LAS VEGAS — 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 hotel and casino 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.
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.
At one point, the performers simultaneously pressed their fingers to their earpieces to listen to a message, witnesses said. Johnson said he heard someone call for a gurney.
"That whole time, nobody was talking in the audience. Maybe whispering. But you could hear a pin drop," said Dan Mosqueda, 46, of Colorado Springs, Colo., who was at the show with his wife and 10-year-old son. "Everybody was stunned and trying to figure out, hey, what happened?"
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.
"I am heartbroken," Laliberte said. "I wish to extend my sincerest sympathies to the family. We are all completely devastated with this news.... We are reminded, with great humility and respect, how extraordinary our artists are each and every night."
Cirque du Soleil, which was founded by a group of street performers in Montreal in 1984, employs about 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.
Company officials said they were cooperating with authorities but said little else about the death and asked for privacy from the media.
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 Assn. sports such as football, hockey, soccer, basketball and gymnastics in the United States."
"The staging of physical prowess is a crucial part of circus arts," the company said in a statement at the time. "But the safety of the artists must take precedence over any other consideration."
Cirque's record is not spotless, however.
In 2009, a Cirque performer died in Montreal after sustaining head injuries from falling off a trampoline during training. Oleksandr Zhurov, who was 24, hailed from the Ukraine and was known as Sacha. There also have been several injuries during Cirque performances in the last decade. Actors have been hurt during performances of "Zumanity" in Las Vegas, "Corteo" in Portland, Ore., and "La Nouba" in Orlando, Fla.
The same night as the deadly fall during "Ka," Cirque's newest show, "Michael Jackson: ONE," held its opening night performance at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas. That production experienced its own trouble last week.
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.
Cirque President Daniel Lamarre later told the Las Vegas Sun that the troupe did not release names of artists injured onstage so officials could first notify their families.
"The one thing that people maybe don't realize is how hurt we are when something like that happens," Lamarre said before Saturday's fatal accident. "It's almost like a family member. We are protective of the artist, first and foremost, and keep focus on the artist."
Showings of "Ka" have been canceled until further notice.
Pearce reported from Los Angeles and Glionna from Las Vegas. Staff writers Rebecca Keegan and David Ng in Los Angeles contributed to this report.