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Battle Tested

Kevin M. Mitchell • Sets, Scenery and Rigging • February 2, 2015

Performers during the climactic battle scene in Cirque du Soleil’s KÁ.

Performers during the climactic battle scene in Cirque du Soleil’s KÁ.

As the battle scene goes back into , Cirque du Soleil outlines their new safety procedures in the wake of a tragedy

In June of 2013, during the climatic battle scene of at the MGM Grand Resort in Las Vegas—where performers are suspended on wires far above the ground in front of a vertical wall representing a bird’s eye view of the battle—Cirque acrobat/aerialist Sarah Guillot-Guyard suddenly plunged 94 feet to the ground. She died from injuries sustained in the fall. 

In December of 2014, Calum Pearson, vice president of the resident shows division of Cirque du Soleil, held a press conference giving a full accounting of what happened technically to lead to the incident, and announced that the show would be re-integrating the battle sequence. Shortly after that conference he sat down with SD to discuss what happened, emotionally and technically, to lead to that decision. 

The Moment After

“In the immediate days following the accident, I felt it was no different than any other family coming together after a loss,” Pearson says. “Everybody relied on each else for support.” The organization brought in grief counselors to help the performers and team members and the show took a brief hiatus. After a respectful time the show started again, substituting a ceremonial dressing scene instead of the battle scene. Switching out the battle scene was an easy decision, one they took with their partner, MGM, because “We understood that bringing this act back was going to be a lengthy process.”

The process began with OSHA opening an investigation into the events around the accident. Additionally (and separately) Cirque du Soleil and MGM brought in third party firms to conduct independent investigations. “We took the position immediately that we were going to be transparent on every aspect; the OSHA investigation, the companies we were bringing in to do the accident analysis, and our ultimate intent to bring the act back once we knew everything that had happened and had mitigated it,” says Pearson. 

What they discovered was that during Guillot-Guyard’s high-speed exit up and off the platform (which was a designed part of the show), she came into contact with the underside of forestry scenery. That sent a force up the cable, which went from the cable through a pulley wheel across to a second smaller pulley wheel—at which point it should have gone down to the winch. The winch had a no-load protector on it that, had it seen that force, would have shut the winch down. In this instance, though, what happened was that final pulley wheel collapsed forward. As it collapsed forward it allowed the cable to jump out of the wheel and find the sharp edge of the pinch point where that equipment had collapsed. The edge cut the cable and Guillot-Guyard fell. 

Pearson wants to be very clear about this sequence of events “because I heard several things in the early stages that had been reported: Sarah had been traveling faster than everyone else, she slipped free of her safety gear—none of that was true,” Pearson says. “The cable did not snap, the harness did not fail, none of the connections failed. The cable was cut because it was able to jump out of its pulley wheel and find the sharp edge it was never supposed to have seen.” 

Throughout the investigation Pearson and his team at Cirque gave OSHA full access to all of their records for training, equipment maintenance and repair, as well as access for interviews with everyone connected with the act or maintenance and training programs. Eventually OSHA issued six citations against Cirque du Soleil, centering around Cirque’s paperwork and training program. After Cirque worked with the agency to amend those deficiencies, most of the citations were removed, leaving one in place that specified that there was a hazard that Cirque hadn’t been able to fully remove. “The OSHA process was very thorough, and did introduce some changes in how we standardize our wording in training programs for both the artists and technicians,” says Pearson. Ultimately, though, all the investigations agreed on the chain of events that led to the accident. 

It was time to decide if they should bring the act back. And while there was debate internally at Cirque as to whether or not they should, Pearson says that, in the end, as a group, they decided it was important to do the show complete with the same fly out because “it is what Sarah would have wanted. She was such a huge fan of that particular act.”

Making It Better

So what did Cirque do to insure an accident like this couldn’t happen again? The first and foremost factor in the accident was the speed at which Guillot-Guyard was ascending. Cirque has completely eliminated the possibility for performers to gain that speed. The final fly-out of artists off the top the platform is now fully automated, with limiters on the speed at which an artist can approach the grid. “This involves a zone large enough under the grid that no one can enter above a specific speed without being governed. If they do run to the zone at full speed, the software shuts them down.” And there’s a second software system monitoring the limiting software—if the first doesn’t shut down in an over-speed situation then the second one kicks in. “This can react quicker than a person on an emergency-stop switch, although we still have those in place, too, during the act,” adds Pearson. 

They have also changed the behavior of winches when artists are still in front of the wall as well, though they haven’t automated that. “For us and the artists, it was important that they retained control of their winch lines throughout the majority of the act,” Pearson says. “This allows them to react with their bodies for the start and end of a move at high speeds. In doing so, it was still possible for collisions in the choreography to occur, so we engineered out the severity of those collisions by ensuring that if one person makes a mistake, the winch software and hardware will not allow them to continue until that error has been corrected. So ultimately it doesn’t remove human error, but makes sure that human error is not going to cause something worse to happen.”

They did this by changing how the winches operate under extreme load changes, replacing the primary and secondary brakes for new upgraded ones that won’t allow movement on the winch with the weight of two people on a line. The system also now uses no-load payout so if one of the lines sees zero weight on it, it will stop operating. 

In terms of hardware, they lowered the winches to replace a small diverter wheel with a larger pulley block also bolted to the grid steel frames. 

“We looked at every angle to see what could introduce an excessive shock load in the operating system and then worked with our engineers and manufacturers to remove the possibility of those forces being introduced during the act,” Pearson says. And to make sure the artists were comfortable with equipment, they brought in the manufacturers of each component in the system to explain how the system had been designed and how equipment choices were made to ensure safety. “We also brought the winches out of the grid, so we could show people up close what had happened and how we had mitigated it. This went all the way down to what bolts are used, what specifics are looked at in cable choices and how we maintain a 10:1 safety ratio. For some this was the first time they had touched the equipment at that component level, so we have identified that this will be an important part of new artist orientation in the future.” 

Yet he admits that as a company that flies people, there will always be a level of risk. “We continue to focus on training and ensuring the most up to date upgrades on every piece of equipment. We take into account everything we can think of, such as power outages, to ensure that in those circumstances everyone knows how to respond and everyone in the air is safe. This is maintained through rigorous protocols such as rescue procedures, operational protocols and equipment enhancements, like artists wearing wireless communications so we can talk to them in the air as well as retaining a first response team on the show and holding monthly rescue trainings for any act that may require an artist to be helped down from a wire.”

Reflecting on everything, Pearson says, “The first day we brought people back into the space was to allow everyone to collect their thoughts as individuals. The next time it was to have everyone get back on the other flying equipment. We started each act session with a technical walkthrough of everything that happens during that act, how it is monitored, who is watching at every level, and how they would respond in case of a problem. After that, the whole team came together as a family and provided support and encouragement for the artists to get back into their roles. I have never been more proud of a team than that day, and never been happier than being associated with our partner MGM and our technical suppliers such as Stage Technologies and Silver State Wire Rope and Rigging,” he says. “They committed to being a part of the process to bring the act back and stood side by side with the show management team to ensure that if there was a question there was an answer. We learned that the fortitude of people is always greater as a sum of its individual parts, and that has a remarkable team at every level—but then, we always knew that.” 

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