Home Newspaper Pinoy Rigger keeps Acrobats, Trapeze Artists Safe at Cirque du Soleil's 'Amaluna'

Pinoy Rigger keeps Acrobats, Trapeze Artists Safe at Cirque du Soleil’s ‘Amaluna’

by Harvey I. Barkin l Positively Filipino
If a trapeze artist flies through the air with the greatest of ease, it’s because of people like Emille Morales who gives him peace of mind.

That’s because Morales is head of rigging at Cirque du Soleil’s, “Amaluna,” running through January 12, 2020, at Grand Chapiteau, Oracle Park in San Francisco.

Morales has been with Cirque du Soleil for eight years, on Amaluna for three, and other shows for four.

Morales is head of a crew in charge of the wires and cables that control a performer’s movements in the air. This rigging is not standard because many circus acts are unique. Some employ joysticks and kill switches to control speed. But this is a tradecraft that practitioners don’t reveal to anyone because a lot of it is concealed from the audience.

Morales also “strategically places mats or paddings — and backup-systems for everything.”

He says, “the majority of the shows, I’m standing 50 feet in the air over everyone and I get to play with fun equipment. It is definitely not your typical desk job.”

Morales, 33, was born in Cavite and moved with his family to Chicago when he was three. With his wife, Sarah, Amaluna’s technical director, he travels wherever Cirque du Soleil takes him and their four-year-old son, Kian.

Emille Morales flanked by son Kian (left) and wife Sarah (right) in the Andes Mountains (Photo courtesy of Cirque du Soleil)

Morales’ mom owns Cinnaholic in Schaumburg, Illinois and his dad is a Toyota salesman. They typically wanted him to be a nurse or a doctor. But he was into gymnastics and stunts. He thought he wanted to be a teacher and he attended Illinois State University.

There, he discovered the university had a circus performance program, which introduced him to acrobatics and rigging. After graduation, he knew he wanted a career in rigging.

Morales is the proverbial kid who ran away with the circus. His former Illinois State coach Al Light infected him with the idea. He packed his bags, moved to Las Vegas, and found his dream job at Cirque du Soleil. He learned fall protection and rescue, rope access, first responder medical training, and basic engineering and design on the job. Light, his mentor, is currently a coach for Cirque in Las Vegas.

Canadian-based Cirque du Soleil has built a reputation for uniquely themed shows annually, adding diversity, novelty, and over-the-top daring to the tired, old circus performance.  For “Amaluna,” Morales says, “When you see our Valkyrie artists fly around the stage, they are really flying around the stage. When our Amazon characters do a huge dismount off the bars, they are really dismounting off the bars and landing on stage. When one of our teeterboard boys does an amazing flip across the board, he’s really getting launched and then landing on the board again.”

Most circus-goers don’t realize the danger in trapeze acts and acrobatics. Decades of practice and performances make it all look like rote and easy.

Since a performer can go as fast as 10 to 11 feet per second, Morales quantifies the danger. “An artist falling into an acrobatic apparatus or a safety line can generate thousands of pounds of force. The industry standards for performer flying is usually an 8 to 1 safety factor, meaning the system that the artist is on has to be able to withstand 8 times the expected force that the artist will put on the system. Here at Cirque du Soleil, we use a minimum of 10 to 1 safety factor to ensure artist safety.”

He explains, “There is no ideal weight” for trapeze artists. “Over the years, I have helped artists of all shapes and sizes fly around the stage. I have worked with performers as young as 10 years old and as old as 80. We build our system to accommodate just about anything.”

Despite the highly skilled Cirque performers and redundant safety checks. (Morales says they “cycle their equipment regularly and do daily, weekly, monthly and annual inspections to monitor equipment.”) Gravity and death cannot always be defied.

In 2013, a faulty cable caused Cirque performer Sarah Guyard Guillot to fall 90 feet to the ground. Then in 2018, Yann Arnaud fell 15 feet to the ground while doing a straps routine. Both died en route to the hospital.

On both incidents, OSHA concluded its investigations without issuing any citation to Cirque du Soleil. Cirque also conducts its investigations to reduce risks to its performers.

Even the prestigious Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey had an unfortunate turn when a support frame broke and eight acrobats fell almost 30 feet to the ground in Providence, Rhode Island in 2014. They were performing a hair-hanging stunt attached to an umbrella-like rig.

And who can forget the Flying Wallendas whose tragedies began with a 1944 fire in Connecticut, then the failed seven-person pyramid on a high wire that killed and hurt members of the acrobat family in 1962, and the 1978 high wire act when Wallenda senior, Karl, fell to his death? In 2017, members of the family got hurt upping the seven-person-pyramid act to eight in Sarasota, Florida.

Morales says, “Many of our artists have trained most of their lives. We usually involve them as well in our procedures so they know what to expect when the unexpected happens.”

“What separates us from the traditional circus is that Cirque du Soleil spares no expense in safety. Along with having the best equipment, we also put a strong emphasis on training our employees to the best of their abilities so they are prepared for any situation.”

According to Morales, the only other dangerous situation he faces is “when we fly an artist over the audience. Depending on how close we get to the audience, I always have to consider if an audience member stands up at the wrong time.”

Seeing the world as a Cirque du Soleil department head who cheats danger, Morales feels he has given his parents “enough bragging points for a while.”

Harvey Barkin is editor-in-chief at FilAm Star in San Francisco. He also writes for special interest group projects like PG&E’s Clean Energy, the new California State Common Core Education Standards and Santa Clara County’s Transit Justice Alliance for the 2016 Measure A. He contributed San Juan Bautista and Hollister news to BenitoLink.com. Previously he was a tech writer and book reviewer.


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