Yann Arnaud is a French acrobat who lives in Florida. He posted an Instagram photo in which his right-hand grips a nylon strap that he would use to swing from during a show put on by the Canadian circus group Cirque du Soleil. He had been working with Pawel Walczewski for weeks to perfect an act and was ready to show it to a Tampa audience. Arnaud posted below the photo, “Our straps duo act is now in the show tonight after so much training and staging.” It’s time for us to do it.
Arnaud, 38 years old, lost his grip hours later. A spectator captured video of him falling several meters onto the stage. Crew members ran to his aid as the crowd gasped. A Florida TV station was told by another witness that there were children present and that they were “freaking out”. Arnaud, a father to two young girls, passed away in the hospital that night.
Cirque du Soleil released a statement saying it was shocked and “devastated” by the tragedy and would support authorities as they begin an investigation. According to Daniel Lamarre, the president, and CEO of Cirque du Soleil, Arnaud was a performer with the company for over 15 years. Lamarre said that equipment was not in danger, but it was too soon to know for sure. He added, “For me, one accident like that is too many.”
As the circus community digested the Florida news, it was a common sentiment. The British ringmasters are already reflecting on the 250th Anniversary of Philip Astley’s first circus. This riot of equestrian tricks, music, and entertainment was the first to delight audiences along the banks of Thames in 1768. It is now an art form. The latest chapter has been partly defined by Cirque du Soleil’s avant-garde artistry and spectacular stunts.
Martin Burton, who started Zippos Circus back in the 1980s, says that “Circus” is a funny beast because people want to feel excited and delighted, but they don’t want an accident. “But people also like to feel they might be in an accident, so we have to tread a fine line between acting and presenting danger. Zippos’ latest show features a Brazilian aerialist who Zippos claims “swimming and walking upside down 30ft above the audience without any safety nets or wires.”
Arnaud was the second performer who died during a Cirque Du Soleil performance over its 34-year history. The company employs over 1,300 performers worldwide, despite its modest beginnings in Montreal. It was penalized by Nevada in 2013 for safety failures following the death of Sarah Guyard-Guillot . She fell 28m after her safety cable ran too quickly and broke its pulley at a Las Vegas show. Another performer, Oleksandr Zhurov , also died during a swing stunt while training in 2009. Quebec investigators determined that the death was caused by accident.
Although statistics on circus accidents are not available for other entertainment industries, Cirque du Soleil’s own statistics suggested that there was a high number of injuries. According to the Wall Street Journal, Ka, which was the show where the acrobat died in 2012, had a rate of 56.2 injuries for every 100 workers. This rate included minor muscle strains but was four times higher than that of professional sports teams and five times more than those in risky professions like construction and firefighting.
Records show that five Ka performers fell in the three years preceding the death. 42 acrobats suffered injuries at La Nouba, an Orlando resident Cirque show, that left them unable to work for more than one week. Injuries can cause a person’s career to end, even if they have access to union support or compensation. Meaghan Muller suffered broken wrists and broken jaws in 2005 after she fell onto concrete during a training accident. The acrobat said that she had undergone 13 surgeries and that she walked away from the hospital with no show and bankrupt. Nicolas Panet Raymond, Cirque’s safety director, told the paper that injured workers receive compensation. This is not always true when circus companies use freelancers.
Boris Verkhovsky was the director of acrobatics for Cirque and said that he was worried about the accident rates but that a second study had shown they were comparable with other sports. Cirque stated that it had reviewed all safety procedures immediately after Guyard-Guillot’s passing. There were no more accidents in Ka.
Bruno Gagnon is a Quebec circus school graduate and Cirque du Soleil performer. He performed on a trampoline from 2006 to 2010. He says, “Yes, it is possible to die. It’s a terrible moment for the entire community when it occurs, but it’s only one in a million.”
However, does the audience’s expectation for bigger and better risks not increase the risk? Just as in gymnastics or half-pipe, so too with the audience’s expectations of larger and more dangerous performances. Many performers have been former gymnasts, so the comparison to such sports is often drawn. Volta, the Florida show that Arnaud was killed, uses action sports as its theme. Gagnon believes that illusion is what makes circus different. He says, “We can push boundaries of art, scenery, costume, and direction.” “In half-pipe, it’s literally just one time. You feel that pressure way more.”
Gagnon, 29 years old, knew Arnaud’s relatives. “We observed a moment of silence. “It’s the worst thing that could happen,” the French Canadian calls from Paris. Flip Fabrique is performing Attrape -Moi . Trampowall is a show in which acrobats “climb” six-meter walls while suspended above trampolines. It will be performed in Manchester next month, and Edinburgh in August. Although it could cause a fatal injury, we don’t see it that way. We are cats in the air, and we will figure it all out.
However, circus performers like Gagnon say that the industry is dependent on more than feline intuition. Paul Archer, a veteran circus juggler who is also the secretary of the Association of Circus Proprietors of Great Britain (founded in 1932), says that the industry has become safer over the past 250 years. “If you go back to the 1950s, there were only two or three deaths per year. Acrobats fall, are attacked by animals It was less reported – we wouldn’t have heard of it if it happened back then.
Burton states that all the acts he employs through Zippos are subject to strict safety protocols. A circus industry assessor visits periodically to inspect them. He says, “If you tell a circus performer that their shackle should be one tone in weight, they’ll buy a three-tone shackle.” He will sometimes ask international acts with lower budgets to purchase better equipment. Zippos, however, would still be the main focus should the worst happen.
Gagnon reminisces about the strong safety culture at Cirque du Soleil. He says, “It was everything.” He says, “They have people working full-time in this.” Burton adds that the rarity of serious incidents is part of why they are so newsworthy, especially in the atmosphere peril performers create to attract crowds. He adds, “I wonder how many people are killed on construction sites each year.” “I think the problem with this is that we show it off a lot so everyone notices when there’s an accident.”
Deaths in Britain are very rare. Neville Campbell, an aerialist, fell from the Wheel of Death in 1994 and died at the Blackpool Tower Circus. Eva Garcia, 38, an aerialist died at the Hippodrome Circus, Great Yarmouth in 2003. Burton claims that Zippos’ only serious accident was his own. In the 1980s, he was severely burned by a fire-eating stunt. Gagnon was distracted by a wandering child and ripped a tendon on his trampoline, but he has not suffered any more serious injuries.
Burton claims that the training level and risk assessment are higher and that technology allows for more daring stunts. To suspend a performer, thick ropes were required. Burton says that Kevlar is now less thick than cotton, and has a five-tone breaking strain. “Our carabiners have become safer than those they used to climb Everest. We’re now using video to review acts and identify danger points.
Archer has seen 15 circuses this year in four countries. He believes that the risks today are not greater than they were 20-40 years ago. “The level of training is higher now.” Archer has only witnessed one serious incident. He witnessed a North Korean acrobat perform a sextuple somersault in a Moscow circus festival last September. O Yoon Heck (21 years old) was unhappy with his first attempt and so attempted again. died five day after landing on his head. Archer admits that it was “very unfortunate”, but he is not being too harsh. But accidents like this are rare and far between. The old saying is that the show must go on and it does.