I’d been leaning forward in my seat, hands over my mouth, for the entire show. This was the premiere for Luzia, a Cirque du Soleil performance inspired by the culture, history, and nature of Mexico. The acrobats were dressed in white costumes decorated with pale turquoise and coral-colored flowers; the women in flared skirts, the men in long sleeves and full length trousers, a band of turquoise painted across their eyes. I followed the swings, back and forth, acrobat flying between them. There was an impossible flip down to the leading edge of the opposite swing. The music was loud, the lights bright on the center of the stage.

Then she fell. She went down like a plank, right on to her back. The acrobats gathered, then the stage crew, until she was surrounded by people dressed in black. At the back of the stage a woman dressed like a monarch butterfly put up her hands in an X over her head and the clown next to her did the same. The lights went up, the music stopped, and eventually, the acrobat was carried from the stage strapped to a board. The crew broke the set and after 15 minutes or so they launched into the finale.

The mood was broken, of course. I was worried and anxious throughout the finale and applause. As we headed to the car, I wondered what happened to the acrobat. I later read that she was okay, but there was little detail. I found, instead, a Wall Street Journal article (paywall) from 2015 about Cirque du Soleil’s safety issues.

The article centers around the death of a performer in 2013 at Ká, the troupe’s Las Vegas show, which uses a treacherous, vertical stage. It also shines light on how punishing circus work is for the performers—and how difficult it can be to receive compensation for those injuries.

Tension over the trade-off between spectacle and safety in circuses has been inherent since trapeze performers began flying 30 feet in the air about 150 years ago. “A circus tent is not an ancient Roman arena or a modern prize ring,” wrote the journal Circus Scrap Book in 1931.

Experts said serious injuries and fatalities can, and should, be prevented with safety harnesses, nets and other protocols, so that, despite the stagecraft, the workplace is safe. “Most of the accidents that have happened in recent times have been preventable,” said Jerry Gorrell, a theater safety consultant in Phoenix.

In the past 15 years, separate from the Cirque death, at least three circus performers—including one at major Cirque competitor Feld Entertainment Inc.’s Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey—have fallen to their deaths during shows in the U.S., according to federal records and company reports.

“The body is the tool [in the circus], and sometimes the tool gets broken,” said Vladislav Dunaev, a former Cirque performer in Florida. Mr. Dunaev said Cirque had “very good safety measures,” but even so, he suffered seven significant injuries over roughly a decade, state records show, the last a 2011 shoulder injury requiring surgery. In 2012 he reached a $90,000 settlement with Cirque and its insurer after disputing his benefits through an administrative process.

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