Bread, circuses, and symphonies

By now, most of the people who care have heard about the accident at the Toronto Symphony Cirque de la Symphonie performance on Tuesday. For the uninformed-- and anyone who didn't see the youtube video of the incident before it was pulled down by a copyright claim (I'm sure they were reeeeal worried about the copyrighted material in that video)-- a circus performer crashed into a cellist in the middle of an act. Nobody was injured (and no instruments harmed), but it has set off some debate about the amount of acceptable risk for musical performers. (Warning: link contains Slipped Disc comments section, proceed with extreme caution :P)

The TSO has this to say for itself:

We put the safety of all artists first and foremost. Cirque has an excellent safety track record. And today a safety review was also conducted post incident and their performance was altered to ensure no future potential risk to the audience, musicians, performers or instruments.

This is a pretty disappointing statement coming from a group of people who supposedly know something about music and art. "No future potential risk" is not a thing. Ever. People make mistakes. Musicians know that; no matter how good the player, sometimes something happens that wasn't supposed to. Sometimes you go to the Toronto Symphony and someone misses a note. It's not a big deal; nobody is hurt and the sun rises the next morning. 

The acrobat made a mistake equivalent to a musician making an embarrassing cack: he misjudged, and a noticeable mistake followed. Not because he's incompetent; because he's human. Any group of people doing difficult things with their bodies is going to have this happen every so often. If you're lucky, all that results is a shaken cellist. If you're unlucky, someone dies.

The TSO statement is disingenuous because it doesn't recognize this reality. When you sign up to be an acrobat, you accept a certain amount of physical risk. Circus performers know this, and their management knows this. Cirque du Soleil, for instance, has three levels of insurance on the performers in each show: their own extensive corporate liability policy, the required liability policy of every Cirque venue, and the organization also covers life insurance for all performers. (Source) Risk exists. It's up to every individual to decide the level of risk they're comfortable with before signing on  to a risky job-- and, crucially, it's the responsibility of the employer to inform the employee of the level of risk. 

So the problem is not that an acrobat made a mistake. That's fine and normal. The problem is that the people affected by the mistake never agreed to the level of risk they were being exposed to. "Be hit by flying limbs every so often" is in the job description of an acrobat, and it is not in the job description of a cellist. Apparently, nobody on the management level of the orchestras booking this show have ever considered that mounting an acrobatic production in a space not built to accommodate acrobatics is going to involve an increased level of risk to workers who normally do not experience that particular level of risk.

Which brings us to questions of responsibility moving forward. What does the AFM think of all this? Health and safety is a traditional part of the interests of many unions, but seeing as musical venues tend not to be the sort of workplace where, for instance, WHMIS regulations apply, it's probably safe to assume they're a little rusty on that function.  And it's not exactly the kind of situation that's made provisions for in the Occupational Health and Safety Act, as far as I could tell from a casual browse of the document, which I have to say is not exactly light bedtime reading. 

Finally, it's also pretty unlikely that any orchestra would have specific enough contract language to have any sort of a basis for dealing with this kind of issue. So... should they?

Brave new world, that has such contracts in it!