It was a finale that was certainly not part of the choreography. Acrobat and aerialist Sarah Guillot-Guyard sustained fatal injuries after falling approximately 27 metres during the closing scene of Cirque du Soleil’s KÀ at the MGM Grand hotel in Las Vegas on June 29.
After a two-week evaluation following the incident, Cirque du Soleil announced that the production would resume on July 16 without the final battle-scene act during which Guillot-Guyard fell. Described as a dramatic mix of circus arts and street entertainment, the company’s theatrics feature daring aerial, acrobatic, trapeze and high-wire elements.
The Nevada Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating the incident, which was played out before a live audience under glitzy stage lights. Meanwhile, this workplace fatality has raised questions about safety in the entertainment industry and whether existing measures provide adequate redundancies to protect artists and performers executing high-risk stunts.
Meregon Kiddo, head of the aerial silk department at The Vancouver Circus School and resident performer for The Inner Ring — a professional entertainment company specializing in innovative circus productions — knows firsthand the consequences of taking chances on the stage.
While training in the autumn of 2006, her coach told her not to attempt a move involving a complex drop, since she had trouble recalling the steps involved. But she proceeded to give it a shot when he was not in the gymnasium and came crashing down — head first — from roughly 4.5 metres high.
“The short of it is, I broke both of my arms and wrists,” she recalls. She underwent multiple operations and months of physiotherapy, and took nearly 18 months to recover fully. “I feel fortunate that I walked away from that accident with my life and my spine intact,” Kiddo says. “That was the only time that I ever, ever went against my coach’s instructions.”
While Kiddo is among the lucky ones who have fully recovered from her injury, not every performer who has had a stage accident is as fortunate.
Travis Johnson, director of operations and owner of The Vancouver Circus School in New Westminster, British Columbia, says incidents like the Cirque du Soleil fatality have a bearing on the entire industry. “When there is an issue of any sort, the responsible thing is to go back and look at where the program number or the procedure failed and implement new policies around it to ensure it doesn’t happen again,” Johnson advises.
Unlike other industries that rely on personal protective equipment, he points out that the training and development of performers by certified coaches play a key role in ensuring performer safety in professional circus performances.
For example, performing a tightrope act requires a highly specialized skill and a performer’s personal safety rests largely on his or her mastery of the act, suggests Chris Palmer, a consultant with Entertainment Risk Consulting LLC in Marietta, Georgia.
“There is very little that I can do to keep that performer from falling,” he says. “All we can do is make sure that the net is properly installed, that it’s adequate for what they are doing.”
The Ontario Ministry of Labour identifies those performing flying and aerial stunts as being at greater risk of injury than those who engage in normal performance activities. The labour ministry’s safety guideline on performing flying and aerial stunts notes that all parties involved must have the knowledge, training and adequate number of rehearsals to operate and perform the effect safely. They must also be aware of any possible danger involved in operating or executing the effect.
Although accidents like Kiddo’s can happen when performers take unnecessary risks without proper safety precautions or attempt a move beyond their abilities, Kiddo is of the mind that the majority of incidents that take place during aerial acts result from rigging failure — not mistakes made by the performers.
“This obviously does not absolve the artist of all responsibility; it simply exemplifies the fact that the integrity of the equipment itself plays an incredible role in keeping the artist safe,” Kiddo says. She adds that most safety preparations for an aerial-silk act are made to ensure that the rigging is up to par.
While performers can inspect the equipment, Johnson says The Vancouver Circus School has a certified rigging team responsible for and specializes in rigging, so that artists can focus solely on their performances. “I’ve heard of instances where artists have gone up and done their own rigging and the rigging fails,” he says, adding that the fall is not the only thing that can hurt a performer. “It’s all of the rigging gear that’s coming from the ceiling down onto their head.”
Kiddo says most circus acts carry a certain level of risk and some may have a higher potential for injuries. Although performing on aerial silk, in which one or more artists execute aerial acrobatics by climbing, twisting, spinning, dropping and contorting themselves while suspended from a special fabric, does not typically involve any form of safety equipment aside from an optional mat, she believes that it is one of the safer disciplines.
“Perhaps the greatest difference in risks associated with performing aerial silk and, say, acrobatics is that many aspects of acrobatics do not involve remaining in contact with some sort of equipment,” Kiddo suggests.
She adds that acrobats are frequently left to their own devices once they have been launched into the air. “However, when performing on silk, one always orients his or herself around the apparatus and is never simply twisting, tumbling, moving through space alone like an acrobat would.”
Similarly, the injury risk associated with performing stunts depends largely on the kind of action being performed, says Vancouver-based stunt coordinator JJ Makaro, who has previously worked on feature films such as Final Destination 3 and 5, New Moon, Night at the Museum and the sequel Battle of the Smithsonian. Rehearsals for many of the high-risk stunts in motion pictures and television shows are underway long before a stunt is performed on set — sometimes as soon as the script is received, says Makaro, who is also a member of Stunts Canada in Burnaby, British Columbia.
He says a stunt coordinator’s role is to ensure the safety of each show. “You have to imagine it as the worst thing that could happen and then start looking at each one of the elements and say, ‘How do I make sure that doesn’t happen?’”
For Palmer, he will visualize the action that will be executed upon receipt of the script. “For a major action feature, we’re generally dealing with large stunts, big special effects, aircraft, watercraft and then some of those hazardous or difficult locations we might have to go to,” says Palmer, who has worked with film and television productions such as X-Men, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Legend of Bagger Vance, Deadwood, Fear Factor and Six Feet Under.
“If I’m reading a script and it says, ‘hero gets thrown off of the building,’ is he going to land on an airbag? Is he going to land on a descender? Or is it going to be green-screened?” says Palmer. Green-screening, a special-effects technique that films actors against a green screen on which computerized graphics are incorporated and integrated, involves very little risk.
Hitting the Pockets
While acrobat Sarah Guillot-Guyard’s death is
the first onstage fatality for Cirque du Soleil, it is not the only incident involving performers of the Quebec-based entertainment company or other production companies, for that matter.
An unidentified Cirque du Soleil performer, who suffered a mild concussion during a preview show of Michael Jackson One in Las Vegas just days before Guillot-Guyard’s death, is one recent example.
Another incident took place on October 16, 2009, when Ukrainian acrobat Oleksandr Zhurov was killed while training for a show at Cirque du Soleil’s headquarters in Montreal. The company was fined by the Commission de la santé et de la sécurité du travail, which determined that more precautions could have been taken to prevent the tragedy and ordered the company to review and correct its safety procedures.
South of the border, 8 Legged Productions LLC — the New York-based production company for Broadway’s Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark — was fined $12,600 in 2011 after four separate incidents resulted in injuries to the cast and crew between September 25 and December 20, 2010. An investigation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in Washington, D.C. found that members of the musical were exposed to fall hazards or being struck during flying routines, due to safety harnesses that were improperly adjusted or unsecured.
Employees of the musical also faced additional dangers from unguarded open-side floors that lacked fall protection and the possibility of being hit by moving overhead rigging components.
Paul Gélineau is the director of the Academy of Fight Directors Canada, a not-for-profit national certification body for combat artists in Chilliwack, British Columbia. He says safety is paramount for combat artists who are in the business of creating the illusion of violence, and risk management is crucial to all actions. Safety preparations include ensuring that the action is performed by highly trained and certified actor combatants; providing the proper equipment needed to execute the stunt, such as stage weapons and harnesses; and rehearsing the action to be performed.
“The work itself is dangerous,” Gélineau says. “You are swinging steel at someone’s head or throwing yourself off a roof, so planning, techniques and expertise are what keep the artist as safe as they can be.”
To ensure safety on the set, Makaro often turns to standards and equipment from other industries such as extreme sports, in addition to following safety regulations outlined by WorkSafeBC. For stunts involving car crashes or high-speed chases, his crew looks to the racecar industry, using the same harnesses and industry-certified car cages that professional racecar drivers use. He also ensures that workers have taken rigging courses to learn how to high-angle and rescue people, and brings in engineers to design various tools to slow a performer’s descent.
Besides the danger of falling from heights when doing aerial stunts, another fairly risky stunt is performing fire gags. For such stunts, Makaro engages the services of Fire For Hire, a Vancouver-based company that has designed a water gel for application on human skin to protect the performer, who is being set on fire for at least 30 seconds.
“Basically, they have their own special fuels that they use, they put the gel on, they put the fuel on and they light the fuel,” Makaro explains.
Crew members equipped with a fire extinguisher are on standby, ready to put out the fire when the stunt has been delivered. The performer is also attired in clothing made of Nomex, a heat- and flame-resistant fibre used to make protective clothing for professional car racers.
Makaro stresses that a stunt coordinator draws largely on his or her experience. Apart from assessing weather conditions at the time of the shoot and determining the type of clothing stunt performers wear, a stunt coordinator also has to ensure that the safety requirements for the stunt being executed are met.
“It’s all about communication and planning and making sure that everything is where it should be,” Makaro says. “We can end up a little sore and stiff for a few days, but we’ll hardly ever see us getting hurt.”
Taking the Fall
Like construction workers, professional performers are at risk of falling from heights. Safety measures that can be taken to protect them from falls are outlined in Motion Picture Safety Primer from Actsafe, a Vancouver-based organization providing health and safety training and resources for motion picture and performing arts industries in British Columbia.
The primer states that workers must use fall protection when working at heights of three metres or more, or when a fall from a lesser height carries an unusual risk of injury. For employees who work at heights of 7.5 metres or more and are not protected by permanent guardrails, the production requires a written fall protection plan, which must also include a rescue plan should a fall occur.
The guideline also outlines the standards that fall protection equipment must meet. Before each shift, a qualified person must inspect all fall protection devices. Crew members must also inspect their fall protection equipment before each use. Inspection records must be kept and defective parts must be removed from service immediately. If a device has been employed to arrest a fall, it should be removed from service, inspected and recertified by the manufacturer or a professional engineer. Fall protection devices should be free from dirt, grease, chemicals and ultraviolet rays and stored separately from sharp tools and other equipment.
Lights, Camera, Action
As each production carries unique risks, identifying and addressing these potential hazards before filming requires that a risk assessment be conducted.
“The purpose of a risk assessment is to determine whether enough has been done to control the risk or whether further control measures need to be put in place,” notes a safety bulletin from Actsafe in Vancouver, which promotes workplace health and safety in the motion picture and performing arts industries in British Columbia.
For a scene involving a fall from heights, Makaro says stunt performers used to land on cardboard boxes, which are now replaced by airbags. “It really comes down to how big of a bag you need for how high you’re going and they are rated for different heights.”
As technology evolves, Palmer says using a descender rig — a thin aircraft cable attached to a full-body harness and a computer-controlled winch that slows down a performer’s rate of descent and arrests the fall before landing — has become a common practice, especially for scenes involving falls from great heights. The cable is then digitally removed during the post-production editing process. “They’re much more predictable, they’re much safer — provided you have a very experienced operator.”
When it comes to using pyrotechnics in a show, such as in an awards ceremony or a concert, rehearsals give performers a chance to understand where to position themselves and where the pyrotechnics will be set off. The flammability of stage materials, such as curtains and other soft materials, is also taken into consideration. “Generally, anything that is combustible on a stage where you are doing pyrotechnics is going to be flame-proofed,” Palmer notes.
In addition to holding a daily
safety meeting on set, meetings are also held for any scenes involving pyrotechnics and high-risk stunts to outline the specifics of what to do in worst-case scenarios. Palmer says these meetings provide cast and crew members with a forum to voice their concerns. “You never want to assume, ‘Well it must be okay for me to stand here, nobody told me to move,’ when in fact a car is going to come through at 90 miles an hour. Maybe no one realized that you were going to be standing there.”
Another safety consideration is the construction of temporary stages, which if built incorrectly, can prove fatal, such as the stage collapse that killed Radiohead’s drum technician at Downsview Park in Toronto last June.
But the most common injuries for stunt performers are strains. “Obviously, if you’re crashing cars, you’re taking a toll on your body, no matter how good your restraint systems are,” suggests Palmer, who says incidents in which actors develop knee pain and back and neck strains are common in the industry. “They may not be doing big stunts per se, but they may be doing choreographed fights, they’re running, they’re jumping, they’re riding horses. They’re doing a lot of very physical activity.”
The study, Injury Patterns and Injury Rates in the Circus Arts, by McGill University in Montreal could serve as a guide. Findings of the study, which looks at the injuries sustained by Cirque du Soleil artists between 2002 and 2006, indicate that most injuries among circus performers are minor. In fact, the study notes that the incidence rate of more severe injuries was found to be lower than that in many National Collegiate Athletic Association sports.
For combat artists, Gélineau says common injuries sustained include bruises, scrapes, repetitive strain injuries and knee, ankle and wrist sprains. “The redundancies are appropriate and carefully managed. However, what we are doing is dangerous and the artist is always at some level of potential injury, as we cannot create a completely safe event and still do the work demanded of us,” he suggests.
He adds that Fight Directors Canada certification, which recognizes five levels of expertise and abilities, is the accepted standard in the theatre industry.
Johnson says strains or injuries sustained by those performing circus acts include repetitive muscle injuries and friction burns. Each performance can vary depending on the artist and the technicality of the stunt performed. “When you are flying through the air at 20 [or] 30 feet, sometimes there’s a greater margin of error,” Johnson suggests.
To help minimize the risk of injury, Kiddo says performing artists should warm up properly, train frequently, condition their bodies adequately and only attempt to push physical limits and boundaries with caution.
Due diligence aside, Makaro concedes that accidents can happen. Hollywood is littered with examples. Daniel Radcliffe’s stunt double David Holmes was paralyzed when a stunt went wrong on the set of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in 2009. After filming wrapped up for G.I. Joe: Retaliation in 2011, crew member Michael C. Huber was killed while dismantling a set in New Orleans when the scissor lift he was on tipped over. In 2012, actress Jaimie Alexander slipped off a wet metal staircase during a rainy shoot on the set of the upcoming film Thor: The Dark World, resulting in a slipped disc in her thoracic spine, 11 chipped vertebrae, a dislocated shoulder and a rhomboid tear.
Behind the Scenes
Firefighter Alan Sutton, co-owner of 1st Unit Fire & Safety — a Toronto-based company that provides fire cover, protection, emergency medical services and advice to television and film productions — can sometimes be found on the set pulling double-duty: playing a firefighter on camera and ready to quench flames when the camera stops rolling.
When a film crew or television show has to simulate a fire or explosion, his company typically answers the call from a location or special-effects manager. After discussing the stunt, they calculate how much manpower and equipment will be required to be brought onsite to put out the fire, which can include fire trucks, extrication equipment, personal protective equipment and a collection of fire extinguishers.
“When we’re dealing with a movie fire, obviously you can’t go throwing water around everywhere because it’s going to affect the integrity of the film set,” Sutton says.
As a precaution, he recommends limiting the set to essential personnel only when shooting a scene involving an explosion or fire. Crew members should be aware of their surroundings and keep a safe distance from flying debris.
Palmer, who has worked in loss control, insurance brokerage and risk-management consulting, says a risk assessment can improve the risk profile of a project and translate into cost savings. “A lot of times, in order to get these types of productions insured, the first thing the underwriter is going to ask for, in addition to that treatment, is they want to see the risk-assessment report or that safety report.”
Along with an insurance broker, his job is to outline the precautions and safety measures that will be taken to minimize the risk, including taking an expert on location. “We show what those protective steps are, that here’s how we’re going to try to keep people from getting hurt and then if something goes wrong, here’s how we’re going to take care of them. And that obviously improves the risk and makes it insurable,” Palmer says. He adds that the experience level of the stunt performer is also a relevant factor.
Although many resources and people are involved in ensuring the safety of the cast and crew, the audience often does not realize how much work, money and effort go into a safe production. “Proper safety measures cost money. A lot of money,” Kiddo says. “If an individual or institution cannot afford to follow safe protocol, there is an ethical obligation to withdraw from the situation.”
That said, Palmer is of the mind that safety standards in show business have improved by leaps and bounds. “When you look at the state of entertainment safety now versus when I first got involved with it almost a quarter of a century ago, it’s light years beyond where it was,” he says. “That’s part of the beauty of it, that we can make those things happen in a very exciting way and still keep people safe.”
Ann Ruppenstein is a writer in Toronto.
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