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Whatever happened to ... the HIV-positive acrobat who lost his job?

By Kris Coronado,

“The way they treated me, it was like I was a piece of trash.”

These were the words Matthew Cusick had for his former employer, Cirque du Soleil. In a 2004 story in The Washington Post, the 33-year-old recounted his experience with the world-renowned acrobatic-theater company.

In February 2003, Cusick had been hired for “Mystère,” the entertainment group’s in-house show at Treasure Island Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. He was to be a catcher, using his solid 6-foot-2 frame to grab acrobats as they flew off trapezes. Elated, Cusick had quit his bartending and personal training gigs, broken up with his boyfriend and moved from Silver Spring to Montreal to learn his role. During a physical exam, Cusick told Cirque’s doctors about his HIV status — a condition he has had since 1993 — and was relieved when the physicians weren’t alarmed. “I was like, wow, these people could care less that I’m HIV-positive,” Cusick said. “I felt very accepted there.”

That turned out not to be true. A week later, Cusick was let go, with Cirque officials stating they thought he’d put other performers at risk. Outraged, Cusick took the company to court. Represented by Lambda Legal — an HIV, AIDS and gay rights advocacy group — the self-proclaimed “poster boy for HIV” won a $600,000 settlement. Cirque acknowledged its mistake and even offered Cusick his job back.

No way, he said. It’s a sentiment that Cusick, 40, doesn’t think he’d reverse today. He has had no contact with the company since the lawsuit and plans on keeping it that way: “That was quite a large wound, and I think it’s still healing,” he says.

Not that he’s wanting for work. He lives in Manhattan — he has moved from Hell’s Kitchen to Harlem — and his days are jam-packed. (“I’ve made a new clock that has 28 hours in the day,” he jokes.) He’s a personal trainer with a handful of clients, and the rest of his time is divided between the Metropolitan Opera and his company KENiMATTix. Cusick has been a frequent performer at the Met since late 2004, tumbling and dancing in the likes of “Macbeth” and “La Bohème.” It was there that he met fellow stunt artist Ken Berkeley, and in early 2005, the pair developed KENiMATTix — and perform choreography in which the pair create amazing positions with their bodies, relying on strength and hand-balancing. He estimates that he and Berkeley perform 12 shows a week for both public events and private parties.

As far as his health goes, Cusick says everything is status quo. He has taken Atripla — a pill that combines three HIV treatments in one — since it was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2006. “I’m doing fine; I’ve really had no problems. Just still maintaining a healthy lifestyle.”

So what’s next? For a man who makes his living by doing dazzling and complicated stunts, the answer is pretty cut and dried: “to live a happy life.”

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