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Cirque performer falls to her death in front of audience

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LAS VEGAS, Nev. – At first, Heather Bell thought the falling woman was part of the show. She turned to her sister Madelyn and said, “Whoa.”

Cirque du Soleil’s performance of “Ka” – an elaborate acrobatic production featuring the company’s trademark, daring aerial work – had reached its climactic battle scene Saturday night when something went horribly wrong.

Sarah Guillot-Guyard, 31, a seven-year Cirque veteran known as Sassoon, had been dangling near a catwalk hidden far above the stage at the MGM Grand when the Bell sisters saw her go into a free fall and tumble out of sight, into the stage’s pit.

“It was just an instant,” said Madelyn Bell, 17, of Pensacola, Fla. “She just fell. She hit the ground, and you could hear the scream.”

Within an hour, Guillot-Guyard was dead. The audience that had expected to see one of Cirque du Soleil’s world-famous death-defying productions had instead witnessed a performance death, thought to be the first during a show in Cirque du Soleil’s 29-year history.

“It didn’t look like she was trying to grab on the wall or anybody else as she fell,” said Bryce Johnson, 27, of Las Vegas, Nev.

Audience members said they were shocked into silence and could hear cries from the pit, which was blocked from sight by the show’s ushers. Other performers were stuck in public view, watching the rescue work below as they dangled from the ceiling for several minutes, witnesses said, until they were lifted to safety one by one. The show’s music continued to play, then was silenced.

About 10 minutes after the fall, the audience was ushered out with promises of refunds. Guillot-Guyard was taken to University Medical Center, where she was pronounced dead shortly before midnight. A trained acrobat and aerialist, she was born in Paris and had been performing for at least 22 years.

In a statement, Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberte called the fall an accident.

Cirque du Soleil, which was founded by a group of street performers in Montreal in 1984, employs some 5,000 people in shows around the world after expanding rapidly in the 2000s. According to the company’s website, close to 15 million people will see a Cirque performance in 2013.

Cirque has prided itself on its safety record – in a 2011 news release, it touted a study by five university physician-scientists in Canada and the United States concluding that the incidence of severe injuries at Cirque was “markedly lower than for National Collegiate Athletic Association sports such as football, hockey, soccer, basketball and gymnastics in the United States.”

Cirque’s record is not spotless, however.

In 2009, a Cirque performer died in Montreal after suffering head injuries from falling off a trampoline during training. There also have been several injuries during Cirque performances in the past decade.

On Wednesday, an acrobat taking part in one of the final preview performances suffered a mild concussion after slipping through slack rope in the show’s “Stranger in Moscow” scene, Cirque officials said. That performer, who is expected to return to the production, missed a protective pad below the actors and landed hard on the stage.

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