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Cirque du Soleil has ‘excellent reputation’ for safety, insurer says

In this Nov. 28, 2008, photo, Sarah Guyard-Guillot, left, and Sami Tiaumassi perform as "Forest People" during Cirque du Soleil's "Ka" at MGM Grand Resort in Las Vegas. Guyard-Guillot, a mother of two young children, was pronounced dead at a hospital late Saturday night, June 29, 2013, after falling about 50 feet from the show's stage during a performance of Cirque du Soleil's "Ka."

Leila Navidi/AP

As the state safety authorities began investigating the fall that killed a Cirque du Soleil performer this weekend in Las Vegas, an insurer familiar with the circus says that the iconic Quebec company, now facing the first stage death of its history, is known as an employer that pays attention to the safety of its artists.

"Cirque has an excellent reputation and has an excellent track record," said Mitchell Kalmanson, president and risk manager at Lester Kalmanson Agency Inc., a Florida insurance that offers circus liability coverage.

He added that the Montreal-based circus has a good history of looking at employees' safety and providing backup safety measures.

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"But did they have enough redundancy or the proper redundancy? That's to be determined," he said.

Mr. Kalmanson does not directly do business with the Cirque but knows the way the firm operates because he insures people who do training for the Montreal institution.

On Saturday, a 31-year-old Cirque artist and mother of two, Sarah Guyard-Guillot, died after falling while she was suspended in the air during a performance of Ka, at the MGM Resorts International in Las Vegas.

Witnesses told the Last Vegas Sun that the artist dropped several metres to the ground after it appeared that the wire hoisting her snapped. Cirque spokeswoman Renée-Claude Ménard said Ms. Guyard-Guillot did not slip out of her harness.

In an e-mail, Ms. Ménard said the Cirque is co-operating with the probe by the Nevada Occupational Safety and Health Administration and has not determined when Ka representations will resume.

"We are continuing to offer our support to the family and Cirque family," she said.

Ms. Guillot-Guyard's death was the the first stage fatality in the Cirque's 29-year history, though a Ukrainian acrobat, Oleksandr Zhurov, died during training in Montreal in 2009. An investigation by Quebec's workers' compensation board in that tragedy concluded that Mr. Zhurov was on a Russian swing when he prematurely unhooked his feet from the safety straps and was flung backward, smashing his head on the ground.

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Following Saturday's accident, Mr. Kalmanson said investigators would have to look at the shape of the cable and the carabineers and clips used to hook it up to the acrobat. Cables can become frayed and need to be inspected and replaced periodically, he said.

"OSHA needs to look really deep into this particular piece of cable that was used and the harness that this lady had on."

At the same time, he noted that while the Cirque needs some measure of redundancy in its safety system, the potential risk is part of the show. "It's the wow factor," he said.

Ms. Guillot-Guyard's death came just after another Cirque aerial artist had to be taken away in a wheelchair during a performance of the Michael Jackson One show after he fell from his slack rope and struck his head on the stage last Thursday.

In the past, the Cirque has worked with sports medicine researchers in an epidemiology study that analyzed five years of data recorded between 2002 and 2006.

The study, which was published in 2009 in the American Journal of Sports Medicine, looked at 1,376 Cirque performers who suffered 18,336 injuries during those five years, most of them minor problems.

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"Although Cirque shows are highly athletic and acrobatic, with jumps and tethered and untethered aerial manoeuvres, the injury rates are less than those for NCAA women's gymnastics and similar to those of NCAA men's basketball," the paper concluded.

Still, decisions at the Quebec's workers' compensation board show that some Cirque staffers push themselves to keep performing despite injury concerns.

In a 2011 case, an acrobat named Jean-Philippe Viens felt pain in his back and legs while twisting his body in a rope-skipping routine. Even though he reported the problem to the Cirque and got physiotherapy, he continued performing for a month until he saw a doctor who diagnosed a lumbar spinal disc herniation.

In another case, U.S.-born gymnast Meaghan Harriet Muller fell three metres onto a concrete floor while training at the Cirque facility in Montreal in 2005, causing injuries to her wrists and jaw, which required 12 surgical operations. Still, the workers' compensation board heard that, despite having metal rods in her forearms, she resumed a seven-hour daily training regimen intercut with physiotherapy provided by the employer.

By 2007, she now had problems with her left hip, blamed on overcompensating following her previous injuries. The next year she then injured her right knee.

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About the Author
National reporter

Tu Thanh Ha is based in Toronto and writes frequently about judicial, political and security issues. He spent 12 years as a correspondent for the Globe and Mail in Montreal, reporting on Quebec politics, organized crime, terror suspects, space flights and native issues. More


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