A Cirque de Soleil acrobat who plunged 15 metres to her death in front of a stunned Las Vegas audience was still wearing her safety harness when she hit the ground, according to reports.
An investigation has been launched into the death of 31-year-old Sarah "Sassoon" Guyard-Guillot, a veteran performer who suffered fatal injuries during the climax of Saturday night's performance of Ka at the MGM Grand casino.
Her death is the first reported on-stage fatality in the famed acrobatic troupe's 30-year history.
A Cirque de Soleil spokesman told Variety magazine that Guyard-Guillot, a mother of two children aged eight and five, did not slip out of her safety harness when she fell.
Investigators with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration now will examine the safety wire that held her aloft to determine whether it was faulty or incorrectly attached.
During the final battle scene in Ka, a number of performers are suspended by wires from the show's vertical stage.
Audience members claimed that as Guyard-Guillot reached the top, she fell about 15 metres to the open pit below, which is out of sight of the audience. One witness told the Las Vegas Sun that Guyard-Guillot cartwheeled during the long plummet.
Initially, some audience members believed the fall was a choreographed part of the fight scene, until the music stopped and screaming and groaning could be heard coming from the pit.
One audience member, @AnnieR, tweeted that the "wire snapped" and the performer "fell fast & awkwardly at LEAST 50 feet into pit".
"Other actors were visibly upset & horrified. Crew members were calm & one by one got the other performers off stage," she tweeted.
Guyard-Guillot is believed to have died in an ambulance on the way to University Medical Centre.
Friends and colleagues have paid tribute to the French-born acrobat, who was a graduate of the Annie Fratellini Art and Circus Academy.
She had more than 22 years' experience as an acrobat, and also worked as head coach at Cirquefit, a children's fitness and circus program in Las Vegas. She had performed in Ka since the production opened at MGM Grand in 2006.
A tribute and memorial website, Forsasoun.com, has been set up where Guyard-Guillot is being remembered as a friendly and talented performer and a loving mother.
"I can't believe I'll never again see your smiling face behind that mask of warrior paint. Or hear your infectious laugh,' wrote Liz Waterbury.
"I will dearly miss your sky-high platforms, clunking into dressing room D, making those child-sized flared jeans look a foot longer. I will miss you asking me clarification about English cuss words, so you could more effectively banter with Julie and Zula.
"Most of all, I will miss your unbreakable spirit. You were, and always in my heart will be, among the most badass of badasses. The tiny hard-bodied girl who kept the boys in Climb at the top of their game. If I ever grow to be half the badass that I knew you to be, I can pass into the unknown a happy girl. So much love forever."
Miranda Trenholm wrote: "Sarah, you were a blessing wrapped in angel wings with the heart of gold. May you know how much love surrounds you still."
Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberte released a statement saying he was "heartbroken".
"I wish to extend my sincerest sympathies to the family," he said.
"We are all completely devastated with this news. Sassoon was an artist with the original cast of Ka since 2006 and has been an integral part of our Cirque du Soleil tight family. We are reminded, with great humility and respect, how extraordinary our artists are each and every night. Our focus now is to support each other as a family.
"We have been working with the appropriate authorities and have offered our full co-operation. Performances of Ka will be cancelled until further notice."
- Sydney Morning Herald