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Inside the Whimsical World of France’s Most Outrageous Street Theater Company

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A crowd gathers in Ottawa to watch “La Machine’s Long Ma” perform during festivities for the 150th anniversary of the Canadian confederation.

Photo by Howard Sandler/Shutterstock

A crowd gathers in Ottawa to watch “La Machine’s Long Ma” perform during festivities for the 150th anniversary of the Canadian confederation.

The innovative street performance company La Machine celebrates 20 years of wonder with an expansive new exhibition space, upcoming show, and more.

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It isn’t every day that you see a grunting, snorting, 51.8-ton minotaur facing off against an equally enormous mechanical spider. But that’s exactly the scene that passersby stumbled across last November in Toulouse, France. The minotaur in question had a name: Asterion. He was fabricated from steel, wood, and leather, and tricked out in gold leaf that glinted in the sun. The spider was Ariane. Both were born of the wild imagination of François Delarozière, artistic director of innovative street theater company La Machine. 

The five-story minotaur and monumental arachnid were the stars of Le Gardien du Temple (The Guardian of the Temple), a theater production Inspired by the Greek myth of Ariadne. The urban opera took place on the rooftop of Hôtel-Dieu Saint-Jacques, in busy Place du Capitole square, and throughout the labyrinthian streets of historic Toulouse. According to La Machine, more than 900,000 spectators came out to watch the dueling beasts, who were accompanied by live music, their every move choreographed by what Delarozière calls “véritable machinistes” (true machinists).

Asterion walks the streets of Toulouse in November 2018 during a performance of “Le Gardien du Temple.”

Asterion, in particular, moved in an unnervingly human way: blinking and groaning, neck turning, fists clenching, plumes of smoke curling from his nostrils, and a life-like chest and rib cage heaving with every breath. His appearance in Le Gardien du Temple caused a great spectacle in Toulouse—and now travelers who missed him last November can check out his regular performances at La Halle de la Machine, the theater company’s brand-new exhibition space.

A visit to the new Halle de la Machine

Nine years in the making, La Halle was built in the once-industrial Montaudran district in southeast Toulouse. Opened fully in February, it operates as an exhibition space, laboratory, and a surreal forever home for creatures that have performed as far away as London and Yokohama. Asterion and Ariane live here, along with more than 70 other machines and 1,000 mechanical objects. The 53,820-square-foot building, designed by architect Patrick Arotcharen, is made of soaring wood, steel, and glass. It sits next to a 1.1-mile runway, the former landing strip of the French postal service. Newly christened La Piste des Géants (Runway of the Giants), the tarmac now serves as a stage for Delarozière’s visionary creations. 

Visitors may sit on top of Ariane, parked inside, or watch a 45-minute outdoor performance by Asterion. Though guests can pay extra to ride in a two-story, howdah-like temple on Asterion’s back, 33 feet above the ground, the whole show is interactive. Stand at the front of the crowd with the flock of squealing children if you want to be engulfed by white smoke, spattered with frothy soap dispensed from an arachnid-like apparatus suspended from La Halle’s canopy, and blasted with bone-soaking torrents of water. (It’s good fun, we promise! Just bring a change of clothes.)

Visitors to La Halle de la Machine can watch Asterion from the ground (or his back) during performances.

Inside La Halle, you’ll find machinists showcasing some of the smaller contraptions used to orchestrate a classical-inspired “philarmotechnical” score for La Symphonie Mécanique (2004). Other highlights include a pyrotechnical carnie game from La Kermesse (2009); a 42-ton, hydraulic- and thermal-powered spider with an arm span of 66 feet from Les Mécaniques Savantes (2009); and Le Dîner des petites Mécaniques (2010), the leftover set from an immersive theater production where guests were served a full meal via mechanized gadgets. Although visitors at La Halle can no longer dine in Dîner, staffers will still demo how some of the steampunk-y apparatuses work—like a mechanical arm used to pour water.

The whimsy displayed within these walls leaves most visitors either giggling or slack-jawed. Did they really just use steam from a pressure cooker to power a string quartet? Yup! Are those pipes belching fire and music simultaneously? You betcha.  

The new space also houses a seasonally driven café, screening room, and gift shop stocked with playful souvenirs and books. Guests may sign up for one of four 45-minute, machinist-led themed workshops, which dig into everything from the creative process behind developing a machine to the art of staging public performances. Depending on the timing of your visit, you can also hike out to the Carré Sénart, a Tim Burton–eqsue carousel whose criss-crossing, whirligigging “mechanized bestiary” includes insects, buffalo, and flying fish heads. It stands nearly 46 feet high and fits up to 48 riders at a time, but only operates on Wednesdays, Saturdays, Sundays, and Toulouse school holidays. 

The man behind La Machine

The self-described “sceneographer” has always been an original thinker. He was born in Marseille to a musician mother and a “DIY genius” father. “He could build absolutely anything, a house from A to Z,” says Delarozière of his dad. “He would make his own charcuterie, distill essential oils, build chairs, and make rugs. He was a truly multifaceted man with a passion for materials.”

The apple didn’t fall far from the tree. The youngest of three, Delarozière describes himself as an energetic, positive, and kind child who “preferred fixing issues” instead of causing them. After studying agriculture for five years, he jumped headfirst into the visual arts, joining Aix-en-Provence’s Royal de Luxe street theater company in 1983. This partnership laid the groundwork for a lifetime of designing and constructing fantastical mechanical animals.

Find mechanized critters like this one at the newly opened Toulouse exhibition space.

Delarozière’s works are deeply inspired by architecture. “I love to observe how things are assembled, built, and put together,” he says. “I am particularly drawn to the architecture style of the [early 20th] century, when the construction itself is ornamental and the assemblage is visible. I love Gaudí, Eiffel, the art nouveau, and also modern and futuristic architecture.” 

Though he continued to work with Royal de Luxe through the early aughts, Delarozière started La Machine in 1999. The nonprofit organization specializes in building elaborate theater sets, unorthodox carousels, and imaginative performance machines. 

“People look up and discover their cities differently and become more aware of their surroundings. The city becomes the backdrop to a theater scene.”

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Its mechanical menagerie has become a hit internationally. In 2014, La Machine produced Long Ma Jing Shen (Spirit of the Dragon Horse) in Beijing for the 50th anniversary of the establishment of Franco-Chinese relations. Inspired by the Chinese legend of the Goddess Nüwa, the special effects-heavy show saw a titanic dragon-horse hybrid battling a chaos-spinning spider before a riveted crowd of 800,000, according to La Machine. Long Ma later popped up in Calais (2016) and Ottawa (2017), the latter pegged to the 150th anniversary of the Canadian confederation. 

Twenty years into it, Delarozière shows no signs of slowing down.

The present—and future—of La Halle 

In addition to exhibiting La Machine’s finest work, Delarozière wants La Halle to eventually trial unreleased productions of future shows. New machines are constantly being workshopped at Les Machines de L’île Nantes, a 12-year-old public gallery and laboratory on the island of Nantes, and at a private facility in Tournefeuille, 20 minutes west of La Halle.

Traditionally, new machines were introduced without any advanced promotion or fanfare. This was intentional, says Delarozière: Imagine how crazy it is to be going about your business, walking to work or running errands, when suddenly you round a corner and see a crowd of hundreds–nay, thousands!—of people gathered around a colossal minotaur or dragon. It’s thrilling and delightful and all part of the spectacle that Delarozière so deftly engineers.

Ariane the spider on display inside La Halle de la Machine.

“When the machines are moving around the city, it creates intense emotional scenes,” he says. “People look up and discover their cities differently and become more aware of their surroundings. The city becomes the backdrop to a theater scene.” Their awe, in turn, becomes part of the show.

Though many spectators feel compelled to document La Machine’s street theater via social media, Delarozière wishes onlookers would put away their phones and just enjoy the craziness. At the same time, he understands the power of this breed of performance art. It’s why he and his team often build their beasts in plain sight, for all the world to see. 

“The construction process is a theatrical act,” says Delarozière, “and the show is theatrical interlude. Machines are [just] sculptures continuing the theater through movement.”

“Innovation is the ability to make room for imagination and dreams.” 

To celebrate the 20th anniversary of La Machine, visitors at La Halle de la Machine in Toulouse can see a retrospective photo exhibition featuring 150 large-format images by Jordi Bover, the company’s long-time photographer, and enjoy an outdoor concert series and three-day celebration of carnival arts this fall. Plus, Delarozière will launch a new show in Calais from November 1 to 3. Le Dragon de Calais will feature the biggest machine the company has ever built and what Delarozière estimates will be the largest machine of its kind in the world: an 82-foot-tall dragon erected by 70 people and operated by 17 performers. 

And though each new machine seems bigger and more outrageous than the last, rebellion and curiosity remain integral to Delarozière’s vision. “Innovation is the ability to make room for imagination and dreams,” he says. “And one needs to know how to dream in order to innovate.” 

A visit to La Halle de la Machine costs between nine and 16 Euros. Opening hours vary. Check the website for details.

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