The huge mechanical creature rears up, its eyes glowing red, smoke billowing from its dragon’s snout and its primeval howl echoing in the Beijing night as it approaches its arachnid adversary.
The robot horse-dragon, or “Long Ma”, is 12 metres high and weighs 45 tonnes — as much as eight adult African elephants. For its part, the yellow spider — dubbed “The Princess” — has a 20-metre leg-span and can froth at the mouth.
Part ballet, part epic combat against a backdrop of streams of water, sparks, sound and light, the performance is very loosely based on the Chinese creation myth of the goddess Nuwa, who made people out of yellow mud and saved humanity from apocalypse after one of the pillars holding up heaven collapsed.
Nuwa sealed the breach in the sky, bringing order to the chaos of the world, and the horse-dragon was conceived by the organisers as her envoy on earth — although it does not appear in the original legend.
The two robots are controlled by teams of operators perched on board and running alongside, but even so their movements are fluid, almost natural, and the Long Ma can also express himself facially, fluttering his eyelashes among other gestures.
“It’s puppetry on a grand scale,” smiled Isa, one of the crew members.
The Long Ma “can stand on his hind legs, his tail moves, he can gallop, and of course fire comes from his mouth: it’s a real dragon”, said Francois Delaroziere, artistic director of the French firm that developed the tribute to Chinese mythology.
“In this mythical universe, the horse-dragon combines equine speed and vitality with the supreme power of the dragon: he embodies the spirits of vigour and perseverance that Chinese schoolchildren are still taught today,” said Delaroziere.
The event, mounted outside the Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing that hosted the 2008 Olympics, is part of the commemorations of the 50th anniversary of diplomatic ties between Paris and the People’s Republic.
“Relations between our two countries are largely based on a very ancient cultural affinity, a mutual attraction,” said France’s new ambassador to Beijing, Maurice Gourdault-Montagne, adding the show embodies “the spirit of China itself”.
Shows start Friday and run until Sunday, when visiting French foreign minister Laurent Fabius will attend along with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi.
But Beijing’s notorious pollution could yet spoil the weekend’s displays, and Delaroziere appealed to the star performer’s spirit to intervene.
“This horse-dragon from antiquity can defy the elements and heal… a new breach in the sky,” he said.