Tragic Death Shocks Safety Obsessed Cirque du Soleil

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The cast and crew of Cirque du Soleil’s KA are mourning the death of one of their own.

The tragic death of Cirque du Soleil aerial performer Sarah Guillot-Guyard was a shock felt throughout Las Vegas and the entire live entertainment industry. But, her loss seems all the more unlikely when you consider the endless safety precautions Cirque du Soleil takes in every one of its productions.

Guillot-Guyard died Saturday after a 50 foot fall during the closing act of KA, the biggest and most expensive Cirque production in Vegas. The aerialist reportedly fell out of her harness during the high-flying final battle in the MGM Grand hosted show. It was the first death during a Cirque performance in the decades-long history of the Montreal-based entertainment giant.

Cirque's ongoing focus on artist safety makes Guillot-Guyard's death all the more tragic. The Cirque du Soleil crew behind KA takes on the challenges of artists at risk with ever-evolving technology and innovation.

After a $220 million construction project to build the show’s stage and 1,950-seat theater, KA opened in February 2005 — four months behind schedule as Cirque du Soleil worked through the obstacles of designing and producing the most complex show in the troupe’s history.

Now, almost nine years later, a recent backstage tour explored the latest updates to KA's production facilities and safety precautions.

To offer a sense of the show’s scale, I can lay out the theater’s dimensions. The stage is 120 feet across. From the high grid rigging at the ceiling to the pit (the lowest floor level), it’s 149 feet (about 15 stories). It’s 98 feet from the stage level to that high grid. And it’s 120 feet from the stage level to the pit.

Filling those dimensions is an elaborate set of mobile stages. Five stage lifts moving 25 feet up and down transport props and performers during the show. The rear stage segment (the Tatami Deck) slides forward 50 feet and weighs more than 37 tons.

Finally, the Sand Cliff Deck (a 25-foot by 50-foot platform that weighs 40 tons) is controlled by a vertical gantry crane and a robotic arm attached to four 75-foot-long hydraulic cylinders running along two support columns. That gantry crane can lift the Sand Cliff Deck 72 feet, rotate 360 degrees and tilt from flat to 110 degrees — all at the same time. The deck is powered by five 250-horsepower pumps and a 4,000-gallon oil reservoir. The Sand Cliff Deck stage can also serve as a light-sensitive screen.

When dealing with dimensions like that, the wellbeing of the artists is always the primary concern. And one of the production’s more recent improvements forced the entire cast and crew to devote even more attention to safety.

When the crane moved during the show, it made its fair share of hissing and humming. For some time, the production sought a design to eliminate that sound. Once a groundbreaking hydraulic improvement finally eliminated the fuss, the performers brought up a problem. They could hear those crane sounds night after night. They were basing cues and movements off of them. So, once Cirque engineers eliminated the noise, they had to call the 80-member cast together and work through the cues to make it clear that the environment changed.

While the performers are doing their aerial stunts or wire acts — the same sort of acts that claimed the life of Guillot-Guyard – legions of stage crew workers rearrange nets and airbags beneath the stage to provide security should an accident occur. That system also underwent an update as the improved hydraulics arrived.

The most impressive technological security achievement in Cirque du Soleil's show might be the automated computer system that moves massive set pieces during performances. Weighing as much as 45 tons, many of a Cirque show’s larger backdrops, massive high-def video screens and acrobatic elements would require a small army to move into position. Even then, the odds that a sea of stagehands could do the moving with any measure of speed or precision are slim.

Also, when you have acrobats flying above hidden webs nets beneath the stage, the always-safety-conscious Cirque engineers need everything onstage to be exactly on point.

So, the producers and designers employ a digital sensor system that reads the position of the sets — employing the torque of powerful rack-and-pinion engines to slide or elevate the necessary backdrops and props into place.

Stagehands precisely position reflector tubes in key backstage positions. Digital readers locate the reflectors and use them as reference points to position the sets. If the set is dark for dramatic purposes or obscured by smoke effects, the system “remembers” where those reference points were. If any moving show element goes as much as 5 mm out of line, the safety cut-offs kick in, freezing the set. The show stops rather than risk an injury to a member of the company.

It's engineering like that that kept so many Cirque performers safe, and it's the failure of the technology in the death of Guillot-Guyard that has Cirque du Soleil reviewing all of its safety procedures while KA remains dark.

In Las Vegas alone, there are now eight standing Cirque du Soleil productions. Running five nights a week, two shows per day, that's 80 Cirque shows in a given week and more than 400 per year along The Strip. Those shows employ thousands, and that doesn't include foreign and traveling shows.

In all of that, one death is still too many. Now, Cirque will get busy determining how and why Guillot-Guyard died — and what can be done to make certain such tragedy never happens again.