencing is a tactician’s game. Maybe you want your opponent to think you are going to hit him in the stomach, say, but really you’re gunning for his shoulder, so you feint toward his stomach. But because he’s good, he sees you coming, protects his shoulder and goes for your side. Essentially, it is chess with muscles.

“No offense to swimming or cycling, but in those, you are repeating the same technique over and over. You have no contact with your opponent. In fencing, you have to make quick decisions. What kind of attack at what moment are you going to execute?” says Itkin. It is a one-on-one sport, meaning you have no one to blame but yourself when you lose. “No,” he reconsiders, “you blame coach. Ha!”

Many of the best fencers come from Russia, which Itkin says “is a big fencing town.”

“Before, if Russia would lose to United States, it was national tragedy,” he adds darkly. In a minute, co-owner Demirchian, a multiple Armenian national champion from a famous fencing family — fathers, sisters, nephews, nieces, all take up the sword — interrupts the class and speaks to Itkin seriously in Russian, brows furrowed.

“Do you know what he said?” Itkin says, as Demirchian leaves. “He said I need to do more pushups.” Pause. “Ha!”

The French are geniuses of the sword. They elevated fencing to an art under Louis “The Sun King” XIV, who elevated most everything to art. The classic French school emphasizes catlike footwork. The Italians want lots of force. The Hungarians are best with sabers. There’s this excellent story about Hungarian Aladar Gerevich, the greatest saberist of modern times, who won Olympic gold medals as if they were souvenirs in a penny arcade — who, in fact, nabbed two of them a staggering 28 years apart, and who fenced straight through World War I. When the country’s Olympic committee told him he was too old to fence at the age of 50, he challenged all the members of the Hungarian fencing team to individual matches. He won every single one.

The literature on the history of the sport is full of delicious, rousing stories like that, ones that favor the cunning underdog. You don’t have to be the strongest or fastest, just the smartest, to win. It is also filled with scarier stories. The word I keep coming back to is “puncture,” as in students in the pre-Kevlar, premodern-blunt-sword, swashbuckling days of the 17th century, who practiced sans protective clothing and often died from punctured lungs. These unfortunate events remain thankfully buried in the past.

At competition level, modern fencing is a magnificent, lightning-fast leaping endeavor, less like the slow, back-and-forth scuttling-crab motions that give away adult beginners, and more like the nimble springing of spiders. A lesson with LAIFC sabreur Daniel Grigore keeps you not so much on your toes as on your thighs (his are like granite), which will burn with the effort of attack-lunging, more than after any glute-torturing Buns of Steel exercise video. He’s an Olympian, Grigore. He fought in the ’92 Atlanta and the ’96 Barcelona Olympics on the Romanian saber team. For someone who could use a saber the size of a toothpick to fillet you like a salmon without even breaking a sweat, Grigore has a patience that borders on the holy.

He gently demonstrates how to push your opponent back toward the end of the strip so he has no place to go, like a boxer worked into the corner. “See? He is uncomfortable,” Grigore says with his sweet smile, then casually traces clean, precise velociraptor slices across his ribs. “Saber is mostly slashing. Not too much poking.”

Los Angeles International Fencing Center, 11755 Exposition Blvd., W. L. A., (310) 477-2266 or www.lafencing.com.