This weekend marked the true beginning of my summer, what with the end of summer school, which means spending considerably more time writing (more on that later) but also more time catching up on things and taking time to relax until the next school year. It’s a good thing, too, because I’d forgotten that Ottawa was about to be overrun by giant monsters duking it out across the downtown.
No, I’m not kidding. This weekend Ottawa hosted La Machine, a four-day mobile and evolving storytelling show involving two giant mechanical constructs each operated by a team of trained performers. One is Long Ma, the spirit of the Dragon-Horse, who is hunting the city for wings stolen by the nefarious giant spider Kumo. The story, which is described in full on the Ottawa 2017 website, is that Kumo snuck into Long Ma’s temple and robbed it before seeking refuge in Ottawa, the “mother-city of all spiders” (if I knew that, I might not have moved here). Having been awakened by the intense construction happening in Ottawa (nice tie-in there, by the way) Kumo spent the weekend fleeing and laying traps for Long Ma, until the two faced each other in an epic closing battle on Sunday night.
I didn’t catch that ultimate finale, but I did wander into the Byward Market on Saturday to catch a glimpse of these two constructs, figuring I’d glimpse them from afar and continue with my day. But instead of being discouraged by the massive crowds in the market, I decided to make it a challenge and go monster hunting. Weaving between people and looking for shortcuts between or through buildings to avoid the main streets (which isn’t easy) while I listened for overheard comments of “I heard the spider is on Dalhousie” and “The dragon is going to turn down Sussex,” I got caught up in the energy of this event. The fun became imagining Long Ma and Kumo as actual creatures, as opposed to marionettes moving on wheels and operated by real people, and not just buying into the narrative, but imagining myself a part of it. Lo and behold, I glimpsed Kumo for a moment and gave chase (which should make certain friends of mine proud, since I’m actually terrified of spiders) only to find myself turning a corner and approaching Long Ma, with Kumo nowhere to be seen. As I moved to catch up to the Dragon-Horse (who moved surprisingly fast), myself and the crowd around me turned a corner and, sure enough, found the Giant Spider heading our way.
Which is how I found myself at ground zero of a fight between the two monsters.
In retrospect, it’s a testament to the creators of these constructs and their operators that it was so easily to lose myself in the story. I marvelled as Long Ma tried to stare down Kumo, only to flee from the spider because he wasn’t at full strength without his wings. Or at least that’s the narrative I imagined, as the constructs moved and music played in the background. That’s the special quality to this kind of storytelling: since the medium is entirely music and physical performance, you as the audience have to fill in the rest, leaving room for interpretation and imagination. When Kumo’s operators sprayed water at passersby from the spider’s spinnerets, I imagined webs being lain across the market, ensnaring hapless people until Long Ma arrived to free them. When Long Ma shot actual fire into the air (seriously, the fire was real) or emitted a roar from his loudspeakers, I felt for the grief and frustration of the mighty beast, wingless and homeless and alone in a strange city.
La Machine was storytelling at its finest, and serves as a reminder about how much fun can be had by being creative and thinking outside the box to deliver a narrative. For four days, our city was enraptured by the magic of Long Ma and Kumo, and for me at least, it’s a magic that will take a long time to fade.