Not everyone knows that Calais, a trade and transit hub on the north coast of France, is also a portal to an underworld, at least, according to the PR team of a larger-than-life local. This door opened during the expansion works a few years ago of the port of Calais, and released a huge and powerful dragon which now patrols the coast of the city. According to Dragon Press, the fantastical beast is “naturally benevolent, but can also be wild and unpredictable.”
So goes the story of The Dragon of Calaiscreated by François Delarozière, one of the artists behind the complex automaton puppets known as Machines of the Ile de Nantes. Delarozière was commissioned by Natacha Bouchart, Mayor of Calais, to create a unique addition to the cityscape, a work of public art that would incorporate elements of land, sea and air, capturing the imagination of residents and visitors alike. . And that’s why, standing on the deck of a ferry arriving at the port city, you might spot people on the back of a 39-foot-tall fire-breathing creature crawling along the waterfront. Part sculpture, part machine, part puppet, the dragon has become a beloved piece of interactive street theatre, but its charming ways require the devotion of an entire entourage.
Officially, Philippe Ryckeboer’s job title is machinist pilot, but, he says, “I prefer ‘dragon lord’”. Ryckeboer is one of the Eight Dragon Stagehands; when actively prowling the waterfront, at least four of them are engaged. A machinist drives the frame that supports the 79-ton wood and metal structure, and another stands on the dragon’s back, operating the tail and wings. The pilot sits and controls the head, while a guiding machinist walks at ground level to operate the dragon’s facial expressions and provide support for the pilot, driver and wingman. “Ask one of the machinists what is his favorite part to operate and they will all answer ‘the head'”, explains Stéphane Ribeiro Da Ascencao, the “storyteller of the Dragon of Calais” (and official spokesperson). Ryckeboer agrees: “This is where you have power over the dragon and where you can interact with people on the street… And you go really high. It’s funny.”
Machinists work as a single unit to make dragon movement both realistic and safe. After all, this is a fire-breathing juggernaut moving through a crowded urban space.
Three “veterinarians” complete the team and are responsible for keeping the dragon in perfect fire-breathing condition. This includes daily supplies of “strawberry syrup” (red diesel) and close monitoring of her on-board computer, 48 batteries, countless pumps, valves and meters of wiring. The Dragon’s Anatomy is “a unique recipe for parts,” says Ribeiro Da Ascencao, but luckily it’s mostly auto parts available at any well-stocked auto parts store.
And when things go wrong, like with any computer, the machinists turn it off and on again. Even dragons need the occasional reboot, apparently. The dragon only struts around when everything is working properly, from its sail-sized wings to its blinking eyes. “Getting sleepy on the road doesn’t happen,” says Ribeiro Da Ascencao. “Every detail is important, it’s part of the theater.”
When not on the move, the dragon retreats to its lair, a vast shed with transparent polycarbonate walls, but it is not the only one. Other winged inhabitants seem to gravitate around it, blackbirds in particular. A nest in its mouth has been removed for obvious fire-breathing reasons, but another family of blackbirds, comfortably ensconced in the dragon’s neck, remain. “One day, while on my head, I realized that I could hear the birds singing. It was so cute,” says Ryckeboer. “The dragon is a protective animal, so even for small birds it is a great home.”
Unfortunately for the dragon’s crew, the birds show little respect for their keeper: most mornings begin with cleaning prodigious amounts of bird poo from the dragon’s back.
With the mess cleaned up, it’s time to wake the dragon, what Ryckeboer calls “the first adventure of the day.” The pilot climbs along its vertebrae to its head, with each pilot bringing their own spin on the dragon’s personality for this change from mildly grumpy to gently playful. A curious child turned away from his ice cream to watch the fascinating creature may find the beast taking a lick of his treat. A puzzled dog might receive a loud snort or a soft growl. The stage guide acts as the conductor for the rest of the team, to ensure that they improvise and interact with their audience at each performance in a responsible way. After all, not everyone appreciates being doused in dragon mist.
There’s a sense of whimsy in every aspect of the dragon, from its “strawberry syrup” diet to the job titles of the people who operate and maintain it. And, in true fairy tale style, there’s also sometimes a darker undercurrent. When kids ask what the dragon eats, says Ribeiro Da Ascencao, “We usually answer ‘kids who aren’t nice to people’.” (Of course, the dragon’s diet is more keto than kiddo: it’s able, says Ryckeboer, to fish at night, drink seawater, and munch on trees and vegetables. “Good health means good health. good flames,” he adds.)
In fact, the dragon’s freedoms are enhanced in a set of municipal regulations on its coexistence with the humans of Calais. For example, the dragon should not use the ferries crossing the English Channel as paddleboards and, following a swim, the dragon should not shake itself and risk triggering a flood. Local restaurants, on the other hand, should not use pepper; a dragon-sized sneeze could trigger a storm that would hit the English coast some 25 miles away. Again, safety first.
For its part, properly nurtured and feasted upon, the dragon serves as a guardian not to a gateway to the underworld but to the rediscovery of a kind of simple, wondrous delight often obscured by screens and other elements of the modern life. “When the conditions are ideal,” says Ryckeboer, “the dragon spray can create rainbows.”