How an acrobat fell to her death during a live performance.
May 29, 2015 1:29 PM   Subscribe

Sad, and complicated.
posted by blob at 2:06 PM on May 29, 2015 [2 favorites]

I've been to many Cirque shows (and have tickets for Kurios at the end of the year), and this was a fascinating read. The kind of stress these performers put on their bodies, before wires and electrical props and other backstage magic even enter the picture, is astounding. I remember Mystère as the first one I saw and I was enamored enough to buy the soundtrack right after exiting the theater.

The technology they employ to make it seem like crazy sorcery is definitely the biggest draw for me.

I really liked this line from one of the Cirque coaches in the article: “As you become more sophisticated, you become more imprisoned.”
posted by erratic meatsack at 2:45 PM on May 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

Reminds me of some of the interviews that happened shortly before the accident at KA...

Constantly dangerous, and not a lot of sleep.
posted by markkraft at 3:18 PM on May 29, 2015

Haven't read the article yet, gonna do it soon, but a few weeks ago I watched the movie of Cirque du Soleil's Worlds Away, and I had been thinking a lot about them again...
posted by growabrain at 3:19 PM on May 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

The first post of that whole interview, which was done in 2013, before the fatal fall.

In retrospect, you'd almost think what they were doing was kinda unsafe.
posted by markkraft at 3:28 PM on May 29, 2015

A tragic story, and one of my worst fears.

I'm an aerialist, though I have only worked with small circuses and nothing like the complexity of a Cirque du Soleil show. Rigging becomes a bit of an obsession when your life depends on it. The 10:1 safety ratio that the article mentions "can seem, to an outsider, absurdly conservative" can be deceptive. An example: I weight 200 pounds. A move with a drop of six feet on a material that will give me 1 foot of stretch to cushion the catch will transmit 1300 pounds of force to the rigging. All of a sudden my equipment rated for 9000 pounds is just 7:1, and that's to minimum breaking strength, not safe working load.

The differences between safe working load, minimum breaking strength, live loads, shock loads, and the forces involved, and the fact that our intuitions are just not very good at understanding these things, require a safety factor that can seem ridiculous to an outsider.

The Ringling accident last year was a rigging failure too. You can bed me and my friends read over that report carefully. What equipment were they using? How did it fail? Do I rig like that? Do I need to make changes?
posted by Nothing at 5:47 PM on May 29, 2015 [44 favorites]

The only thing harder on my feelings than the realization that circus performers are indeed fungible in a billion dollar circus is the senseless death of a young mother and beautiful person.
posted by ob1quixote at 5:52 PM on May 29, 2015

Nothing - is there a website or publication like Accidents in North American Mountaineering except for circus performers? One thing that has always impressed me about trad climbing culture is this general attention to the mishaps of one's peers -- not from a point of judgement or shaming, but from a context of learning and doing their best as a culture to avoid fatal or grievous mishaps in the future.
posted by bl1nk at 6:35 PM on May 29, 2015 [2 favorites]

have tickets for Kurios at the end of the year

Good news, the clown in this show doesn't suck, ending a long history of terrible clowns.
posted by jeather at 7:49 PM on May 29, 2015

Living in Montreal, I see the Cirque shows endlessly, and I know people are deeply into them--is it the athleticism, or is it something like dance, or something more complicated---i find them overwrought and kind of dull, spectacle for the sake of spectacle, and not worth dying for--compared to Opera or Ballet or Contemporary Dance.

Also, can someone please explain clowns to me, what a good clown is or what a bad clown is, because i don;t think i have ever seen something that said--oh yes that is an excellent clown...w/ the possible exception of some mime, but even that was admiring an excellent technical excercise.
posted by PinkMoose at 8:20 PM on May 29, 2015

spectacle for the sake of spectacle

I love that, frankly. Yeah there's a commercial element to it; I love the idea of beauty--or at least spectacle--created for its own sake. Then again, I love Olympic opening ceremonies so wtf do I know.

Also, can someone please explain clowns to me

They're the worst. Clowns are fucking fucked up. No. Stop it. No.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 8:29 PM on May 29, 2015 [4 favorites]

What kills me is poor James Heath doing his damndest to change what ropes were used.

I have seen some excellent clowns--there's a company called Cirque Mechanics that's rolled through my town a few times. They have a variety of performers and everyone likes the clown in Birdhouse Factory (seen it twice with two different dudes). He doesn't do Traditional Annoying Clown Look, and just kind of gently teases and pokes fun in the audience beforehand, and juggles, and it's a show act that's a bit more subtle than the yuk yuk honk honk crap that we all think of clowns doing. Not annoying at all.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:56 PM on May 29, 2015

I was way more into it before I watched a depressing series back in the early aughts about the real lives of the performers, which left me with a marked distaste for anything coming from Laliberte and Ste-Croix. There was a show about the Moonlite BunnyRanch at about the same time, and the way the skeevy owner, Dennis Hof, treated his workers, with proprietary condescension and the eternal reminder that they were lovely and special but fungible, reminded me of the way the bureaucracy of Cirque treated its (of course non-unionized) performers.
It seems like being the exceptional employer in an industry that otherwise treats its workers terribly just means you have a firmer hold over them when you want to exploit them.
posted by gingerest at 10:57 PM on May 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

bl1nk, If there is a central place for that kind of thing, I don't know about it. But there are forums and Facebook groups.
posted by Nothing at 4:48 AM on May 30, 2015

...the kind of computerized rigging system that altered duties for Cirque performers and stage techs in something like the same way fly-by-wire technology had changed the job of being a jet pilot.

Hey Vanity Fair, don't, y'know, belabor the fuck outta the dumbest, easiest metaphor possible or anything.
posted by 7segment at 6:17 AM on May 30, 2015

I've worked a bit with wire and rope over the years so understand the concepts here. I too am more than a little concerned about the questions asked by James Heath being ignored. This together with the supposed unpreparedness of the deceased leads me into thinking that the corner cutting of corporate culture is what is truely to blame here. Concerns from experts on the ground ie riggers who by definition are more than slightly fanatical, are ignored. Why? Something to do with the bottom line maybe?
Spectacles like these which regularily have people putting their lives voluntarily at risk should be governed by their safety commitees and not the CFO. Safety should be the primary concern. The performers put their lives at risk because they have great trust in their teams, their riggers, their co-aerialists. When this trust is broken by corprate greed it is very hard to recuperate. Maybe Cirque de Soleil as such is just too big and should be split into smaller units where teams all know one another again.
Shit happens. Nothing in this kind of world is risk free but what happened here was avoidable and accountability seems to be lacking. It is telling that the the wire in question has now been changed throughout the various shows. Will the training structure be changed as well?
posted by adamvasco at 7:26 AM on May 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

Wow, what a terrible article. The whole James Heath angle and XLT4 vs. 7x19 thing is a huge red herring; the relative strength of the rope or fatigue issues due to the use of a swivel had nothing to do with this accident (or any other flying accident in the entertainment industry; performer flying ropes are changed out for new ones way, way before any swivel-induced fatigue or strength issues would ever come into play.) Cirque's hazard analysis techniques and rigor were not super-great at the time the act was put in and the operating/maintenance procedures were established, definitely not up to, say, the standards of Disney or other older, bigger players. Due to that, they missed a few easy things that could have prevented this accident: 1) There should not have been any way for the performer to strike a piece of scenery on the way out--if that's a possibility, it's too close, and you move the scenery, move the flight path, or figure out something more foolproof than just rigger assistance. 2) There should have been no way for the performer to be still going that fast at that elevation; a supervisory system that steps in and either slows down or shuts down the winch if the speed is greater than X when the height is greater than Y will prevent accidents due to performer error (since they control their own speed on joysticks in this case.) (The control system down the street at the rival "Le Reve" show incorporates this type of supervisory safety, for example.) And 3), last and most unforgivable is that there should have been no possible way for the wire rope to get out of the sheave groove and come into contact with a sharp edge, regardless of whatever else was going on in the system. Rope keepers--a common staple in performer flight systems--had to have either been removed from the sheave housing (probably to make maintenance easier) at some point or just never installed in the first place, and that right there is the worst of the cascade of issues.

FWIW, I don't think this was a case of corporate greed, since none of the measures that could have been taken to mitigate the potential hazards would have cost more money, taken more time, or affected the performance. It's more a problem of a lack of coherent safety standards in the entertainment industry (although PLASA/ESTA is working on that) and an issue with the "unknown unknowns", where (for example) there probably wasn't a single Cirque rigger at the time who'd ever conducted (or even heard of) a formal hazard analysis on any system or rig in the Cirque world, more relying on past experience and rules of thumb like that 10:1 safety factor. Hopefully lessons were learned here, and they're going forward with a little more humility and a lot more rigor. I don't hold out the same hope that Vanity Fair will pursue the more rational and less sensationalistic reporting angles on future stories, though.
posted by stagerig1 at 10:02 AM on May 30, 2015 [16 favorites]

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