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A 43' Mechanical Spider Touches Down in France

Kumo the Giant Spider, built by street theater company La Machine, is both terrifying and endearing.
Photo by Lorette Guillou, courtesy of La Machine

Watching Kumo take to the streets is like the live-action version of a CGI flick: A giant alien spider lands in a historic city, its eight legs weaving around buildings as it spews venom into the crowds. Dreamt up by street theater company La Machine, Kumo has since toured Yokohama, Beijing, Reims, and Calais. Earlier this month, it was finally left to roam the French city of Nantes, where La Machine is based, and where the spider was "born" in 2009.


Kumo’s technical data sheet is staggering: At rest, it is 19' high, but can attain a height of 43' once it’s up and walking. When it rolls up into a ball for a nap, it measures 20' in diameter. When it sprawls its legs out, that "legspan" grows to 65'. It can spit out venom (in reality, a fine water mist) and breathe out clouds of fog, all while regarding the crowd suspiciously with its moving eyes. A team of 35 to 40 people worked on its construction for nearly a year—first drafting it, then bringing it to life the 38-ton structure of wood and steel.

Kumo in Nantes. © Jean-Félix Fayolle / Ville de Nantes

“We wanted to use its eight legs to turn it into a dancer,” says François Delarozière, the founder and artistic director of La Machine. “This is why we made a base on wheels, so it could move quickly and have the ability to communicate, and be expressive, through movement.” During a performance, 16 people are required to activate the hydraulic and mechanical framework that helps Kumo walk through narrow city streets, wriggling around trees and lampposts. Most are seated aboard the giant, controlling the motion of its legs, eyes, head, and abdomen, and setting off the fog and water effects. Down on the ground, a conductor walks alongside Kumo and directs the whole theatrical team.

Kumo under construction. Photo by Emmanuel Bourgeau, courtesy of La Machine

La Machine’s other animal creations—which count an elephant, a dragon-horse, and a giraffe, among others—have all been staged in public space. “What we do is street theater; it’s about action in the street,” writes Delarozière in a statement. “The scenes need to unfold in places that are used daily by city residents—in short, in places where you least expect it. By placing these living sculptures in the spectator’s everyday environment, they transcend that environment, and transform the way we see our cities.”


Photo by Lorette Guillou, courtesy of La Machine

With Kumo, Delarozière wished to play with other contrasts as well, by creating a being that is both endearing and terrifying. “I thought it was interesting to work with a being that people find repulsive. People often kill spiders even though they are very useful,” he comments. Here, the audience ends up feeling a certain affection for the frightening creature—even when it’s 1,000 times the realistic size. “There’s affection for the object; there’s pleasure,” notes the creator. “It’s a little bit about how we befriend a stranger.”

Original drawings for the giant spider, courtesy of La Machine

Photo by Lorette Guillou, courtesy of La Machine

© Jean-Félix Fayolle / Ville de Nantes

You can watch Kumo in action from the point of view of a spectator, here. After its show in Nantes this summer, Kumo is scheduled to take a rest. But next stop: Ottawa in 2017. To learn more about La Machine, click here.


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