The world-renowned Cirque du Soleil has experienced its first on-stage death in nearly three decades of existence after a performer was killed in a fall during a Las Vegas show on the weekend.
Sarah Guillot-Guyard was performing in the show KÀ at the MGM Grand Hotel Saturday night. She was one of several artists suspended by a wire from a vertical stage during the show's final scene.
As she ascended the stage during the simulated flight scene, the acrobat – also known as Sassoon – slipped from her safety wire and plummeted approximately 15 metres into an empty pit below, according to eyewitnesses who spoke to the Las Vegas Sun. Ms. Guillot-Guyard could be heard moaning and some performers left the stage in tears, the witnesses said. The show was stopped and patrons told they would be refunded.
The Clark County Coroner's Office confirmed that Ms. Guillot-Guyard, 31, died during the show but said the exact cause of death had yet to be determined. The coroner said the mother of two young children was born in Paris and has been a circus performer since age nine, but referred other questions to her employer.
On Sunday evening, Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberté issued a statement saying: "I am heartbroken. I wish to extend my sincerest sympathies to the family. We are all completely devastated with this news. Sassoon was an artist with the original cast of KÀ since 2006 and has been an integral part of our Cirque du Soleil tight family." He said the company will offer its "full co-operation" with authorities investigating the death, and the show will be cancelled indefinitely.
KÀ, which was written by well-known Quebec playwright and filmmaker Robert Lepage, is described in press material as an "unprecedented, gravity-defying production that takes adventure to an all new level." It is a resident show that has been at the MGM Grand since 2005.
While this is believed to be the first death during a Cirque du Soleil performance, there have been deaths during training.
In 2009, for example, 24-year-old Ukrainian acrobat Oleksandr Zhurov died during a rehearsal at the Cirque's massive Montreal training centre. He fell while practising a routine on what is known as a Russian swing, a sort of human catapult, suffering massive head injuries. A coroner who investigated the death concluded that it was a "banal accident" and the Cirque was in no way negligent or to blame for the death.
In 2007, during a performance of Saltimbanco at the Bell Centre in Montreal, a Cirque du Soleil acrobat mistimed a jump by a fraction of a second and came hurtling down from a height of 12 metres. That incident made international headlines because he emerged unscathed after being caught by the show's ringmaster.
The death on Saturday was the second incident to occur during a Cirque show in Las Vegas in the past week. On Wednesday, a performer fell during the show Michael Jackson One, landing hard on the stage and suffering a concussion.
Daniel Lamarre, the president of Cirque du Soleil, was in attendance and was asked about dangers the performers face.
"The one thing that people maybe don't realize is how hurt we are when something like that happens," he said. "It's almost like a family member. We are protective of the artist, first and foremost, and keep focus on the artist."
Mr. Lamarre also defended the company's long-standing practice of being mum about the details of accidents, saying their priority is to notify family members and to comfort other performers.
Cirque du Soleil started in 1984 as a small group of 20 Quebec street performers, and its founder, Mr. Laliberté, went on to become the world's first billionaire stilt-walker. The company is now a worldwide entertainment behemoth that has more than 5,000 employees, including 1,300 performers from 50 different countries.
According to the Cirque's press material, its shows have been enjoyed by more than 100 million people in 40 countries on six continents. Recently, however, the Cirque has taken a hit to its artistic and business reputation with some flops, and it has been forced to lay off more than 400 employees.
On her Facebook page, Ms. Guillot-Guyard was described as an acrobat and aerialist. In addition to performing for Cirque du Soleil, she was head trainer at CirqueFit, a children's gym in Las Vegas. On Sunday, the company's website posted the following message: "Due to unforeseen circumstances, all current sessions, camps, etc. are cancelled."