It Had to Be Felt #61: Christian Tissier: "The Role Model"
I became aware of, and subsequently started, the practice of aikido in the early 90's, at a time when the art was arguably at the peak of its popularity in the West. Picture this: Steven Seagal's movies were getting as wide a theatrical distribution as those of major action stars such as Schwarzenegger or Van Damme. It was also the golden age of the Festival des Arts Martiaux, held each year in Paris in front of 20 000 people. It was broadcast throughout Europe, and one of its highlights was Christian Tissier's aikido demonstration. The sportscaster regularly described him as a "véritable boule d'energie" [a ball of pure energy], who had learnt his craft at a young age directly from the masters in Japan.
As an insecure, less than popular fourteen year old middle-school boy, needless to say that his displays made a strong and lasting impression on me. The energy, the power, and an undeniable panache! I wanted to be like him. Short of studying directly from him, I decided to enroll in a dojo in my hometown, hoping that I would be allowed to wear the ample black trousers as soon as possible, and that eventually I would meet the master, and hopefully be accepted as his student. I was of course completely oblivious of the fact that aikido in France was, like in most places, not monolithic, and that I happened to have enrolled in the wrong federation.
To exacerbate things, my own teachers always seemed to get out of their way to criticize and undermine Tissier's practice during their classes. According to them, he was all style (some used to call him the Alain Delon of aikido), but no substance; he was a businessman, not a budoka; he had never met O-sensei, etc. As such, we were, of course, actively discouraged from attending outside seminars. I gradually started accept the fact that I had indeed chosen the one dojo where people actually did true aikido. How lucky was I! However, even though I tried hard to fully buy into this discourse, deep down, I still had this flame that had been sparked by the demonstrations I had seen on TV.
I eventually decided to see by myself. I secretly attended a seminar that Tissier gave nearby. I pretended that I had forgotten my membership book, so as not to leave any evidence of my act of treason, and I stepped on the mat. As I mentioned earlier, aikido was at its peak, and though my memory might fail me, I believe there were probably around two hundred trainees on the tatami that day. Since I was a white belt and did not know anyone, I started warming up quietly by myself, trying to mimic other people's gestures so as not to give away the fact that I was an outsider. After a moment, the characteristic, slightly nasal voice that I had heard on my tired VHS tapes resonated close by. I turned my head, and saw Christian Tissier greet people, beginners and advanced, often accompanied by a handshake or a pat on the back. He approached one of the other white belts near me, grabbed him by the sleeve, and read aloud the Japanese characters that were on his shoulder: "Olibaa… Ah! Your name is Olivier isn't it? How are you today? Nice to meet you." As is often the case, the guy mistakenly got the English pronunciation of his name embroidered on his keikogi "オリヴァー", rather than the French one, which should have been "オリビエ". My own teachers never acted like that that. They always stayed among seniors, and never greeted beginners, let alone asking them how they were and reading their name in Japanese.
The man's charisma was inversely proportional to his small stature. He had piercing blue eyes that seemed to go straight through you, while at same time making you feel that you were the center of the universe. I understood straight away how some people might be drawn towards, if not addicted to, his attention. I don't remember much about the seminar, except that his panache was as impressive in class as it was during demonstrations, and that uke flew left right and center just like they did in the videos. I could not figure out how to accomplish such prowess. I felt clumsy while his students all looked impossibly fit, agile, and beautiful. I wondered how one could become like that.
It is only years later that I eventually met Tissier in person, when I helped Cyril Lagrasta organize his first seminar in Ireland. After weeks of hard work, I found myself anxiously waiting for Tissier in UCD's sports center, which I had booked for the occasion. He was late, due to the fact that the person who was supposed to pick him up at the hotel got lost on the way. When he eventually entered the building my heart stopped. He did not look happy at all, his eyes were shooting lightning bolts. I gathered my courage and went to shake his hand: "Good morning, I am Guillaume, welcome to Dublin". I showed him the locker room and he started the class mere seconds afterwards.
Let me digress for a minute. Sometime after this event, I was the editor for a big aikido website in France, and I asked Tissier for an interview. As always, he kindly accepted and we decided to conduct it after one of his seminars in Brussels, Belgium. I went with my editor-in-chief, Ivan, who was part of Tamura Sensei's federation. On the way, Ivan told me "I know you are excited to interview your role model,but you must remain neutral and not let yourself become overly impressed". I felt rather annoyed to be perceived as a fanboy, but perhaps I was, and maybe I still am. What followed is worthy of mentioning, though. As we both walked into the sports center, my friend went straight to Tissier before I had time to introduce him, and he extended his hand saying "Good morning Mr Tissier, I…" Tissier, who was talking to someone turned around, seized Ivan's hand, and set his icy stare on my friend, waiting for the rest of the sentence. It never came. I stepped in and finished the introductions, laughing inside me that it was not me, but my friend who fell, totally mesmerized by Tissier's charisma.
Back to Dublin. Needless to say, I had not slept the night before because of my stress over the various last-minute organization issues. Tissier threw Cyril and other of his senior students who had accompanied him, such as Philippe Gouttard, Luc Mathevet, Marc Bachraty, and Fabrice Croizé. To my surprise, he also called me as uke number of times, so I did what I could to emulate what the others had been doing. In fact, I regarded it as a test since I had spent the past few years trying to emulate what I saw them do on the videos. It felt great! I was now one of them. For several years after, I attended his seminars in France and in other places in Europe whenever possible and he regularly used me as uke. However, something felt off every time, and this feeling kept growing.
Let's be frank, Tissier sensei is the most difficult ukemi I ever had to take, and this is something I have been wondering about for years. Considering that many of the greatest masters in the world seem to invite me to take ukemi for them, some of them on a weekly basis, there must be something more than sheer incompetence on my part. It seems to me that Christian Tissier expects his uke to handle like Formula 1 cars: that is, to react to the slightest touch, and to be able to go from 0 to 100 km/h almost instantly. Being rather heavy, I naturally either expect a teacher to apply power to make me move and if they cannot accomplish this, I try to compensate for my lack of speed by anticipating the technique, which Tissier clearly doesn't like. He once said to me, as I anticipated a fall on kotegaeshi, "What you are doing is the death of aikido." Chilling words to say the least! In my eagerness to please him and to react on time, I had completely negated the truth of the technique. Perhaps he also saw it as an insult, in the sense that I might have thought that his kotegaeshi might not work, and therefore decided to throw myself to make him (us) look good.
In any case, Tissier sensei eventually stopped calling me for uke. My dreams of becoming part of the next generation of his students were shattered. He was still kind, and often came to explain things to me, but I no longer got access to those special moments in the center with him. I felt devastated. I wanted a master, but it seemed that the master did not want me.
I remembered that once he explained to me what he understood the term shihan to mean. He said that a shihan ought to be a role model. Not only a model technically, but also, if possible, a model as a human being. I thought about it and I reckoned that considering my particular predicament, the logical extension of his reasoning was that I should not spend my energy trying to be with him, but instead, I should try to becomehim. I therefore decided to fulfil a childhood's dream, and something that I had wanted to do even more since I had heard Tissier's life story: to move to Japan, learn from the masters, and come back to France a star.
I spent the next few years training hard under the Japanese masters at the Aikikai Honbu Dojo and I also started Daito-ryu aiki-jujutsu. As I aged though, I tried less and less to emulate someone's aikido, and instead found that aikido started to emanate from within myself. I also completely lost interest in either coming back to France, or becoming a full time aikido teacher. Of course, whenever I travelled through Paris, I would visit Tissier's dojo. He would be as generous as ever with his time and advice, but the relationship evolved to grounds that were no longer purely technical. I had found my path, and I was happy with it. I remember one day, he was showing ryotedori tenchinage. He came to me and started to throw me. My ukemi too had changed, and I took far less breakfalls than before, unlike his students who took them systematically. Tissier did his technique once, twice, and I did only ushiro ukemi, partly out of habit, but also, I'm embarrassed to admit, a little bit as a challenge to him. "No, I'm not going to take the Vincennes ukemi, I am a Honbu student now." He looked at me, smiled, and then cut sharply, sending me flying into a breakfall. This exchange was the polar opposite of the moment I have described before. By not trying to please him, nor to adapt to him, I was able to take ukemi for him and, I think he was able to apply some degree of power in his technique. I had matured and so did our relationship as uke/nage.
Interestingly, the first ever compliment he offered concerning my own technique was on that same day. I was getting a little upset at my partner, who understandably did not know me, and saw me as a clueless visiting tourist. He had clearly decided that in spite of my best efforts, I was not doing things the way that he thought Tissier expected, and he was not going to let me. It is not something I do often, but I decided that my relationship with Christian granted me some freedom as to how to handle his students. I therefore responded to his blocking of my technique with a rather sharp, resolutely non-Tissier-like, technique, which left him flat on his back, gulping for air. All I heard behind me is Tissier's "Hmm, c'est pas mal ça" [Hmm, not bad this]. After years trying to do my best to copy his smallest gestures, I finally got one positive piece of feedback, precisely at the moment when I did my own stuff, not his.
Thinking about what my friend Ivan once said, I no longer get upset when someone says that Christian Tissier is my role model. I will never claim to have been his student, nor to be able to do what he does. I won't claim to be his friend either, our difference of age and experience does not allow this in my view. However, it is undeniable that he has been, and remains a major source of support and inspiration in my aikido life, even going as far as lending me his dojo for my seminars, or helping me out when I have found myself in difficult situations. Am I legitimate to be writing this column then? Well, one might argue that I am not. Perhaps my only qualification is that I am the only one who said "yes" to Ellis' request. Certainly Tissier sensei has influenced and helped many other people far more than me, but from my modest experience, I can say that what he does is consistent with what he describes his role as a role modelto be. If I am half as kind and generous as he is when I reach sixty, I'll consider myself worthy of writing this column.
A resident of Japan for nearly a decade, Guillaume Erard trains at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo, where he received the 5th Dan from Aikido Doshu Moriteru Ueshiba. He also holds a 3rd Dan in Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu, the art that Morihei Ueshiba learned from Sokaku Takeda. Erard is the Deputy Secretary of International Affairs of the Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu Shikoku Headquarters. He is also passionate about science and education and holds a PhD in Molecular Biology.For those inclined to post, please re-read the introductory column before doing so. The rules for contributors, in short:
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