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Reinstatement of ‘Ka’ battle a somber celebration

It sounded like it would be a celebration. A promotion. Something to generate 30 seconds of footage for the evening news. Look forward, not back and all that.

If all followed plan, the climactic battle scene of “Ka” would be back in the show permanently on Friday, after being phased in last week.

But Cirque du Soleil wasn’t finished looking back. When it demonstrated the return of the “Ka” battle scene for reporters on a recent afternoon, the mood was still somber. And company officials were there to tell, not just show.

It was the first time Cirque executives had spoken in detail about the accident that killed one of its performers. Sarah Guyard-Guillot fell to her death after the battle scene in June 2013.

Calum Pearson, vice president of Cirque’s resident shows division, asked those gathered to forgive any emotion in his voice.

“It’s very hard to sit here and not be humbled by what’s happened in this room in the last year and a half,” he said. “It’s been an amazing feat.”

He went on to explain the accident, and what had been done in its aftermath, in such detail that a PowerPoint would have helped.

What had never been made clear was exactly what happened that night, something that hadn’t happened in nine years and thousands of shows before it.

And they still don’t know why.

They tried to replicate the accident, and couldn’t repeat the failure of pulleys and winches that allow performers to hang from a vertical wall and steer themselves into different positions in the mock battle.

“There was no one thing that caused it,” Pearson said.

Company officials were still sensitive about postaccident reports that Guyard-Guillot might have been ascending too fast during her exit.

Something “didn’t work 100 percent” with the performer and her assisting technicians, Pearson acknowledged. But he said it only “allowed the next thing that changed to occur.”

When Guyard-Guillot came in high-speed contact with her landing point, “that sent a force up the cable” and through two pulley wheels. The final pulley wheel collapsed forward, allowing her cable to jump out of the pulley wheel “and find a sharp edge, a pinch point (that) ultimately cut the cable and allowed Sarah to free fall,” Pearson said.

“The chances of that happening are a million to one in and of itself.”

But happen it did. What made the pulley wheel collapse? Perhaps, he said, “this particular winch sat in an area that saw more pyro dust than the one next to it.” But that’s just a theory.

“We still don’t know, and it’s because we still don’t know 100 percent that I just said ‘Forget it,’ ” and the system was redesigned to eliminate the pulley wheel altogether.

And “the human element is no longer the last line of defense,” he said.

What if a performer or technician should have “a medical event” during the battle scene down the road? The final “flyout” is now fully automated.

There were other questions to answer that day, such as whether the battle should be reinstated at all.

Aesthetics have to fall in line behind safety. But the rest of the show also has people doing dangerous things on the same vertical wall. And if you’ve seen “Ka” since it reopened, it’s obvious that it just wasn’t the same without the climactic battle.

“To try to do something other than the battle would have been selling it short and it’s not what Cirque du Soleil is about,” Pearson said.

It helps to be reminded. As you approach the MGM Grand on Tropicana Avenue, a billboard for “Ka” now proudly states the show cost $165 million in 2004, something the company wasn’t so eager to own up to at the time (some said the real cost was closer to $200 million).

Back then, it seemed “Ka” would be followed by even bigger, more spectacular Las Vegas creations. Instead, it stands as the peak of the decade’s optimism.

And we now tend to take Cirque’s nightly risks to thrill us for granted, until something bad happens.

“It’s humbling sitting here, seeing the courage and tenacity of what these guys have done,” Pearson said of his artists. “The first day after the accident when they came back in the room and got on the single-point lines, I will never be prouder in my life than seeing this group come together and talk each other through it and just come together as a family and say, ‘Yes, this is important for us and it’s also important for Sarah.’ ”

Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford @reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.

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