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Photography by Sabrina Merlo

La Grande Araignée (the Giant Spider) awoke Friday after the twelve bells of noon for the first time in its birthplace, the city of its creator La Machine: Nantes, France. The people of Nantes gathered in the cathedral square to witness.

La Machine is a French theater group that specializes in large scale mechanical creatures and activations of civic spaces. Last Friday, their giant arachnid awoke at the foot of the city cathedral and made its way through narrow streets and under trolley lines, stopping for naps and then re-awakening for more.

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Director François Delarozière not only conceives and draws the pieces — and then oversees an incredible build team — but also architects the performances. It’s clear that he and La Machine are consciously crafting an attendee experience, not just making a cool machine. There is remarkable poetry in their giant creatures and in the experience of walking adjacent. Warm materials like the chiseled wood skin (no fiberglass) glow gently, with a matte finish. A composer and quality mobile sound setup generate a palpable sweetness and calm in the crowd. Crew don’t just climb into position — they are craned into the air and fall gorgeously to the top of the Spider via climbing harnesses. Distance between audience and machines as they walk is fantastically near, mediated by an ever-morphing caution-tape barrier crew (the “potato”) that keeps adjusting for safety and experience.

François works the line (see the first photo below), sometimes moving up ahead out of the potato to check anticipated obstacles, communicating with crew such as Technical Director Bertrand Bidet (the second photo below).

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But the mechanics are fundamentally fantastic. The Spider has 12 operators and an on-board driver for the wheeled support vehicle. For this show, ground crew included the composer and two large forklifts carrying sound systems, plus two directors (communicating to on-board crew via radio), and then 10 to 12 crew on the “potato” line, nudging the crowd and making the way.

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The video below is a beginning to end document of the awakening and first steps of La Grande Araignée.

If you don’t have the time to fall into the complete 22-minute show arc, here are some highlights to definitely tap through:

The crew being craned into position:Screen Shot 2016-07-12 at 7.17.54 PM

The crew drops:
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The unfurling:
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Stepping out:Screen Shot 2016-07-12 at 7.41.56 PM

The hydraulics that drive the motions of these machines allow for great grace and accuracy. Here is one leg’s valve bank and seating:

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And a rear view of the chassis and its spine of hydraulic hoses — the Spider’s nervous system:

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Those hydraulics plus great teamwork allow the crew to manage situations like narrow streets.

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Maybe the most theatrical machine moment on the first walk was the spider encountering some low tram cables. The spider reared as a spider would to an enemy, and then the front legs plucked cables gently, testing. Finally it re-calibrated, and retracted and lowered itself, getting under both cables while hiking legs up over two adjacent light poles. Magnificent choreography and execution.

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Time slows as you are watching the machine. It is not only the spider bewitching you, but the composer Mino Malan. (Note that more full-blown La Machine shows are accompanied by a full, live orchestra.)

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The sound rigs are full-tilt quality & maker style: strapped to forklifts that follow the spider.

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Towards the end of the day, the spider and the crowd together crossed the river Loire, passing by the small Les Machines carousel towards its night nest, the La Machine shop.

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Winding down.

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Home.

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The team of operators accepted the crowd’s enthusiastic and sincere and polite French applause.

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The show was an experience of a lifetime. Standing with the people of Nantes all around me, waiting with anticipation to see a new creature from their beloved arts group La Machine, and then walking with them and their new neighbor was profoundly moving. But it went beyond the show itself: we all witnessed a very rare combined achievement of artistic vision, scale, resources, engineering, teamwork, and organizational capacity. Deeply inspiring. Thank you La Machine!

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